Brave New Englewood

The Museum of Outdoor Arts lends some needed beauty to nowheresville.

The City of Englewood provides a tragic example of planning gone horribly wrong. It's a sad story that started decades ago.

One early planning disaster began in the 1980s, when the heart of what used to be a small town was torn out to make room for a redevelopment scheme cooked up by the Englewood Urban Renewal Authority. In 1981, the EURA called for the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century commercial buildings that once stood between South Broadway and South Bannock Street in the 3300 and 3400 blocks to be replaced by a King Soopers, retail shops and a conference center/hotel. While I don't doubt that this plan would have been just dreamy, most of it never happened, although there is a King Soopers smack in the middle of the formerly charming business district. An interesting detail is that Susan Powers, then the executive director of the EURA, came up with the plan. Powers, of course, went on to head the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, and in that position she spearheaded the effort to destroy I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza, which was located in downtown Denver. This was not the only destructive project Powers endorsed at DURA, just the most glaring one. And here's an example that proves that truth is stranger than fiction: After being a one-woman demolition derby while serving in back-to-back public positions for nearly two decades, Powers, now a private developer is -- seriously -- a historic preservationist! She's just redeveloped the old Denver Fire Clay factory into lofts, and phase one was so successful, she launched phase two.

Oh, great: She's finally seen the light -- and only twenty years too late.

"In Stance," by Stephen Hokanson, welded-steel sculpture.
"In Stance," by Stephen Hokanson, welded-steel sculpture.

But bad ideas in Englewood go back further than the Powers era, back at least to 1968, when a public park was turned into Cinderella City. The massive mall itself, near the corner of Broadway and Hampden Avenue, has now been torn down and is being replaced by Englewood's CityCenter, a jumble of half-baked concepts masquerading as a planned town center. The new buildings are mostly pretty bad, comic-book versions of traditional architecture. They can be described as postmodernism reduced to meaningless gestures.

The style (dare I call it that?) is associated with the new-urbanism movement, a wildly successful ideology that is destroying towns all over America. The model is Main Street at Disneyland, but done less convincingly and more cheaply. The appeal of the new urbanism is apparent: It meets the goals of developers while co-opting the ideals of the community, all under the sedative haze created by pseudo-small-town buildings.

The delicious irony here? Englewood is, in a sense, remaking what it destroyed in the '80s.

But if you think nostalgia meant the powers that be in Englewood would take a belatedly enlightened look at the genuinely historic buildings that have survived, you are wrong.

Just west of Cinderella City stood the old Englewood Library and City Hall, formerly Norgren Industries. Both were good examples of mid-twentieth-century modernism, and both were demolished as part of the still-under-construction CityCenter. In these buildings, and others like them, certain attributes of the international style were combined with Wright's Usonian technique. This should have had an added value in Englewood, considering that the modernist Arapahoe Acres -- the nation's first post-war neighborhood to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- is located here, too, making modernism the suburb's only claim to architectural fame. (And we can't forget the other modernist landmark in Englewood, the 1970s Colonial Bank. Just blocks from the CityCenter, this world-class expressionist masterpiece by Denver's Charles Deaton is clearly the most important building in Englewood.)

So let's see -- the only historic architecture in Englewood of any value is old modernist architecture. The city owned two modernist buildings and wanted to create a new center of town in the vicinity. Wouldn't common sense have suggested to even the dimmest member of the planning staff that the old modernist buildings might be nice to have in the new CityCenter? Apparently not. Because instead of common sense, new urbanism guided the decisions, and new urbanism is as dismissive of historic architecture as it is of contemporary architecture.

The only element of Cinderella City to survive was a former department store at the west end of the mall. The building, originally constructed for the Broadway Southwest chain, was given a $10 million face-lift overseen by Denver architect David Tryba, who also designed an adjacent building that is nearing completion. These buildings are two of the few bright spots at CityCenter; another is the nearby light-rail station with its dramatic pedestrian bridge.

The former department store has been renamed the Civic Center (isn't there already one of those in the area?), and it houses the relocated library, the city's council chambers and offices and -- here's the good part -- the Museum of Outdoor Arts. The relocation of MOA to Englewood was a lucky break, both for the city and for the museum.

The MOA was founded twenty years ago by wealthy real-estate developer John Madden and his daughter, Cynthia Madden Leitner. The idea was to have a museum without walls made up of a collection of sculptures that would be installed in outdoor public places. Today, the museum has a multi-million-dollar budget and a multi-million-dollar permanent collection.

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