Building For the Future

David Owen Tryba has designs on Denver--and looks to its past for inspiration.

The new scheme creates a civic and commercial district closely tied to the RTD light-rail station. Commuters will be able to step off a train and go over a bridge that Tryba hopes will resemble the famous Spanish Steps in Rome.

"You'll come down a cascading set of stairs into a beautiful urban space," says Bob Simpson, Englewood's development director. "It will have fountains and a green oval and will be an active pedestrian space with a library, stores and living areas. It will be a place where you can go to the movies, have dinner, drop off your laundry or just hang out."

The only building that will be salvaged from the old Cinderella City is the former Foley's, which will become Englewood's new town hall with a library on the first floor. A movie theater, retail stores and restaurants will be located on the plaza. Several hundred housing units will be built, and many of the retail stores will have apartments on the second floor, allowing employees to live "above the shop" and skip commuting.

The idea is to create a suburban space where it will be possible to function without a car. "We wanted to make something that would be lasting," says Simpson. "The community didn't want to see what happened to Cinderella City happen again. This will be a model for transit-oriented design here in Denver."

In 1950, the population of the entire metro area was just over 610,000, with 415,000 of those living in the city of Denver. Today 2.2 million people call metro Denver home, but only about 500,000 of them live in the city proper.

Despite this astounding growth, the things that people love about the city--the parks and parkways, the famous old hotels, the ruddy brick commercial buildings, the stone churches and government centers--were almost all created by a remarkable group of people who worked and dreamed here a hundred years ago. The fact that Denver hasn't fostered a group of city builders of equal stature since is a shame--and a challenge to those who want to guide Denver into the next century.

Three talented architects working in the 1880s and early 1890s gave Denver much of its best architecture during an extraordinary six-year building boom that lasted from 1888 to 1893. Frank Edbrooke, William Lang and Robert Roeschlaub each worked to shape the rough-hewn frontier town into a city of grace and sophistication. Their work was amplified by Denver's greatest mayor, Robert Speer, who dominated the city during the first two decades of this century and worked tirelessly to create many of Denver's parks and civic buildings, including Civic Center.

Edbrooke was summoned to Denver from Chicago--a city that greatly influenced Denver architecture--in 1879 by mining magnate Horace Tabor to supervise construction of the Tabor Grand Opera House and the Tabor Block at 16th and Larimer. (Both buildings were demolished in the urban renewal that decimated blocks of Victorian buildings in the Sixties.)

Edbrooke quickly realized that a booming Western town eager to prove itself was the perfect place for an ambitious young architect. And Denverites were quick to discover the talents of the man from Chicago, especially when they saw his buildings holding their own with those designed by firms in Boston and New York.

At one time, the 17th Street commercial district was lined with brick and stone buildings designed by Edbrooke. Most of them have been replaced by mediocre glass and steel high-rises, but several of Edbrooke's buildings still stand out in the cityscape. The Brown Palace Hotel--widely regarded as the best building in Denver--is his undisputed masterpiece, but other surviving Edbrooke buildings include the Masonic Building, the Denver Dry, the Oxford Hotel, Central Presbyterian Church, the main building at Loretto Heights and Tryba's own Fisher Mansion.

While Edbrooke focused on the commercial heart of Denver, William Lang became the city's most popular domestic architect. Dozens of his fanciful homes still dot Capitol Hill, including a remarkable set of row houses in the 1600 block of Washington Street and the Molly Brown House, at 1340 Pennsylvania Street. Lang also designed the former St. Mark's Church, at 12th and Lincoln, now the site of a popular nightclub.

Roeschlaub became known as Denver's foremost institutional architect, designing schools and churches all over the city. His existing buildings include the Dora Moore school, University Hall at the University of Denver, the Central City Opera House and Trinity Methodist Church.

While Edbrooke and Roeschlaub enjoyed long and successful careers, Lang's tragic life shows just how precarious the profession of architecture can be. After the silver crash of 1893, Lang's practice was ruined, and he began a descent into alcoholism. He left his wife and daughter in Denver in 1896 and went to live with a brother near Chicago. He was killed the next year, run over by a locomotive while walking down railroad tracks.

While each of these architects had a unique style, certain consistent design elements linked them together and helped establish a Denver style. They often used an orangish-colored brick--the color came from Colorado clay--now seen all over lower downtown. They also incorporated stone from the Rocky Mountains into many of their buildings.

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