Disappearing Legacy

Downtown architectural accomplishments are threatened by 'renovation'.

Too bad for Oz's reputation.

We don't really need to explore the design prepared by the company's Eduardo Illanes. We know his ideas can't be any good, since his first move was to destroy some of the building's most prominent architectural elements. Apparently it never occurred to him to simply polish the metal, wash the windows and replace lost components like the flagpoles on the 17th Street side -- so that he could have revived the exterior instead of destroying it.

Preservationists hope to scale back the plans. Let's wish them well. And maybe the preservation wizards in Oz's Denver office will get on the horn to their Boulder colleagues, notably Illanes, and do what they can to avert this looming disaster.

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.


As it stands, Western Federal Savings is still one of the finest twentieth-century buildings in the city. It is one of the greatest accomplishments of an acknowledged master of modern architecture in Denver, Raymond Harry Ervin. Born in Kentucky in 1900, Ervin came to Denver with his parents later that year and grew up here. As was common early in the century, he didn't attend architecture school but participated in the apprentice system as his means of training. In the 1920s he entered the prestigious and influential Denver architectural firm of Fisher and Fisher, a partnership of William Elsworth Fisher and his brother Arthur Fisher. In 1932 Ervin established his own practice.

Success came early to Ervin with the 1937 Harry Huffman mansion, also called Shangri-La. The mansion is above Burns Park in Hilltop, on Shangri-La Drive (formerly Bellaire Street). It is meticulously maintained and has never been allowed to run down. Even its original landscape plan is still intact -- the place is gorgeous.

The mansion, which was built for Huffman, a wealthy theater owner and liquor distributor, is, according to Denver urban lore, meant to replicate the monastery in Lost Horizon, the 1937 Columbia Pictures film directed by Frank Capra. The legend, though, is easily debunked by actually seeing the movie, which is readily available on videotape and which reveals only the vaguest similarities between the monastery in the movie and the home. The biggest problem with the myth, however, is that construction on the mansion began in 1936, and Ervin, by necessity, had designed it even earlier, which of course meant that Shangri-La was conceived before the movie came out.

Less poetic, perhaps, are the facts. Shangri-La is a national-class example of moderne-style architecture that may be favorably compared to other substantial moderne residences across the country; it is without peer in Denver.

As did many architects during World War II, Ervin worked for the federal government. After the war, his practice blossomed, and he abandoned residential architecture and began to exclusively design large buildings. He also left behind the moderne style and in the 1950s embraced the functionalist ethos of the international style and its Miesian variant. He then moved on to the highly decorative formalist style in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.

Ervin designed two of the most beautiful, handsomely sited and well-designed modern schools in the Denver Public School system, the 1956 Hill Middle School, at 451 Clermont Street, and the 1960 George Washington High School, at 655 South Monaco Parkway. Both international-style buildings were erected not far from the architect's lifelong home on Krameria Street in Mayfair Park, just off the Sixth Avenue Parkway.

At the same time that Ervin was getting these sought-after school commissions, he was also landing even more desirable jobs designing high-rise buildings downtown. In 1954 he did the sleek Denver Club Tower, at 518 17th Street, which is constructed of glass, aluminum and a green-tinted concrete aggregate. To say that the Denver Club is coolly debonair barely captures it; in fact, it's one of the most suave and urbane buildings in all of downtown.

As a reflection of his growing success, Ervin moved his offices into the Denver Club. It was here that he took on his largest job ever, the design of the former First National Bank (now Wells Fargo), 621 17th Street, which was completed in 1958. At 28 stories, it was the city's tallest building until the oil-boom skyscrapers were constructed in the late '70s and early '80s. It is handsomely clad in a cream-colored, pre-cast terrazzo block and aluminum and glass. Above the 17th Street entrance and elsewhere are decorative cast-aluminum bas-reliefs which recall a similar, if more constrained, concrete-and-glass-block device seen around the entrance to Shangri-La.

Western Federal Savings was Ervin's next high-rise. Completed in 1962, it is considerably smaller than the First National Bank, but a lot more flamboyant with its navy-blue glass and articulated aluminum trim. Of particular interest was the cast-concrete sunscreen -- now gone -- on the bottom floors along California Street. The sunscreen helped define the building's base, which provides a platform for the twenty-story-plus tower. Also significant stylistically are the vertical columns that define the tower's structure and the wonderful mechanical penthouse, which also displays that characteristic sunscreen.

Both high-rises are fine examples of formalist-style architecture from the mid-twentieth century. The style, which was especially popular for the design of large buildings in this country, is characterized by the use of decorative flourishes such as the aluminum bas-reliefs on the First National Bank and the concrete sunscreens at Western Federal Savings. This interest in ornamentation indicates a break with the unadorned surfaces favored by the more doctrinaire modernists of the time.

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