Nightmare on Dale Street

The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center contemplates its own destruction.

The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is one of the finest early-modern buildings in the country, which means it's the rarest kind of treasure in Colorado's bleak architectural environment. Only such monuments as the prehistoric ruins at Mesa Verde and the 1960s Air Force Academy Chapel, by Walter Netsch of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, are even comparable.

Completed in 1936, the Fine Arts Center is the premiere accomplishment of its architect, New Mexico's John Gaw Meem. Blessed with an almost unlimited budget by art patron Alice Bemis Taylor and her circle of millionaire friends, Meem was able to fully realize his vision and, in that way, fully express his era. In addition, he was able to completely flesh out the building with original murals, metalwork and even custom-made furniture and decorations.

Representing a modernized version of an American Indian pueblo of the sort seen in northern New Mexico, the walls of the building step back and away from the street as they ascend to the sky, just as the ancient pueblos do.

The building is constructed to a standard unimaginably high in today's throwaway, design-build world, in which architects are the employees of developers. Built on a battered podium created out of expertly laid field stone, it is executed in cast-in-place concrete trimmed out in a black aggregate. The casting technique is expressed through the horizontal lines that mark the separate pourings. It's interesting to compare the quality of the original construction to more recently added features. The wheel-chair ramp, for example, is only twenty years old or so, but the concrete is already crumbling; the original walls, which are three times as old, are still sound.

The building's two principal elevations are on the south side, where the main entrance is marked by a simplified classical order accented by murals, and the west side, where a magnificent balcony overlooks Monument Valley Park. It is at the juncture of these sides that the building's massing culminates and creates the emblematic view made famous in both historic and contemporary photos. The building is truly a paradise for lovers of art and architecture.

Sadly, a serpent -- or perhaps a nest of them -- has slithered into this aesthetic Garden of Eden.

It was around Thanksgiving that I received the first of a number of disturbing phone calls. Artists, architects and collectors from southern Colorado wanted to know if I'd heard anything about expansion plans for the center. They told me that a proposed addition was set to destroy its architectural character.

"You really need to look into this," they said.

With the holidays approaching, I put it off for a time. And anyway, I thought, wasn't the Fine Arts Center under the control of the gifted David Turner? He wasn't going to let anything bad happen to that building. He loved it. In fact, he'd even written a book about it in 1996 to commemorate its sixtieth anniversary.

A shadow of a doubt remained, though, and given how important the building is, I put it at the top of my list of New Year's resolutions. In the middle of January, I went to see for myself what was up down there.

I met with director Turner, deputy director/director of development Carolyn Moershel and public-relations manager Erin Hannan. As soon as I entered the conference room and saw what they were considering, every hair on my body stood on end. This involuntary visceral response is what typically happens to me when unmitigated stupidity rears its ugly head. And stupidity is clearly what has guided their process so far -- there's just no other word for it.

Since then, I have sat on the story, hoping that the group of staff and trustees who have been working on the expansion plan would come to its senses. But with the public unveiling of the plan last week, hope of a happy outcome has all but disappeared.

If you know anything about architecture, the design process thus far will strike you as little more than a bad joke. It will make you laugh. But if you care about the Fine Arts Center, as I do, you'll want to cry.

What they are considering is so horrible, I've literally lost sleep over it. They want to smack a 50,000-square-foot addition onto the front of the building! This shoe box will be immediately to the west of the main entrance and extend to the west end of the building, meaning that both the south and west elevations, the key sides of the building, will be annihilated.

And just for good measure, the addition will be plunked down on top of the picturesque, serpentine portion of Dale Street that connects the building to the park, thereby destroying the building's brilliant and sensitive relationship to its site, a steep hill overlooking Monument Valley Park and the mountains beyond.

The center's staff and trustees have been guided by the apparently artistically impaired Minneapolis-based architectural firm of Hammel, Green & Abramson. Not only are HGA's ideas contemptibly ignorant and insensitive, but the supporting materials -- the programmatic footprint of the would-be floor plan and the massing model -- are completely substandard. As I looked at HGA's work, I began to think of architectural students -- and I mean first-year students.

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