The More Things Change...

Landmarks rise and fall in Denver.

Skyline's designer was Lawrence Halprin, who, then as now, is regarded as one of the greatest modern landscape designers in the world. Halprin is in his eighties and is in semi-retirement in San Francisco.

It's hard to say what will happen to Skyline, but since the city plans to pony up $9 million, substantially more than the original $2 million that had been pledged to the park in bond money, and the partnership has guaranteed another $3 million, Skyline's surely a goner ("Down and Out in Downtown Denver," December 7, 2000).

The reason the partnership has pushed for its destruction has to do with a perceived social malady there: scruffy teens hanging out in the park. I'm not sure why they think that sod and pavers, the kinds of things the consultant suggested they replace the fountains and planters of Skyline with, won't attract this same crowd. Skyline is the only public park on the 16th Street Mall, and those scary kids are going to be there no matter the style of the park.

In response to the threat against Skyline, an ad hoc advocacy group, Friends of Skyline Park, has risen up and plans to bring forward a city landmark nomination in the hope of saving the park. If the Denver Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has many newish members, still has any interest in objectivity, Skyline will pass unanimously.

The proposed destruction of Skyline is despicable, but even more so was the attempt to use Halprin himself as a weapon against those, in particular Friends of Skyline Park, who were trying to save it. In a letter, and later in a guest commentary in the Rocky Mountain News, partnership president Anne Warhover shared a phone chat she'd had with the old fellow. The gist of it, Warhover reported, was that "even Halprin...supports the park's redesign."

Incredible? Unbelievable is more like it. Some of us didn't need to wait for the letter Halprin wrote a couple of weeks later to the National Park Service's Landscape Initiative stating that he'd been misrepresented. We already knew, instinctually, that he had been. In that letter, Halprin wrote unambiguously, "I would hope that Skyline Park could be preserved... I hope this expresses my feelings about Skyline Park and its future. I hope that it will also help its preservation." Seemingly, Warhover had confused her own leading questions with Halprin's answers. She did the same thing in a subsequent letter she sent to Halprin, in which she transparently laid out her own well-known point of view, while pretending that these ideas originally came from Halprin -- namely, that the current design of the park is inflexible and no longer fits Denver's needs.

The whole fiasco causes déjà vu. It's eerily reminiscent of the disgraceful events associated with the demolition of Zeckendorf, especially the use of a revered architect as an aide in erasing his own accomplishment. In that case, a made-up quote by Pei ran on the front page of the Denver Post, in which he apparently credited the design of the plaza to his partner, Henry Cobb. Again, some didn't need to wait for Cobb's letter to know that the whole thing was a farce. The reclusive, retired Pei wouldn't have granted an interview to his own valet, let alone to some business writer in Denver. So much for the quote. And as Cobb emphatically wrote from Paris, Zeckendorf was indeed Pei's work.

It's interesting that both Pei and Halprin are past recipients of the coveted gold medals for lifetime achievement from the American Institute of Architects and the American Society of Landscape Architects, respectively. We reside in the kind of place where the works of gold medalists in architecture and landscape are destroyed. Makes you proud to say you live in Denver, doesn't it?

Good luck to Friends of Skyline Park in their efforts. But remember that even though Zeckendorf was unanimously endorsed by the landmarks commission, the majority of the Denver City Council didn't go along. And they likely won't go along this time, either. Plus, a New York firm, Thomas Balsley Associates, has already been hired to redesign Skyline. I wonder if any of it will be saved.

It wouldn't be as hard to stand all the architectural losses we're being forced to bear in Denver if their replacements were any good. But aside from that dazzling complex at the DAM, new good things are hard to find.

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