Disappearing Legacy

Downtown architectural accomplishments are threatened by 'renovation'.

I'm going to posit a radical claim, one that flies in the face of standard beliefs.

I think Denver was a more sophisticated town twenty or thirty years ago than it is today. And though the city is more crowded and there are a lot more big-box retailers and chain restaurants -- and, uh, K-mart/Big K is now open on Thanksgiving -- somehow I feel it's not the high-style place it once was.

In fairness, I can't say I knew Denver well then, but even someone who just arrived earlier today could easily come to the same conclusion I have.

The Western Federal Savings Tower before some of its original features were removed.
The Western Federal Savings Tower before some of its original features were removed.
Shangri-La, a classic example of moderne-style architecture, was designed by Raymond Harry Ervin.
Shangri-La, a classic example of moderne-style architecture, was designed by Raymond Harry Ervin.

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Previous Westword articles

"Unconventional,"
October 28, 1999
The expansion of the Colorado Convention Center promises to do more harm than good.

"Signed, Sealed, Delivered,"
November 12, 1998
Denver Pavilions perfects the art of the deal using public money.

"Middle-Age Modern,"
July 30, 1998
Denver's 1950s architectural legacy stands on shaky ground.

"Post Mortem,"
March 5, 1998
The old Denver Post building is history.

"Leave a Message at the Bleep,"
October 30, 1997
A frazzled homeowner shoots off his mouth to city officials--and gets charged with harassment.

"Roots,"
November 28, 1996
Can two Denver architectural jewels survive Cherry Creek's development frenzy?

"Death of a Salesroom,"
August 8, 1996
Examining Denver's history of construction destruction.


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It's the buildings that give it away. Clearly, at one time, and up until very recently, Denver was really cooking architecturally -- and now it's not. Nowhere is this more clear than downtown. In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, scores of stylish, high-status and expensive projects went up in the central business district. But the big oil crash of 1986 brought the downtown building boom to a screeching halt -- perhaps forever.

The following example highlights the difference between then and now.

In the 1980s, Denver was the kind of city that would, for example, erect a world-class Philip Johnson building, the spectacular postmodern Norwest Tower (originally called One United Bank Plaza). Now it's the kind of town that builds, just a few blocks away, the tacky Denver Pavilions -- with public money, no less.

Part of the problem is a change in the nature of downtown. The area has definitely declined as a corporate center in the last decade. Whereas in the 1980s, millions of square feet of office space were added along 16th, 17th and 18th streets -- seven million square feet in 1983 alone -- few new office buildings have been built downtown since the oil crash. And it's not that there isn't a local need for such buildings -- high-rises are sprouting like mushrooms down in the Denver Tech Center and up at Interlocken.

But while fewer corporations are choosing downtown for their headquarters, there's still considerable life there as it changes from the main commercial district to a residential and entertainment area. One good thing about this is that small and mid-sized historic buildings and warehouses, particularly in LoDo and midtown, have found new uses as lofts, bars and restaurants.

But there's a downside, especially for the biggest buildings. As the functions change, the established architectural values of their owners have fallen by the wayside. It used to be that a downtown address carried with it certain obligations mostly imposed by the need to compete with neighbors who were also business rivals. The owners took a civic pride in architecture, believing that fine design and fine materials were indicative of commercial prestige. That's why the buildings downtown are most often the work of top local, national and international architects and why they so often feature stylish designs and include the use of luxurious materials.

Let's go back to the comparison between the Norwest Tower and the Denver Pavilions. The Norwest Tower is a signature example of postmodernism by one of that movement's luminaries; it is clad in granite and marble. The Pavilions, on the other hand, is the work of a little-known California firm that specializes in shopping-center design. The complex's massing makes a mockery of postmodernism by nonsensically aping its attributes; the whole monstrosity is iced in synthetic stucco.

It's hard to imagine, but even worse than this trend toward mediocrity is the loss after loss of beautiful existing buildings. It's a familiar refrain. I. M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza was scarred by losses and insensitive changes in its conversion to the Adam's Mark Hotel. The old Denver Post building, designed by Temple Buell, was scraped and replaced with a parking lot. And now, with the passage of a capital-improvement bond initiative last month for the expansion of the Colorado Convention Center, Currigan Hall, which was designed by James Ream working with W. C. Muchow Associates, is set to be demolished. So is the Terra Tower, by Alfred Williams for Seracuse/Lawler Partners.

But the vandalism isn't finished yet.

The marvelous former Western Federal Savings Tower (later called Bank Western), which is a showy exercise in 1960s formalist-style architecture, is right now being stripped of its defining characteristics and distinctive features; it already lost its cast-concrete sunscreen. Also, the aluminum cladding on the cantilevered entry canopy has been removed, and the stone panels that once lined the lobby have been pulled off.

The building was recently bought by Legacy Partners, a Texas real-estate and development firm that plans to rename the building Legacy Tower -- an ironic note, since the misguided facelift is erasing a part of Denver's architectural legacy.

To be honest, there's nothing surprising about an out-of-town owner being out of touch with Denver history. What's surprising about the Western Federal Savings fiasco, and more than a little discouraging to many in the preservation community, is the architectural firm behind the design: Oz Architecture.

In recent years, Oz had begun to make a name for itself in preservation architecture; it carried out the spectacular and award-winning rehab of the 1929 Buerger Brothers Lofts on Champa Street, by Montana Fallis, and is even now working on the 1911 Chamber of Commerce Building, by Marean and Norton, next door. The contrast between these projects and Western Federal Savings is poignant. At the chamber building, Oz is re-creating original features foolishly removed years ago. At Western Federal Savings, Oz is foolishly removing original features. The Buerger Brothers and Chamber of Commerce restorations both came out of Oz's Denver office; the vulgar hacking up of Western Federal Savings originated in Oz's Boulder branch. It seems that the company's right hand doesn't know what its left is doing.

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