Sunset for Skyline

Downtown's masterful modernist park is being destroyed.

It's hard to believe, especially considering the budget shortfalls the city is facing, that the Webb administration just committed $3 million to demolish Skyline Park and replace it with...another park! What makes this situation so incredible is it's happening at the same time that city-employee furloughs and layoffs are being contemplated. When the Denver Public Library is considering closing some of its branches. When selling or taking second mortgages on police and fire stations is being discussed.

It's that bad.

Skyline Park, completed in the 1970s, runs along Arapahoe Street between 15th and 18th streets, intersecting with the 16th Street Mall at the historic D&F Tower. The park was designed by Lawrence Halprin -- one of the greatest and most highly respected landscape designers to have worked in the second half of the twentieth century -- when he was at the height of his considerable creative powers. Thus Skyline may be objectively evaluated as a significant asset in the city's architectural equity. It is a signature work by a giant in the field, and, as I hardly need to tell you, dear readers, Denver doesn't have too many of those.

This is the end: Denver's famous architectural jewel, 
Skyline Park, is slated for destruction.
Anthony Camera
This is the end: Denver's famous architectural jewel, Skyline Park, is slated for destruction.

This high-quality design, rare anywhere in the country, is why preservationists have worked so long and hard, if ineffectively, to save Skyline. Not only have local preservationists, such as Historic Denver, Colorado Preservation Inc. and Friends of Skyline Park, taken up the battle, but so have national groups, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service's Historic Landmark Initiative and the Cultural Landscape Foundation. In fact, both the Park Service and the Landscape Foundation independently identified Halprin's designs -- Skyline included -- as being among the most threatened landscapes in the country.

But objective criteria be damned! Much to the perpetual chagrin of the preservation community around here, it's the bottom line that has ruled in Denver since Mayor Wellington Webb was elected. There's only one reason the city is so hell-bent on demolishing Skyline Park: Webb is doing the bidding of the big financial interests in town -- in this case, the property owners who border the park.

It's been the same since Webb's first year in office. In 1991 he stood by and allowed Children's Hospital to block Denver landmark status for architect Burnham Hoyt's Boettcher School, a modern masterpiece that was already listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Webb also wanted to destroy another famous Hoyt design in Denver -- Red Rocks Amphitheatre -- but an outraged citizenry stopped that. Ironically, Webb just installed a grandiose Visitor Center/memorial there.)

In a comical postscript, when Children's announced a couple of years ago that it was moving to the Fitzsimons campus in Aurora, Webb's then-press secretary, Andrew Hudson, whined in a broadly distributed e-mail that this was the thanks the mayor got after allowing the hospital to tear Boettcher down. (Really, that's the way they think in the Webb administration: no regrets about the loss of an important landmark, only about the loss of a moneymaker like Children's.)

Webb went on to endorse what can only be called a war on downtown's historic modern architecture. The city provided public money and political influence to pull off an astoundingly destructive campaign, the result of which has been the absolute diminishment of the city's character. There was I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza, which was all but lost in its conversion to the hideously ugly Adam's Mark Hotel. Then Temple Buell's Denver Post Building went to rubble to make space for another not-yet-built hotel. The Terracentre Tower by Alfred Williams for Seracuse/Lawlor was imploded to make room for the convention-center expansion. Soon after, Currigan Hall, by James Ream for William Muchow, was taken out for that same now-under-construction monstrosity.

Demolition hasn't started on Skyline yet, so it could still be stopped, though of course it won't be. Like those Republicans in the Statehouse who rammed through a last-minute redistricting plan, the Webbsters are starting the Skyline redo with little time to spare -- essentially precluding the participation of the soon-to-be elected new mayor and the mostly new city council. (Perhaps the two mayoral candidates -- John Hickenlooper and Don Mares, a businessman and an auditor, as it happens -- would like to comment on the idea of spending millions to demolish Skyline when the city itself is clearly going broke. This kind of political debate is the only chance left to save the park.)

Skyline's troubles began a few years ago and were always more sociological than aesthetic, though it's been politically correct to cover up that fact. The park is public space, but more than that, it's the only public space along the entire length of the 16th Street Mall. Living in a free society means that public spaces are open to everyone, including those scary-looking teens who hang out at Skyline. And that was -- and is -- the problem.

Restaurants adjacent to the park, such as Palomino and the now long-gone Zenith, were the first businesses to complain about the park, since these kids clashed figuratively, if not literally, with the affluent clientele of the tony eateries. The ridiculous aspect of this situation is the idea that changing the design of the park will run off those scruffy punks, which is what many involved in the process believe. I guarantee that the youths will be hanging out at the new park just as soon as it is finished, because short of police harassment, there's no reason they wouldn't.

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