Civics Centered

Concerns about the Justice Center and the Civic Center, plus a Bronx cheer for Rick Ashton.

As the Hamilton demonstrates, Libeskind is the king of theatrical architecture, so it would be hard to criticize him for coming up with some outlandish ideas for the elegantly restrained Civic Center. It's his specialty, after all. But by the same token, you can't blame those in the community who are already howling from the rooftops about some aspects of the plan that have been leaked.

One idea that has floated up from the secret meetings has people clutching their chests in horror: vandalizing Gio Ponti's Denver Art Museum. Specifically, it has been suggested that the sculptural aggregate wall topped by a perfectly proportioned wrought-iron fence surrounding the DAM's sculpture garden be torn down to provide better access to Bannock Street. Apparently, the fact that it's an integral component of Ponti's design for the museum -- it reinforces the composition's castle references -- seems to matter not. I just can't believe this idea will go very far, since it's already being so widely ridiculed. And what about Lewis Sharp, the DAM's director? I can't believe he'd go for something this ill-conceived.

I wait with bated breath for the unveiling of the plan, but I hope Mayor John Hickenlooper uses those never-fail political instincts of his to get rid of the things that are guaranteed to make a lot of people see red -- like messing with Ponti's masterpiece.

The Gio Ponti wall at the Denver Art Museum: Is it 
The Gio Ponti wall at the Denver Art Museum: Is it threatened?
The library that Rick Ashton didn't build.
The library that Rick Ashton didn't build.

Gosh, although I expected it, I'm still surprised by the outpouring of appreciation in the dailies for City Librarian Rick Ashton, who recently announced his retirement. Invariably, these writers credit Ashton with the dazzling Central Library, a two-building complex on the Civic Center comprising the historic 1950s Burnham Hoyt-designed building and the impressive 1990s wing by post-modern pioneer Michael Graves. This is interesting, because Ashton was opposed to the building when it was proposed ("Biblio File," March 29, 1995). Ashton fought both saving the old library and creating a landmark-worthy addition. He had to be forced to accept the plan by former mayor Federico Peña, a visionary who had a great appreciation for the existing character of Denver.

Ashton wanted to demolish the Hoyt and replace it with a square, multi-story, windowless box designed by library specialists. His argument, presented with an arrogance that became well-known to the library's staffers, was that libraries had to be square, so that every part was equidistant from central information desks, and that they shouldn't have windows, so that shelves could go along the exterior walls.

I remember being at a meeting where the late Al Cohen was presenting a proposal to build the new library across the street, on the block south of West 13th Avenue along Broadway. Cohen, like so many others, wanted to save the existing Hoyt building, and this was seen as a way to do that. Ashton hated the Hoyt, so he came up with some reason that Cohen's idea wouldn't work: If the library were to be built on the Cohen site (a block away), he said, the entrance would be too remote from the bus stop at West 14th Avenue Parkway and Broadway! I don't remember who piped up and said with a straight face, "Rick, we can move the bus stop," but whoever it was tore the whole room up.

The worst thing about Ashton wasn't his humorous attempts at manipulation, however, but the way he demoralized the staff, running off many hardworking employees over the years. In all my many visits to the library, the librarians would often tell me things -- off the record, of course -- but not once did they direct a single syllable of praise his way.

I personally am glad that Ashton's going to be spending more time with his grandchildren and no more time yelling at hardworking librarians. I just hope his successor is better, not worse. But why think about that now? Let's just revel in the thought that he's finally gone.

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