Building For the Future

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

The Denver aesthetic that emerged at that time, Tryba says, consisted of a palette of earth tones and a design sense that was a more modern and stripped-down version of the Chicago style. The Brown Palace is the best example of this emerging regional sensibility, he adds.

"We were really lucky, because people building at the turn of the century hired these great architects who came from Chicago and the East and stayed here because they fell in love with Denver," says Tryba.

Denver's architectural renaissance ended with the crash of 1893, part of the manic-depressive economic cycle that's shaped Denver ever since. But the design mores of that epoch persisted in Denver until WWII, and Tryba passionately believes that Denver architects need to return to those values in the 21st century.

Michael Brenneman, developer of Hotel Teatro in the former Tramway Building at 14th and Arapahoe streets, worked with Tryba and his assistant, Bill Moon, for more than a year on the $18.5 million renovation. Even though Tryba had never done a hotel before, Brenneman wanted him involved on both the building and the interior design. "We didn't want to do another chain hotel," he says. "It had to have a unique design."

The onetime headquarters for Denver's early-twentieth-century mass-transit system, the building has a marble lobby, brass elevators and molded plaster ceilings. Tryba didn't gut the interior, as many other architects do when working on historic buildings.

"There's a lot of architects that want every building to be about themselves," says Brenneman. "The building had been vacant for seven years and was badly deteriorated; the challenges were manifold. It really took a lot to restore the historic parts of the building. He did a great job."

Those who've devoted their careers to saving Denver's historic buildings say Tryba is one of just a handful of architects in Denver who really understand historic renovations. "For an architect to take on a design project where he'll be invisible at the end is a challenge," says Diane Wray, a local consultant who specializes in renovation. "David makes decisions most architects aren't capable of."

Denver planning director Jennifer Moulton, herself an architect, praises Tryba for his sense of design and willingness to take risks. But Moulton bristles at his criticism that Denver is going too slowly in trying to bring housing downtown. "Denver has been nationally recognized for developing downtown housing," says Moulton. "It doesn't happen overnight. David is very passionate and idealistic, but things don't happen that quickly."

Many factors affect the creation of downtown housing, says Moulton, including the cost of land and the ability of builders to meet demand. She points out that the cities Tryba admires took hundreds of years to develop. "Boston is 300 years old," says Moulton. "I'm not sure Denver will be like Boston in David's lifetime."

Moulton also says that Tryba underestimates the resistance of neighborhoods to increasing density. "All he has to do is go ten blocks away, and he'll find neighbors who don't want any more density," says Moulton. "It's an American dream to have land around you."

Even though he'd like to see far more development in central Denver, Tryba says the incremental pace may buffer his firm if the economy takes a dive. No one is building fifty-story high-rises, and that means architects may not be in the dire straits they encountered in the 1980s if the economy sours.

But it doesn't take an economic downturn to destroy historic landmarks.
Tryba was greatly troubled by the loss of I.M. Pei's paraboloid on the 16th Street Mall three years ago. One of the ironies of our time is that modern architecture's radical rejection of historical context has now come back to haunt it, as one modern landmark after another falls to the wrecking ball and much of the public looks on indifferently.

"How are we going to take care of the best post-war work we have?" Tryba asks. "I thought the paraboloid should have been saved. They could have turned a sow's ear into a silk purse."

For now, Tryba is busy trying to save his new neighborhood. He's working on a plan to turn the blocks around the Fisher Mansion into a historic district centered on the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. Tryba believes the city has overlooked the potential of Colfax as an urban boulevard, and he wants Denver to put as much effort into Colfax as it has into Speer Boulevard.

"Colfax's rightful place is to serve as a gathering place for two major neighborhoods," says Tryba. "The brick buildings in LoDo are nothing compared to the stone buildings in this neighborhood. We could have a half-dozen other LoDos in Denver."

Creating walkable neighborhoods means upping the density, something that Westerners have traditionally resisted. But while Americans often assume that high-density housing has to look like Manhattan, Tryba insists that central Denver could accommodate tens of thousands of new residents in five-story buildings. There's no reason, he adds, that Denver couldn't have residential districts every bit as lively as the storied neighborhoods of Paris and Vienna.

All it will take is leadership, and Tryba wonders if Denver will be up to the challenge.

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