Hit Parade

It's business as usual for the Civic Center, Denver's premier urban space.

Though my workaday life is filled with the high-minded pursuit of looking at exhibitions, I do have more than a few guilty pleasures. I love Peeps, for example, those marshmallow chicks rolled in yellow sugar available this time of year. I also love muscle cars from the '60s and '70s. And I've fallen into watching American Idol.

As is well known, the show involves three judges -- Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell -- who recently traveled the country holding auditions to pick the top young singers around. They narrowed the field from thousands to the handful who ultimately perform on the show. Randy always says a variation of the same thing -- either that the contestants have or have not chosen the right material -- and Paula reiterates Randy's remarks while saying how much she likes the person she's judging. Finally, Simon makes rude comments that are almost always on the money. Though the show is now in its popularity-contest phase, with the public voting electronically, Randy, Paula and Simon clearly did a good job of setting the whole thing up. They created a can't-lose situation, because any choice the public makes will be good.

What's brought American Idol to mind is the way it can be used to make a point about the decision-making here in Denver related to the city's built environment. Randy, Paula and Simon may seem like fools, but they make the right calls, proving that they actually know what they're doing. On the other hand, those who have been calling the shots in Denver over the past twenty years may seem professional and competent, but they've done a bad job, proving that they don't know what they're doing.

To demonstrate the truth of what I'm saying, it would be instructive to take a walk around the greater Civic Center area and see how the architectural, aesthetic and historical equity of our Mile High City has been damaged, as well as how opportunities have been squandered over the years. This trip down memory lane has heightened importance right now, because it gives us perspective regarding the super-secret plans being cooked up for the Civic Center.

It all began in the late '80s, when Pouw & Associates prepared a survey of the Civic Center for the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission and identified all the modernist buildings as being dispensable. But on its best day, the firm wasn't up to creating any of the Civic Center buildings threatened by its survey. In fact, Pouw would later go on to architectural greatness with the design of the Safeway at Sixth Avenue and Corona Street. Still, Pouw's review led the idea types in city government to go after these old modernist buildings.

First there was the decision that the former University of Denver College of Law Center, located at the corner of West 14th Avenue and Bannock Street, needed to be destroyed. The 1960 building, which the city had purchased, was designed by the internationally famous firm of Perkins+Will. It was swank in its detailing and elegantly formal, with a recessed first floor featuring a cantilevered block above. Covering the building were light-colored metal panels punctuated by slit windows with red sandstone spandrels. In 1989, Robert Root of C. W. Fentress's office (now Fentress Bradburn) remodeled the building, and it is now the dated-looking Permit Center. This was the first fine building to be lost at the Civic Center because of the low standard of decision-making going on.

At the time the law school was destroyed, there was no awareness that modern buildings could be historic and warrant preservation. That would all change in the closing days of the 1980s, with the struggle to save Burnham Hoyt's Central Library, at Broadway and West 14th Avenue Parkway. Preservationists mounted a full-court press that was successful, to a point. The compromise involved saving the 1955 Hoyt building and appending to it a wing designed by Michael Graves.

I really like the Graves addition, but although it was a good solution to the problem, architect Robert A.M. Stern's great one was thrown out in the process. Stern's design not only preserved the Hoyt, but also proposed a wing that completely responded to it and preserved the interior of the old building. In the give-and-take of selection committees, the best concept always seems to be tossed out with the worst, leaving just the mediocre middle.

The next mistake at the Civic Center was the hit-and-run on Roland Linder's 1940s American Legion Hall. The building stood on the 1300 block of Lincoln Street, and though it had been vacant and boarded up for years, there was clearly a serious work of art underneath. The light-colored building had an arrangement of volumes, with a deeply recessed entrance tucked under a cantilevered mass. Deemed an eyesore, it was torn down in 1990 -- without even a public debate or any notice. The reason for the urgency was the fact that the new Denver Grand Prix would be racing right by the shabby structure, and city officials didn't want it to show up on television.

The DU Civic Center Classroom Building, at 1445 Cleveland Place, was another Central Library-style save. Smith, Hegner and Moore's 1940s Bauhaus-ish essay in gray limestone, better known now as Annex I, was spared demolition but had the enormous Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building, by David Owen Tryba, attached to it. That decision wrecked the beautiful face of the old building, with its Gropius-inspired glass-enclosed stair halls now hidden inside the new one. The Webb Building is very good in a lot of ways, but it would have been even better had it been set back from the Annex I with an allée between the two. And this isn't 20/20 hindsight: The idea of keeping the buildings separate from one another had been suggested by representatives of the Colorado Historical Society and other preservation-minded citizens.

The Frederic C. Hamilton Building, by Daniel Libeskind, is the only unalloyed success story in this harangue, but that's only because the charisma of Denver Art Museum director Lewis Sharp subliminally intimidated everyone on the selection committee into being on their best behavior. Not only that, but Craig Miller, head of the architecture, design and graphics department at the museum, helped to pre-select those who vied for the job in the first place, à la Randy, Paula and Simon.

It's a different story with the Denver Newspaper Agency Building, by Newman, Cavender & Doane, which is nearing completion on West Colfax Avenue between Cheyenne and Cleveland places. But even if the building is hardly the masterpiece the Hamilton is, it's not so bad, either. I think the secret to this particular success is that since it is being built by a private company instead of by the city, the owners were able to sidestep almost the entire politicized committee process (though the design was vetted by the landmark commission) and thus didn't have to fend off a lot of bad ideas. The DNA simply hired a developer and an architect to come up with a building that is sensitive to its neighbors and resonates with the massing of the Webb Building on the Cheyenne Place side and the Annex I on Colfax Avenue. The structure's white panels work beautifully with the similar treatment seen on Charles Strong's former Petroleum Club Building from 1957, immediately to the north.

Despite the good examples provided by the Hamilton and the DNA building, it's back to business as usual for the Justice Center, which will go up on West Colfax Avenue next to the United States Mint. Neo-modernist Steven Holl was chosen for the courthouse, with neo-traditionalists Hartman-Cox Architects selected for the jail. The less-than-ideal pairing is similar to the way things played out at the Central Library in that the picks represent a compromise instead of the optimal call. The fact that the two approaches are antithetical didn't seem to occur to the committee members -- or at least not to a majority of them. Mayor John Hickenlooper reserved the right to accept or reject the committee's recommendations, but he did not tweak them at all. Maybe, like the committee members, he didn't realize that Holl is the opposite of Hartman-Cox.

Now we're finally ready to talk about those future plans for our beloved Civic Center, which are being hatched by the Civic Center Conservancy. The group has been working with a new master plan by Studio Daniel Libeskind. Some of the ideas that have wafted out from the secret meetings are really outrageous, like a 300-foot-plus observation tower in the middle of the park. More practical, if the goal is getting rid of transients, is the idea of creating an enormous four-inch-deep pond that can be easily drained to create a huge concrete patio for special events such as the People's Fair. The conservancy has also talked about knocking down the Gio Ponti-designed wall around the sculpture garden at the DAM. This bunch has got to be stopped.

Most of those involved in the conservancy come from the few hundred people who really run Denver and who make their decisions based on serving their own interests. If by chance someone with vision does get involved, as happened with preservation-minded developer David Cohen, who served on the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, he is forced out. Intelligence and sensitivity just get in the way when there's a job to do. It's interesting that the people you'd want to have on the conservancy, such as Carolyn Etter and Elizabeth Schlosser, are not involved and have both spoken out about some of the worst of the leaked ideas.

The stories above cover the administrations of Federico Peña, Wellington Webb and John Hickenlooper, but even though the names of the mayors have changed, the makeup of the crew involved has essentially remained the same. Several people working on the Justice Center and the Civic Center Conservancy were involved in one or more of the earlier bad calls. You could say that it's simply a case of pearls being cast before swine, but anyone can see that most of the decisions concerning the Civic Center, the city's premier urban space, have hardly been ideal. And the word "ideal" is a perfect one, because all I'm talking about are ideas.

Members of the conservancy have complained that people are denouncing their plan even before it's been unveiled, but I know from experience that once they do reveal their big ideas, it will be too late to stop them.

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