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By Kate Gibbons
It's hard to live in Colorado and, at the same time, to love architecture. The problem is twofold: There's very little of the built environment that's any good, and the few buildings that are good are constantly being threatened with demolition or insensitive remodeling.
I was contemplating these ideas while driving past Children's Hospital on Downing Street last week, and, as usual, I was reminded of Lua Blankenship. I've never met Blankenship, who was the hospital's president for a short time, but I think of him whenever I'm in this area. It was Blankenship, more than anyone else, who decided to demolish the Boettcher School -- which once stood on Downing between 18th and 19th avenues -- in order to expand Children's Hospital.
Boettcher was a modernist masterpiece created by Burnham Hoyt, one of the most artistically distinguished architects in the city's history. Hoyt is best known for designing the magnificent Red Rocks Amphitheatre. The school, with its poured-in-place cast concrete and experimental green-tinted aggregate and aluminum trim, was a high-style building. But Boettcher wasn't only a first-rate example of vanguard modern architecture; it was also one of the first buildings in the world to be handicapped-accessible. Originally designed in 1938 to serve as a school for Children's patients, the facility was connected to the hospital by a tunnel accessed by elegant, gently sloping ramps.
Of course, now that Children's is moving to the Fitzsimons campus in Aurora, Blankenship's expansion plans have been scrapped. And Blankenship is long gone, teaching at Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia.
As I was driving past Court Place on 15th Street, my mind, of course, turned to memories of Fred Kummer, the president of HBE, which owns the Adam's Mark Hotel. Like Blankenship, Kummer presided over the destruction of one of the city's greatest architectural treasures -- in this case, I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza.
Begun in 1956, the plaza was one of Pei's earliest major projects, and it boasted a three-part composition that included a department store, a high-rise hotel and an open-air courtyard with a sunken ice-skating rink. The department store had a novel entrance pavilion in the form of a hyperbolic paraboloid. Today the paraboloid is gone, the department store has been entirely resurfaced, and the ice-skating rink is a driveway. Only the tower survives.
Kummer, who lives in the St. Louis area, has visited Denver only a few times; he recently announced that he was putting the hotel up for sale after owning it for less than ten years.
As I continued down 15th, I suddenly thought of James Mejia, director of the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation during the final years of Wellington Webb's administration. I was skirting the edge of the ruined Skyline Park, once a world-class piece of landscape architecture that was done in 1970 by Lawrence Halprin, a designer who is as famous in his field as Pei is in his. Skyline ran below grade from 15th to 18th streets, with each block anchored by a distinctive fountain. The park was lined with aggregate walls and planters, which created a wide, meandering walk that opened up into courtyards and staircases.
Private interests pressured the city to destroy the park, which they claimed attracted vagrants, but instead of Mejia playing the role of park protector, as he should have done, he facilitated its destruction.
The city's budget woes are preventing the construction of the main design features of Skyline's planned replacement, but Mejia is no longer concerned, having left to go to graduate school at Princeton.
You see the pattern, don't you? People with little or no commitment to living here are making life-and-death decisions about our most important works of architecture. People like Blankenship, Kummer and Mejia make choices that absolutely diminish the character of the area, and -- all the more galling -- they don't have to live with their poor decisions. But we do!
This trip down memory lane has more than a nostalgic value because, as Sonny and Cher would say, the beat goes on. Two more area landmarks are headed for the chopping block because, again, people who care little or nothing about our region are making the calls.
The first is down in Englewood, and the name to remember here is George Quittner, Commercial Federal Bank's director of purchasing and property administration. He's the guy who decided the little jewel-box bank at 4301 South Broadway has got to go.
Now, truthfully, Englewood's central business district, on South Broadway around Hampden Avenue, is pretty grim and has little to recommend it. The City of Englewood commissioned a planning study recently to evaluate the buildings on South Broadway; in the report, the Walgreens building was identified as being exemplary. In other words, a structure need only clear a very low hurdle to be considered notable in downtown Englewood.
The Commercial Federal Bank, however, doesn't need any "Walgreens standard" grade inflation in order to earn top marks. No, the bank's a high-quality work of architecture in comparison to all others of its date and type -- and not just in Englewood, but anywhere in this state. That's not a surprise: It was designed by William Muchow, one of the most successful and accomplished architects to have worked in Colorado in the second half of the twentieth century.
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