Written in Stone

Local architecture is celebrated by Historic Denver and the American Institute of Architects.

This week marks Historic Denver Week, which annually celebrates the substantial accomplishments of Historic Denver, the respected local preservation group.

Founded in 1970 in response to the threatened demolition of the Molly Brown House, at 1340 Pennsylvania Street, the organization bought, saved and restored the house, an eclectic Romanesque confection from 1889 by William Lang. Historic Denver now runs it as a museum dedicated to the Unsinkable Molly Brown, who lived there at the turn of the last century.

The Molly Brown House was the first of hundreds of preservation struggles -- some successful, some not -- carried out by Historic Denver over the past 31 years.

Currigan Hall is headed for the trash bin.
R. F. Delaney
Currigan Hall is headed for the trash bin.

The organization's most recent coup was the creation of the Downtown Denver Historic District, in which more than a score of non-adjacent buildings built from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries were placed under the oversight of the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, likely saving most of them for another generation.

Also this week, the national convention of the American Institute of Architects is being held in the Mile High City for the first time in forty years. Denver-based architect John Anderson, a founding principal of the artistically distinguished firm of Anderson Mason Dale, is the 2001 AIA national president. Some 17,000 conference attendees from the fields of architecture, architectural engineering, planning, design, architectural product marketing and other related professions will gather downtown through May 19.

Considering the coincidence of Historic Denver Week and the AIA convention, it seems the perfect time to take a look at the best of the city's built environment, especially in places where preservation and architecture have unfortunately had to cross paths.

Truth be told, Colorado in general, and Denver in particular, has very little first-rate architecture. Fine buildings make up only a tiny percentage of what's been constructed around here. To make matters worse, many superb older buildings have been, and will continue to be, torn down.

It's ironic that the AIA is gathering in the Colorado Convention Center, not only because the building, designed by Fentress Bradburn Architects, is surely one of the most ineptly conceived and realized structures in the city, but also because it has been a one-project demolition derby. (Directly or indirectly, the CCC is already responsible for the destruction of I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza and Temple Buell's Denver Post building.) Visiting architectural dignitaries won't need to go far to see the latest sad event unfolding at the CCC -- the impending demolition of the once-gorgeous Currigan Exhibition Hall right next door. Over the years, Currigan has received numerous awards, including a regional AIA award of merit.

Currigan was built in 1969. The architect of record was William C. Muchow, with James Ream acting as the principal designer. It features a space-frame structure, which was innovative at the time. Unfortunately, an impossible dream (or would that be a stupid idea?) -- that the enormous building could be or would be moved -- short-circuited any attempt to save Currigan. The site will eventually be used for an addition to the CCC.

At first the idea was to double the existing space by building a mirror image of the monstrosity that is the current CCC. But only horror master Stephen King has the morbid imagination to conjure up such a thing, so a subsequent plan was put forward that called for an entirely new exterior, unifying the existing facility with the new addition. The resulting mass was so large that Fentress Bradburn suggested putting trees on the roof to break up the volume. The newest plan is a big improvement, though still not very good. The huge size of the building is to be reduced visually with the use of dramatic cloth roofs, à la DIA, which was partly done by Fentress Bradburn.

Even surrounded by construction fencing and piles of debris, even with the top of its walls covered with plastic to facilitate asbestos removal in preparation for its demolition, Currigan is still ten times the building the CCC is.

Although Currigan is already doomed, there's a whole class of endangered mid-century modernist architectural works in Denver that can still be saved.

One of the most urgent cases is that of Skyline Park, which runs up Arapahoe Street between 15th and 18th streets. The park, which was completed in 1973, received a 25-year Colorado AIA award in 1998. It's a classic example of the work of the world-renowned Lawrence Halprin, and it's filled with his signature elements, including battered walls cast of rough-surfaced concrete and three marvelous fountains made from the same material.

The Downtown Denver Partnership, a private business group, has been working on plans to change the park from something extraordinary into something ordinary. As with the CCC, however, the plans have been subject to change. First, in 1999, Denver's Design Workshop suggested bringing the park up to street grade (it's recessed now) and covering it in sod and brick pavers, just like a nice back yard. Everyone could see how bad that idea was, though, so in 2000, the Partnership hired Toronto-based Ken Greenberg Consultants (formerly Urban Strategies) to come up with a fresh perspective.

Last month Greenberg made his presentation, and either there's a late-'80s revival going on that I haven't heard about, or Greenberg is stuck back there himself. He suggests recasting Skyline with a petting zoo and a greenhouse, plus an open-air performing-arts complex (pesky traffic noise and all). I just wasn't able to stifle a hearty guffaw when Greenberg listed Buskerfest and First Night Colorado as two of the events that could be held at a reconfigured Skyline Park, which he wants to rename Tower Place (in reference to the D&F Tower, which sits in the park). The slogan he conceived for the park, "Experience Denver at Tower Place," reveals why he's a consultant and not an advertising executive. Oh, yeah, Buskerfest! First Night Colorado!

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