Going Under?

The plan to move the Colorado Historical Society beneath Civic Center Park should be buried.

Well, those little thinkers with the big ideas are at it again — trying to mess with our beloved Civic Center. Didn't the powers-that-be downtown (from city officials to civic boosters to developers) learn anything from last year's fiasco? I'm starting to think they all have some kind of mob mental defect.

If you don't remember what happened last fall, here's a recap. Just before designer and "starchitect" — as he's been called — Daniel Libeskind unveiled the Denver Art Museum's Frederic C. Hamilton Building, he asked the farm team from his temp office in China to come up with ideas to "enliven" the Civic Center ("Park and Wreck," September 14, 2006). Not only were their suggestions stunning in their stupidity (palm trees in Denver, anyone?), but they would have annihilated every defining feature of the Civic Center's gorgeous, neo-classical plan.

By those standards, the current talk of moving the Colorado Historical Society building and museum into Civic Center Park isn't so bad. By any other standard, however, it's idiotic. In fact, there are so many things wrong with this concept that I don't know where to start — except at the beginning.

A view of the doomed Colorado Judicial Heritage Center.
A view of the doomed Colorado Judicial Heritage Center.

Without any real public input or media scrutiny, a state buildings committee decided a couple of years ago to scrape the Colorado Judicial Heritage Center, a 1970s complex comprising the State Supreme Court and the CHS (designed by the RNL architectural firm). Nicknamed "the Toaster and the Doorstop," the handsome buildings are immediately south of the park, across Broadway from the Denver Public Library and centered between the DAM and the state Capitol building.

The committee made the decision because of the undeniable overcrowding in the courts and because of the perceived shortcomings of the Colorado History Museum portion of the CHS headquarters. Then, for no good reason, the committee said the block should be used to construct a proper courthouse while the CHS should look elsewhere for a site.

So, the CHS began scouting for alternative sites. But before I discuss the spots being considered, I need to say that the best place for it is right where it is. It's the Supreme Court that should look elsewhere. After all, the CHS actually attracts the public at large and has a crossover audience with the library and the art museum, while the courts only attract people involved in cases there.

Sadly, that won't happen, and more than a half-dozen alternate sites have been considered for the CHS, with only three still in contention: a parking lot at Colfax and Lincoln, a dark horse that I won't even discuss; the former Denver permit center, which I will address in a moment; and the park, which is currently the front-runner.

The exact spot within the park would be immediately northwest of the Greek Theater, not far from the corner of Bannock Street and West 14th Avenue Parkway, where a large stand of mature shade trees now perfectly complements the nearby roads and buildings.

The proposal, by David Owen Tryba Architects, calls for the construction of a 30,000-square-foot building in a mirror-image placement to the old Carnegie Library on the opposite side of the park. A gigantic, multi-story subterranean wing would connect the two structures, meaning most of the CHS would be underground. A new "Denver Cultural Center" and CHS's Stephen H. Hart Library would occupy some of the Carnegie, according to the plan.

Some believe that a museum in the park would run off the vagrants who congregate there now since the police began pushing them off the 16th Street Mall over the last few years. I don't have a crystal ball, but I can predict with a high degree of certainty that the social problems of public drinking, crime, violence and homelessness around Civic Center Park won't be solved by a museum.

Tryba, whose office was hired by the CHS, invited me to check out its conceptual model, but I skipped the chance. You see, I couldn't trust myself not to spill the Perrier that the receptionist would have doubtless given me all over the damn thing. And anyway, I don't need to get within smelling distance of this idea to know that it stinks.

The park simply doesn't need any more buildings in it. Not only would the added structure crowd the Greek Theater, which is perfectly separated from the City and County Building by open space and the trees I mentioned, but it would be disastrous for the CHS in terms of attracting visitors. If you hide most of the building underground, its curb appeal will be severely impaired, as it is in its current spot, and as everyone knows, a building's appearance is a key to attracting people. Also, as foretold by the problems at the DAM's Hamilton, novel roofing solutions tend to fail, and an underground building would need one even more novel than that. So I can easily imagine the park being perpetually torn up to fix the many leaks that could be expected.

Additionally, major changes along West 14th Avenue Parkway would be needed so pedestrians could walk from the CHS to the other cultural entities nearby. I know David Tryba ultimately wants to see the streets around the Civic Center submerged; I just don't know why, since most of us experience the place in our cars.

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