More Stories About Buildings and Art

Opportunities for art and architecture can be both found and lost amid city politics.

Last month, I met former Denver mayor Quigg Newton, who served from 1947 to 1955. His Honor was being interviewed about his association with Denver painter Vance Kirkland for a documentary about the Kirkland Museum called MuseumMuseum, which will air on KBDI Channel 12. I was there as a creative consultant on the project.

While he was mayor, Newton was interested in Denver's contemporary art scene, and had a Kirkland abstract called "Red Mountain" hanging over his desk. As a result, the painting often appeared in the background of news photos published in the daily papers. It was great publicity for Kirkland, and for abstract art in general.

In his remarks for the documentary, Newton pointed out that, despite what many think today, Denver was a sophisticated city in the '50s, and Kirkland and other modern artists found a sizable group of supporters among Denver art collectors. This didn't surprise me, considering the many modern artists who were working here at the time: Edward Marecak, Nadine Drummond, Bill Sanderson, Martha Epp, Bill Joseph, Edgar Britton and Jack Ball -- just to name a few.

I found it edifying to meet someone like Newton, who embraced progressive strategies both politically and aesthetically, and thus realized he could use his position as mayor to promote the arts. It's no wonder, then, that the Auditorium Theater was recently named for him in recognition of his efforts to sustain another art form: the symphony.


The office of the current mayor, Wellington Webb, also came to my attention last week when it turned up in the news. But I don't need to tell you that it wasn't because Webb had hung a work by a contemporary Denver artist over his desk. (Aside from some Western art loaned by the Denver Public Library, Webb's walls are covered with framed posters for the Cherry Creek Arts Festival and things of that sort.) The office was in the news because the DPL had announced that, as part of the plan for the under-construction and unnamed African-American Research Library to be located in Five Points, a somewhat smaller version of Webb's City Hall office will be put on permanent display there.

The library itself is pretty nice, a postmodern design not unlike the Michael Graves wing of the Central Library. It was designed by a partnership of Jim Bershof, from Oz Architecture, and Harold Massop Architects; when completed, the library will be the largest branch in the DPL system.

It will also be the centerpiece of the newly created Welton Street Historic District. This district is unique in that it was identified in its nomination as being significant for its cultural history rather than its architecture. Also in the nomination -- and unique, as far as I can tell -- is the idea that identifying the Welton corridor as a historic district will help stimulate economic development in the neighborhood, as it has in the city's other historic districts. From Potter Highlands in the west to Montclair in the east, these well-protected districts have seen some of the highest-flying real estate inflation in the last few years. Just think of LoDo, for goodness sake.

No decision has been made about what to call the library, but there's a move afoot to name it for Webb, or for his wife, Wilma Webb, or for both of them. It's hard to imagine this won't happen. After all, the replica of Webb's office will be upstairs, and he is unquestionably the most important African-American in the state's history. He has the influence to get it done, and in his final year of a twelve-year stint as mayor, he's looking to shore up his legacy.

Preserving a legacy is also what the move to put Webb's name on another public building -- the Civic Center Office Building now nearing completion at Cleveland Place -- is all about.

This building is in a remarkable and truly prominent location; it occupies a transitional position between the mostly low-rise public buildings of the Civic Center and the many high-rises of the central business district.

The Civic Center Office Building is actually two buildings. The pre-existing one, the former Annex I, was originally part of the University of Denver's long-abandoned downtown campus. One of the area's best examples of the International style, the 1940s Annex I was designed by the firm of Smith, Hegner and Moore, with the assistance of G. Meredith Musick. It is radically different from earlier buildings on the Civic Center, yet co-designers Casper Hegner and Thomas Moore paid special attention to making it compatible with its older, more traditional neighbors, and they clad the building in the same kind of limestone used on the nearby Denver City and Country Building.

The new building is a twelve-story high-rise designed by David Owen Tryba with RNL Design. There are a lot of good things about this building, including the way it works visually from both the Colfax Avenue and Glenarm Place sides. And the curving tower, dictated by a view-plain ordinance based on the vista from the front steps of the State Capitol, works well with the curvilinear aspects of the Civic Center itself. I am anxious to see it finished this fall.

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