The More Things Change...

Landmarks rise and fall in Denver.

A couple of months ago, the Denver Art Museum and the city's office of planning unveiled the latest model for a new addition to the museum. The wing, which is being designed by Berlin-based architect Daniel Libeskind, along with Denver's Davis Partnership, is to be built adjacent to the existing DAM, a gray, glass-clad tower from 1971 designed by Milan's Gio Ponti along with Denver's James Sudler ("Amazing Grace," March 8).

The Libeskind model, made of plywood and metal, was magnificent as an art object (not to mention that the building it represented promises to be out of this world). It was so meticulously crafted that it looked like a gigantic piece of jewelry. Libeskind, who was the nominal host of the unveiling, said the model was made in-house at his small firm.

Presented at the same event was a crude and less specific site model showing the wing in context with the existing museum and the entire area, from west of Bannock Street all the way to Broadway. This model included a high-rise tower on a two-story podium at 12th Avenue and Broadway, where a long-planned-for low-rise parking garage was supposed to be. The newly conceived high-rise, to be built on spec by Mile High Development, will incorporate the garage behind a course of shops that wraps around the building; the tower itself will be devoted to residential use.

Daniel Libeskind's site model for the Denver Art Museum expansion.
Daniel Libeskind's site model for the Denver Art Museum expansion.
The Terracentre tower.
The Terracentre tower.

As I looked at the model, I began to wonder whether the tower and parking/shopping complex had been a part of the plan all along but had been kept secret. It makes much more sense if that were the case, because in terms of the overall composition of the site, and in its relationship to the rest of the Civic Center, the new wing relates better formally with the tower there than without it. And not only that, but in the previous version, the architectural composition seemed to bleed off the south and east ends; now the tower anchors the southeast corner of the project. This essentially extends the Civic Center a block south, with the tower visually linking the complex to the existing DAM and to the Michael Graves-designed library addition. These buildings now make up the southern end of the Civic Center.

As I went to my car in the surface parking lot on which the tower will rise, I thought, "Wow, that's going to be cool." Little did I know that the planned erection of the tower would act as a kind of civic Viagra, arousing interest from editorial writers at both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. Apparently, for them, the most important, most urgent component of the DAM's expansion plans is the fate of D Diamond's Ilios restaurant.

In order for the DAM's plans to be carried out, the building that houses Ilios will have to be condemned and purchased by the city. Diamond doesn't own the building and fears she will be driven out of business.

A spokeswoman for the DAM project, whose identity I'll protect, makes the following observation: "I was surprised by the editorials. I always thought of the editors at the News and the Post as being hardened professional journalists." An unfortunate choice of words, but an apt one considering Diamond's easy-to-understand appeal.

Now, honestly, I wish Diamond well in her business future, and I suggest she take that sweetheart deal the city's offering her, which includes a number of plums, like two years of free rent and first choice of space in the new building. But oddly, it looks like she's not going to, even though she doesn't own the building and therefore has only limited say in the condemnation anyway. We'll learn what her next move is at any moment.

Less than a block from the Civic Center, where many of the city's most important buildings are, the homely Ilios should not -- and apparently will not -- stand in the way of the construction of what promises to be one of the most important architectural complexes ever to have been built, not just in the city, but in the entire region.


In the meantime, a more genuinely controversial condemnation is being carried out as part of the ongoing melodrama -- or would that be slapstick comedy? -- at the Colorado Convention Center. The city is moving to condemn and then demolish the perfectly good Terracentre tower nearby.

As this latest episode highlights, the CCC has been the single worst thing to happen to the city's architecture, ever ("Written in Stone," May 17). Let's briefly review the story so far.

The current monstrosity, the work of Fentress Bradburn Architects, was built on the cleared site of the Silver Triangle neighborhood, essentially a mini-LoDo filled with late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century brick buildings. The CCC was a financial failure, however, so the idea was to blame the lack of a hotel of sufficient size nearby. This pie-in-the-sky rationale led to the destruction, at public expense, of I.M. Pei's 1950s Zeckendorf Plaza and its conversion to the tacky Adam's Mark Hotel. Historic Denver and a coalition of preservationists mounted an all-out campaign to save the Pei masterpiece, but it was for naught.

You see, making the convention center viable -- a fool's errand if there ever was one -- had become the paramount goal of the public sector, egged on by greedy private interests eyeing future public handouts.

But even after the Adam's Mark took over the space, the performance of the convention center was little to write home about, so a whole bakery-in-the-sky idea was cooked up, and the voters were convinced in 1999 to fund an expansion of the convention center, which was tied to a new, and larger, hotel. Like the first hotel scheme, this one cost the city one of its landmarks, in this case Temple Buell's 1940s moderne Denver Post building. Unlike the first deal, however, this one doesn't have a hotel, and none seems to be on the horizon.

Historic Denver mounted a campaign to save the Denver Post building, pointing out that since there was nothing planned for the site, wouldn't leaving the building up give the new owners more options? Their reasoned appeals, as usual, fell on the deaf ears of the city council, and developer Bruce Berger turned the old Post into a parking lot.

There's no mystery as to why Berger can't find a taker on the hotel deal -- Marriott already turned him down, and Hyatt may be set to do the same -- despite an aid package of between $55 million and $65 million being offered by the Denver Urban Renewal Authority and the city. The accounting firms for these big hotel chains have simply pointed out that the financial outlook for an expanded convention center is just as iffy as the current one. In fact, the CCC's track record is so dismal, it makes Colorado's Ocean Journey look solid.

Preservationists tried to save Zeckendorf and later the Post, but they didn't even attempt to scuttle the convention-center expansion plan. Too bad. In retrospect, they should have, because it will take out two more significant buildings.

The expansion is to be built where the marvelous 1960s Currigan Hall stands. Done by a consortium of Denver architects, with James Ream as the principal designer, Currigan Hall represented a cutting-edge building, featuring a number of technical and artistic innovations. The preservationists took a powder on the place because they'd been cynically hoodwinked with a bogus suggestion that Currigan could be moved. This idiotic idea was promoted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and others, all of whom should have known better.

Well, as I said all along, Currigan won't be moved. It will be torn down, and the city council is about to authorize nearly $2 million dollars for its demolition. Add that to the $3 million already spent for asbestos abatement, as well as the value of the building itself, which must be worth $25 million, and you have almost $30 million in public waste, not to mention the more important loss of one of the city's most important modernist structures.

The latest link in the outrageous chain of ill-conceived events related to the CCC is the impending demolition of the handsome Terracentre tower, a 1982 high-rise at 1100 Stout Street, built by Alfred T. Williams for the Denver firm of Seracuse\Lawlor and Partners. The building is a fine example of late-modern-style architecture by one of the most artistically significant Denver firms of the time. The 1970s through the '80s was the most important period of downtown building, and Seracuse/Lawlor was among the few local firms to garner commissions for large buildings; most of the jobs went to big national firms like Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Kohn Pederson Fox and Johnson/Burgee.

The Terracentre tower, constructed of concrete, is raised up on pilotti with a series of outdoor landscaped terraces stepping back to a shaft. The individual floors are marked by alternating horizontal bands of concrete and glass, and the dramatic interior is pierced by an atrium. Looking at the elegant building, which still seems practically new, it's hard to believe that the Terracentre is going to be lost to make room for just a corner of the expanded convention center.

The Terracentre is to be condemned (tenants have already been given ninety-day eviction notices even though the city hasn't acquired the building yet), and though the purchase price hasn't been revealed, it can't be less than the $11.5 million that the Matrix Capital Bank paid for it only recently. The bank intended to use it for a high-profile headquarters building. Additional costs will arise from asbestos abatement and demolition of the tower, which will run into the millions.

It's amazing that the city would spend tens of millions of dollars simply to destroy existing and objectively valuable assets so that it can wind up with a vacant lot on which a doomed-to-fail enterprise will later rise -- though surely not by 2004, its previously announced completion date.


As if all this isn't bad enough, consider the tragic tale of Skyline Park.

Running along Arapahoe Street between 15th and 18th streets, Skyline is a superb example of vanguard landscape design and site planning from the 1970s. And, of course, that means it has been noticed by the philistines who now seek to destroy it -- namely, the Downtown Denver Partnership and the Wellington Webb administration.

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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