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.

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!

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.

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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