Written in Stone

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

Well, it looks like it's back to the drawing board, thankfully. And anyway, there's only $2 million available for the park, so by the time they decide what to do, the money may already have been spent.

Another important work of architecture endangered by ideas is the sleek and chic Country Club Gardens, a gorgeous 1940 moderne-style architectural group of buildings by the Denver firm of Fisher, Fisher and Hubbell. The apartment complex, located near South Downing Street and East Ellsworth Avenue, is owned by Pat Broe. Concerns about its future led neighborhood groups and the Colorado Historical Foundation to seek city landmark protection in 1999. Since then, the preservation struggle has continued, and now, with the latest set of hearings over with, deliberations by the landmark commission may begin as early as the end of the month.

Broe, represented by attorney Tom Ragonetti, is vigorously opposed to landmarking. And the two are so influential that they were able to get this view expressed in an April 17 editorial in the Denver Post. The piece stated that landmark protection was unconstitutional because it represents a "takings" by limiting the development opportunities of property owners. But wait a minute: Isn't that what all zoning does? By this twisted logic, wouldn't zoning itself be unconstitutional? Somebody had better tell Jennifer Moulton, Denver's planning boss. Boy, is she going to be mad.

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

Since Broe is a big-time mover and shaker (looks like he's already got the Post in line, doesn't it?), things don't look so good for Country Club Gardens, and it's unlikely that the city council will ratify landmark protection. In the meantime, go check out the wonderful complex. It's a masterpiece, complete with its original landscaping, and it's still in beautiful condition.

Also in nice shape and looking quite handsome despite some deferred maintenance is the Cherry Creek Medical Building, a modernist jewel box at the intersection of Alameda Avenue and Cherry Creek Drive North. The Miesian building was designed by William Muchow and dates from around 1960. Conceived as a solid core punctured by ribbon windows, it is surrounded entirely by a blue painted steel cage hung with horizontal plate-glass panels that serve as sunscreens. One especially nice feature is the decorative treatment of the ground-floor walls, which are covered in venetian glass tiles laid in a pattern of vertical stripes.

Plans are already being drawn up to replace the building, however. The nature of this future development is unknown. What is known is that the building's tenants have been asked to move. The impending loss of the Cherry Creek Medical Building is a genuine tragedy.

Although the places described above are all endangered by insensitive plans, sometimes it's the lack of a plan that endangers a building. That's the case with the venerable Lowenstein Theater at Colfax Avenue and Elizabeth Street. The 1940s theater, originally called the Bonfils Memorial, is a wonderfully expressive moderne-style building constructed to the highest standard of the period. Designed by Denver architect John Monroe, Jacques Benedict's premier protegé, it sports custom-made Denver Terra Cotta Company ornamentation (marking the tail end of the production of this sumptuous material). The fancy, buff-colored brickwork, custom-etched rose-colored windows (where they still exist) and all that decorative aluminum combine to create a distinctive addition to the architecturally important location: The theater serves as the sight stop for the City Park Esplanade across Colfax. Unfortunately, the building, which is controlled by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, has been allowed to languish, dark and empty, for almost a decade.

Another building in an important and visible civic location is the Daly Insurance Building, which sits vacant at 1576 Sherman Street. The Daly is one of the most important 1950s buildings in all of downtown. The work of James Sudler, one of the most artistically important architects to have worked in Denver, the building combines a Miesian core with an expressionist, almost op-art, sunscreen cladding. The effect is reminiscent of polka-dotted cloth. It's tremendous.

But if something doesn't break for the Daly soon, it may go the way of its stylistic cousin, the once-remarkable Columbine Building, also a 1950s creation by Sudler. That edifice was just a few blocks up, at 1845 Sherman. Many will recall that it looked like an aluminum-and-glass accordion bellows turned on end. Unbelievably, the building was stripped to its structural members just a few months ago. I can't wait to see its replacement. No, I take that back.

Despite this sad litany, preservation has largely been a success here. Some of the most valuable residential properties in the metro area are in a series of historic districts in east central Denver, such as Country Club, Seventh Avenue Parkway and Morgan's Addition. And we can't forget LoDo, the land of the multimillion-dollar rough-finished loft.

Preservation makes business sense, and that's how Historic Denver pulled off the new district downtown: The owners of the historic buildings were convinced that they wanted it.

It makes common sense, too. After all, the idiotic new urbanism being done in places such as Lakewood and Thornton has failed to create what Denver already has -- a highly livable, architecturally diverse urban environment. And we can thank groups like Historic Denver for preserving it. Long may they and their fellow travelers persevere.

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