When Mayor Wellington Webb trumpeted free tours of the 69-year-old City and County Building, he undersold a key point: the challenge of locating the tour's start.
Surely, the trickiest part of navigating this 450,000-square-foot structure is telling the first floor from the second. Strangers, scofflaws and other civic types coming up the stairs from Bannock Street -- the side that faces the State Capitol -- assume they've landed on the first floor. Nope: They're actually on the second floor, where the tour desk sits just beyond the metal detectors. But some tardy tourists panic, running right past the desk and up to the next floor, worried they might miss a featured attraction of "one of the most impressive municipal buildings in the United States," as the tour's promotional brochure promises.
One recent morning, I joined ten tourists assigned to docent and Denver native Pat Hance, who hurried us up to the Denver City Council chambers on the fourth floor. There, Roz Duman, director of the city's Office of Volunteerism, welcomed our group, which included new refugees from Russia, Sudan and Indonesia as well as a visitor from Long Island and one Denver native. Hance explained that the classic-style building was designed so as not to block the view of the mountains from the Capitol. She noted that a team of 39 local architects had agreed upon the lotus-flower pattern, a sign of "strength and prosperity" since King Tut's heyday, as a decoration for the council's ceiling. But all was not as it seemed: The solid-appearing ceiling is false, a one-eighth-inch thick mesh-and-plaster front. And while the city's seal still features what was the world's tallest smokestack, the structure was demolished in 1950.
After soaking up the room's majesty -- and the hardness of the benches -- our tour exited and scuttled down the hall, the sounds of our shoes bouncing off granite from Vermont and Georgia (not to mention Colorado marble, part of 14,000 tons of stone in the building). Along the way, we marveled at the archaic, yet operating, Cutler Mailing Systems ("Letters probably do get stuck once in a while," Hance admitted) and paused to admire a six-by-six-foot gilded eagle -- a tribute purchased by the widow of city-building, cigar-chomping Mayor Robert Speer, whose omnipresent stogie failed to ward off germs during a global flu epidemic in 1918.
No wonder these gawkathons, offered Wednesdays at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m., may soon spill over to a second day.
A stairwell took us to just outside the mayor's office. We were lucky: Hizzoner was away, which meant we could wander into the inner sanctum. The room where Webb has plotted Denver's future since 1991 is larger than the White House's Oval Office, but it still felt a bit pinched -- perhaps from the mayor's accumulation of swag. A pair of bronzed size-fourteen jogging shoes ("You walk the walk") serve as paperweights on Webb's desk, flanked by two sets of wind-up toy sneakers. Other items attest to Webb's more exotic junkets, including a dragon-enhanced token from a group of Chinese mayors. A model Lufthansa jet dominates a fleet of replicas; on closer inspection, I saw that the jet was an Airbus A340-300, made by Boeing's chief rival. Who knows whether a visiting Boeing exec, spying this blatant favoritism, decided that Sweet Home Chicago was better than Airbus-enamored Denver?
After Webb's lair, the tour highlights began to blur: a prisoner in leg shackles heading for one of the building's 21 courtrooms, a rogues' gallery of former mayors (facial hair was apparently the key to wooing early Denver voters), a photographic greeting from Webb and First Lady Wilma, a display case filled with a jumble of ceremonial hardhats and spades from groundbreakings at DIA, Ocean Journey and other projects -- all testament to a hard-working (or is that hat-stealing?) mayor.
The tour ended in a pair of rooms filled with displays from Denver's nine Sister Cities. You could take a quiz, but the real question was this: What floor was I on?