Sprouting Up

Construction of the new DAM wing is about to begin.

The morning of April 9 was absolutely flawless here in Denver, with the temperature hovering in the mid-sixties under a stunningly clear blue Colorado-brand sky. On that perfect day, several hundred people had gathered in the former parking lot at 13th Avenue and Acoma Street to witness a celebration of the soon-to-be-built wing of the Denver Art Museum, which will rise on the spot where they were standing.

The reception, which was open to the public but not well publicized, wasn't really a groundbreaking -- not a single shovel of earth was tilled -- but it served the same purpose of ceremoniously indicating that the project has officially begun.

Lewis Sharp, the DAM's brilliant director, served as emcee for the festivities. And from my point of view, he desrves almost all the credit for the DAM expansion, which will nearly double the size of the museum. Sharp is extremely pragmatic, inordinately savvy, unbelievably charming and remarkably funny -- attributes he has drawn on throughout the process, pushing the project to unprecedented heights. This is why Denver is getting the kind of museum building the world is already starting to notice -- even though, as I said, they haven't turned that first shovel of earth yet!

Fly away: An artist's rendering of the new Frederic C. 
Hamilton Building, part of the Denver Art Museum 
expansion.
Fly away: An artist's rendering of the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building, part of the Denver Art Museum expansion.

From the very start, back in the late 1990s, when discussions that concerned over-crowding began at the current DAM, Sharp's intelligence was the guiding force. The problem with the present building was obvious: It was too small. Lots of the collection, way more than half, is put away in perpetual storage. And those blockbusters! When a big one's in town, the museum gets so crowded that it's hard to move anywhere on the first floor.

Some museum directors -- too many, as a matter of fact -- would have looked at the problem and decided that the answer was to scrap the existing facility and build anew. But Sharp would have none of that. The building, after all, is an iconic work by a giant of twentieth-century architecture -- the late Italian modernist Gio Ponti -- that is highly valued by many. The distinctive structure, clad in Pyrex glass tiles, is Ponti's only project in North America, so before plans were formalized for an expansion, Sharp decided to preserve the existing DAM building and to construct a freestanding addition that would minimize any negative effects it might have on the Ponti.

It was also Sharp who decided that the new building would be an important work by a significant architect. Because the expansion site is near the distinctive Ponti building and the compelling Michael Graves-designed Denver Public Library, the museum director ordered something special, and apparently that's what he got.

In retrospect, Sharp's move to save the Ponti building and go after a world-class design for the new addition may seem like such an obviously right choice that anyone would have come up with the same two-part solution. However, it's easy to forget that making the right choice around here is something that's rarely done. Remember Zeckendorf Plaza downtown, the I.M. Pei complex that was destroyed at public expense? Recall Bill Muchow's Currigan Hall on Speer Boulevard, likewise a memory thanks to taxpayer's money? What about those now happily scuttled plans to destroy the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center that were floating around last year? See, being as sharp as Sharp isn't as easy as it looks.

Sharp's enthusiastic performance at last week's ceremony, during which he laid the credit for the project in the laps of everyone except himself, is indicative of his successful interpersonal technique. He began by acknowledging, above all others, three-term Denver mayor Wellington Webb, even though Webb has been as much an obstacle as an ally. Of course, that didn't prevent Webb from unself-consciously taking bows.

The intrepid Sharp got the bond election on the ballot by guiding the process through the quagmire of the Webb administration, ultimately getting the mayor on board. Sharp profusely thanked Webb last week for his endorsement of the expansion, but when the DAM originally went to hizzonor and asked for $63.5 million for the expansion, Webb stingily rolled it back to $62.5 million for no real reason at all, except that he could. The withheld million was particularly galling in light of the money the City was throwing at the Colorado Convention Center and hotel, Invesco Field and the Pepsi Center -- nearly a billion, as it turns out.

The bond passed handily in the 1999 election -- and I think the voters would have even passed a bond for $100 million. It's too bad Webb didn't allow the DAM to go for more money than it did.

I thought of all this as Webb accepted Sharp's generously presented accolades. As he made his remarks, the mayor got to the point where he acknowledged that he was unworthy of Sharp's many compliments. Now that Webb was stepping down, I thought, as I stood listening, maybe he'd be a little statesmanlike and give Sharp his due. But he didn't. Webb said the person really responsible for the success of the DAM project was his wife, Wilma Webb. The first lady, whom the mayor described as being interested in art and culture, officially served on the DAM's architect selection committee and unofficially had pillow-talk time with the mayor.

That committee also included, in addition to Wilma, city council members Susan Barnes-Gelt and Polly Flobeck, Denver planning director Jennifer Moulton and museum donors such as Ginny Williams. The group traveled around the world looking at buildings by various architects, eventually announcing their selection of Berlin-based American architect Daniel Libeskind in 2000. At that time, Moulton and Williams smoked cigars and drank champagne as part of the giddy atmosphere surrounding the event. "Me and Jennifer will smoke cigars again when the building's finished," Williams promises.

At that time, Libeskind was better known as a theorist because he only had one major project under his belt, the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Now, having only recently scored the most important commission of our time, the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, Libeskind is unquestionably one of the key architects in the world -- adding interest and excitement for his Denver building. At the ceremony, Libeskind praised Denver, noting that it was a center of culture and a city of great beauty that is sometimes overlooked. "There's nothing more optimistic than building a building," he said. It's hard to disagree with him, especially in the case of the DAM's new building, which, when it's completed, will actually soar and figuratively look to the future.

Officially, Libeskind was charged with designing the DAM wing alone, but in 2001, a complex made up of the wing, a parking structure and a high-rise residential tower were unveiled. Sharp claims that these other components were actually designed and added after the wing was designed, but I doubt it. The wing simply doesn't make as much sense from an urban-design standpoint without the other two parts. The tower, in particular, spatially links the new wing to the existing Ponti museum and the Graves library through their similar heights and by defining a grand space between the three.

Now back to that measly $62.5 million that the DAM has to work with. Obviously, it's not enough money to pay for the whole complex. So how's it going to work? Well, here's what's happening: The tower is to be privately developed, and no public money is earmarked for its construction expenses. It won't cost the DAM one penny, but it will greatly enhance the setting of the wing. The parking structure, however, is a public project. But the DAM didn't have to use any of its precious bond money to pay for this project, either; Sharp convinced the city council to ante up for the Broadway structure because it will serve not only the DAM but also the DPL and the Colorado History Museum. This garage, which will be attached to the tower, is already open, though far from complete; retail stores surrounding the main core will be added later.

So despite the addition of two extra buildings to the Libeskind plan, none of the $62.5 million in bond money is being used for anything other than the DAM wing. That's good, because there's no money to spare; in fact, there's not enough money to build it. Sharp estimates that to cover the building in titanium panels, furnish it, provide programming and landscape the grounds, it will cost an extra $28 million dollars -- of which $8 million still needs to be raised. This is not as hard as it sounds, even in these tight economic times. Sharp's gotten some substantial support from the DAM's board of trustees, and there's no reason to believe he won't get even more.

Another additional cost outside the bond money is the endowment that's needed to maintain the building and carry its operational expenses. Sharp estimated at the time of the bond election that this endowment would have to be $50 million. Charlie Gallagher, a longtime DAM trustee and currently the board's vice chairman, announced at last week's ceremony that the trustees had responded not with $50 million, but with an endowment of $60 million. Gallagher also announced that a single donor, Frederic Hamilton, president of the Hamilton Companies and chairman of the board of trustees, had donated $20 million. This represents the largest private gift to any cultural institution in the history of Colorado. Gallagher also divulged perhaps the worst-kept secret in years -- it's been all but common knowledge for weeks -- that the new Libeskind-designed DAM wing would be called the Frederic C. Hamilton Building. There was sustained applause, and the black curtains behind the speakers were pulled open to reveal the presentation drawing of the new wing in its latest and surely final incarnation.

And, man, is the Frederic C. Hamilton Building going to be fabulous. The building will be a pile of colliding planes -- some covered in titanium, some made of glass -- with the clustered forms flying into the air at dramatic and often improbable angles.

These expressionist formal flourishes mean that there will be quite a bit of unusable space inside the new building, and that has engendered considerable criticism of the Libeskind design. But my response to those who think it will fail because it's not fully functional is that they should shut up, enjoy the ride and let the designers worry about how to carve up the interior. It's a rare thing anywhere in the world, let alone in Denver, to have a new building going up that promises to be a masterpiece. And that's exactly what Libeskind's Frederic C. Hamilton Building is going to be.

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