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.

But there are some things that I don't like about it. Because this is a municipal facility (although it's being developed in a public-private deal with Mile High Development, which actually owns the building), shouldn't the public art be done by local artists? In fact, it could have been argued that only Denver artists should even qualify for such a project. Instead, as usual, we're going to get work by second- and third-tier national talents like Donald Lipski.

Then again, the fact that this building will probably be named for Webb could subtly make the point that his legacy in regard to the arts was to make Denver artists irrelevant during a time of unprecedented public-art spending.

Here's another outrage related to the Civic Center Office Building: Elaine Shiramizu, a LoDo-based graphic designer charged with designing its signage, has proposed carving a poem by Thomas Hornsby Ferril into the side of the former Annex I. Give me a break.

Not that there's anything wrong with the poem, but to do such a thing would seriously compromise the architectural integrity of a building that has already suffered the indignities of an unfortunate new front canopy and some borderline-quality window replacements, among other problems. The walls were conceived as flat planes with virtually no mass, which is a defining characteristic of the International style. By carving words into the plane, unwelcome mass is created and the planar conception of the walls destroyed.

Shiramizu has already placed other phrases all over the new building, but that's okay for several reasons. First, Tryba's design is an example of neo-modernism, a post-post-modernism that happily accommodates conflicting components used in juxtaposition. In this style, it's perfectly fine to create a tension between planes and masses. Second, Shiramizu worked out her plan for the words on the new building with Larry Kirkland -- the out-of-town artist supervising the art planning -- and with Tryba.

So unless Shiramizu holds a séance in which she raises the ghosts of Hegner and Moore and gets their permission, she'd better keep her hands off the old building. And shame on Kirkland and Tryba, who let this pseudo-intellectual idea see the light of day. Luckily, it wasn't in the budget, so money will need to be raised if it's to be done. Here's hoping they don't get a dime.


Will the new African-American Research Library be called the Wellington and Wilma Webb African-American Research Library or some such? Definitely. Will the new Civic Center Office Building be called the Wellington Webb Civic Center Office building or something thereabouts? Doubtless. Will the Welton Street Historic District be renamed Wilm'ington? Probably not. But here's the big question: Will these buildings represent Webb's legacy to the city? No. The Colorado Convention Center will.

The CCC has represented what can only be called a trail of tears for the city's architecture. I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza; Temple Buell's Denver Post Building; Currigan Hall, by James Ream with William C. Muchow Associates; and the TerraCentre Tower, by Jerry Williams for Seracuse/Lawlor, were all destroyed as a result of its growth. And all were high-quality examples of modern architecture -- unlike the CCC, which is a genuine monstrosity. But this facility will soon disappear in the expansion, too, so I guess every cloud does have a silver lining.

The new building, by Fentress & Bradburn Associates, which also did the current CCC, will cover more than twenty acres with a single building sitting hard on Speer Boulevard across from the Auraria campus. Its size and placement are sure to annihilate the urban design of the fabulous parkway, and it will dwarf the nearby Denver Performing Arts Complex, hiding it from westbound drivers on Speer until they're right on top of it. Also, its preposterously big horizontal mass is absolutely wrong in relation to the skyline views of adjacent skyscrapers that are -- need I say it? -- vertical.

Preservation and design excellence have no meaning to some people, but it's hard for anyone to ignore cold, hard facts -- even if those involved in the expansion of the CCC, Webb chief among them, have done a good job of doing just that. The city-financed project isn't going to work, and neither is the city-financed convention-center hotel. Weren't the nation's hoteliers telling us exactly that when none of them would take $55 million in free public money -- and God knows what else -- to develop one? Eventually, all of us will be affected by this, as city services and city support for public amenities are cut back to bail out the CCC and the hotel. Not even I could have imagined that the police and fire stations would be second-mortgaged to help pay for this boondoggle -- but believe it or not, just such an idea is being discussed by the Denver City Council. And imagine: The city's barely started to build it!

See, I told you the CCC, and not the Webb Library or the Webb Building, will wind up being our mayor's real legacy; it's going to take a miracle for the city to survive it. But I've got an idea: Let's call the CCC the Webb Center and the hotel the Hotel Webb so everyone will know who's to blame.

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