Springs Forward

The venerable Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is getting a thoughtful addition.

On a snowy morning a couple of weeks ago, the powers-that-be at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center announced that Denver's David Owen Tryba Architects will build an addition on an adjacent spot immediately to the east of the beloved landmark. This will be no mean feat: The elegant modernist Fine Arts Center, which was built in 1936, is one of the finest structures of its date and type anywhere in the country.

The masterful building, perched on a battered stone podium overlooking Monument Valley Park, is made of cast-in-place concrete that's been trimmed out in black aggregate and aluminum. A series of cubic volumes, the largest of which is the stage house for the center's theater, step up and away from the park side, recalling the formal presence of an Indian pueblo. Designed by New Mexico's John Gaw Meem, the structure successfully reconciles the Southwestern aesthetic with modernism and is a prime example of the regional quality of early modern architecture. Not only that, but it abounds in custom details, such as magnificent aluminum-and-glass chandeliers and specially created murals and bas-reliefs. The place is a literal treasure trove -- and that's not even accounting for its fine permanent collection, which is rich in Native American, Hispanic and regional art.

CSFAC president Michael De Marsche waited until the last minute to reveal the plans and to announce the formal start to the capital campaign to raise funds for the new facility. This was so last-minute, in fact, that construction is to begin on March 1 -- just a month away -- and the capital campaign has already raised more than $20 million of the estimated $28 million that the addition will cost.

View of the proposed Tryba addition to the Colorado 
Springs Fine Arts Center.
View of the proposed Tryba addition to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
View of the El Pomar Corridor from the original lobby.
View of the El Pomar Corridor from the original lobby.

Many people, including myself, already knew that plans were being hatched, but only insiders, such as potential and actual donors, had any exact idea of what was going to happen. Technically, the project had already gotten under way with the rehab of the gorgeous SaGaJi Theater that was completed this past summer. Tryba's office did the design, and Tim Hoiles paid for it, which earned him the right to name it in honor of his three daughters.

So why was the plan revealed only when it was already so far along? I think it's because De Marsche and the board of trustees knew the potential hot potato they had on their hands, and they didn't want to get burned the way former director David Turner and company did when they proposed adding to the iconic Meem back in the spring of 2001. Turner, along with Diane Sykes, a member of the board, had spearheaded an effort to put a 50,000-square-foot addition onto the front of the building, which, if done, would have annihilated its character entirely ("Nightmare on Dale Street," March 15, 2001).

At the time, the addition hadn't been designed, but facility-planning firm Hammel, Green & Abrahamson had identified the middle of Dale Street, at the conjunction of the south and west elevations, as the place to put it. In other words, smack dab in the middle of the principal views of the building -- the glamour shot that's shown in historic, modern and contemporary photos of the place.

Luckily, there was a huge public outcry that helped put a stop to the inept idea. And while we're on the subject of ineptitude, there was that Keystone Cops-like moment when, far along in the process, it was discovered that the Fine Arts Center didn't even own all the land it was proposing to use! And, as if that weren't enough, the land was unattainable: A trust established by town founder and donor of the land, General William Jackson Palmer, forbids any sale. Within months of the unveiling of the proposed vandalism, it was unceremoniously dropped ("The Joys of Summer," June 14, 2001).

All these years later, I still have one nagging question: Why did Turner think that it was a good idea to present a sure-to-be-hated idea as the first step toward raising tons of money?

Soon after, a new plan was undertaken for a freestanding wing in the parking lot south of the center, and I liked this idea a lot. The Fine Arts Center tossed out HGA's worthless materials and held a competition for an architect to come up with some fresh ideas. The renowned New York firm of Gwathmey Siegel Associates (with Gensler) ultimately won the opportunity to design it, but the proposed building was estimated to cost more than $60 million, which was deemed too expensive. With the departure of Turner, who resigned as director in 2003, that plan was dropped, too.

Clearly, De Marsche and a mostly new board knew better than their predecessors; the design for the Tryba wing takes the original Meem building into account and is going to be half as expensive as the Gwathmey Siegel. And even though I'd love to see nothing at all done to the Fine Arts Center, I have to say that the new plan does a pretty good job of being subsidiary to the Meem while still having its own presence.

There's only one thing that troubles me about it: The wing done by Carlisle Guy in the 1970s -- which blends in seamlessly with the Meem original and sets the standard for a well-conceived addition -- will be demolished. True, there are worn-out mechanical systems and space constraints in that building, but I still wish there had been some way to incorporate it into the future plans. At least one Guy-designed wall will remain, facing the courtyard.

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