The Joys of Summer

The Fine Arts Center dodges a bullet, but what about these three Denver institutions?

It is the happiest news imaginable. The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center has finally, if reluctantly, abandoned its plans to build an addition on the facade at the southwest corner of the building next to the main entrance. Any addition placed in this spot, no matter how inspired, would have unavoidably destroyed the original character of this 1936 masterpiece of modernism by New Mexico's John Gaw Meem.

The wrongheaded proposal was cooked up by a committee that included center director David Turner, director of development Carolyn Moershel, and members of the board of trustees, notably former board president Diane Sikes. The committee had been charged with exploring the idea of expanding the Fine Arts Center, a difficult job for anyone, since the building is perfect as it is -- taking into account some deferred maintenance -- and should be left alone.

The center was Meem's most important commission, and he was provided with an almost unlimited budget put up by prominent socialite Alice Bemis Taylor and a coterie of her wealthy friends. It is an intelligent and inspired blend of the indigenous Pueblo style of the Southwest and the moderne and art-deco styles of the 1930s. The structure's rectilinear volumes, created out of cast-in-place concrete, step back from the ground floor with the building's dramatic massing culminating at the southwest corner -- right where they wanted to put the addition!

The west elevation of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
The west elevation of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
The main entrance of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
The main entrance of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

Both the exterior and the interior are ornamented with integral murals painted by some of the most important artists working in the region at that time, including Kenneth Adams and Frank Mechau. There is also abundant custom metalwork in the form of chandeliers and railings, as well as original furniture and other furnishings that were likewise specifically designed and executed for the building. The entry hall, the west hall, the theater, its lobby and the garden gallery are surely among the finest interior spaces in the entire time zone.

Considering all of this, it seems obvious that the center's board of trustees would have wanted to ensure that the building was meticulously if not fanatically preserved and that any changes would be sensitive to the original. But instead of consulting with a firm that specializes in historic preservation, the committee members hired Hammel, Green and Abrahamson out of Minneapolis, a facilities-planning firm, to advise them. HGA apparently came to the project thinking the building was a blank slate on which they could make any kind of mark. It's safe to say that the committee screwed up immediately when it hired HGA some two years ago. Thus the terrible plans, revealed in March, were essentially inevitable. Garbage in, garbage out.

And believe it or not, the concept of defacing the building's facade wasn't even the worst idea HGA suggested in its laundry list of expansion sites. It's as though HGA representatives toured the building, found its most crucial and significant attributes, and then thought up ways to destroy them.

One idea was that the west elevation should be demolished in order to put the addition there. The west elevation faces Monument Valley Park and is distinguished by the exquisitely figured and detailed balcony that runs across it. HGA thought the balcony's details could be incorporated in the new addition and that would make it all okay. But even the committee could see this was a dog and rejected it. Another idea was that the open-air interior courtyard, which is completely surrounded by the building, could be filled in. Again, the committee rejected this ridiculous option.

But somehow they did go for the idea of putting an addition on the front. Luckily, there was more than one fly in the ointment: The Fine Arts Center doesn't own the land on which it wanted to build, although the committee didn't realize this at first. Furthermore, that specific parcel of land wasn't up for grabs at all since it's part of Monument Valley Park, which itself is protected from changes by an inviolable trust established by the city's founder, General William Jackson Palmer.

The decision to abandon the southwest corner of the building as the expansion site partly involved a legal tangle with the Palmer Trust provisions and partly involved public outrage over the plan. But so far, bad PR hasn't dampened the center committee's enthusiasm for an addition in another location. Count on the committee not rehiring HGA, especially since the three new potential sites had all been rejected previously by the firm.

The first possible site is the sculpture garden on the east side of the building. The advantages of this site are that it would provide the Fine Arts Center with a presence on Cascade Avenue, one of the city's main thoroughfares, and allow the center to create a visual link to the new Cornerstone Arts Complex, which is being designed by New Mexico architect Antoine Predock and will soon rise right across Cascade as a part of Colorado College.

The second option, and probably the best -- although it would surely be the most expensive -- is to construct a freestanding annex, incorporating parking, directly across Dale Street on the site of the present parking lot. The annex could be connected to the existing center via an underground concourse of the sort that connects the Denver Art Museum to the Denver Public Library. This would allow the center to create an iconic building with its own fine qualities. This option has been nicknamed by some "the Libeskind option," in reference to the outrageously original and individualistic DAM wing being designed by Daniel Libeskind, which is to be physically separated from the existing Gio Ponti-designed art museum.

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