Why Civic Center Park is a cherished urban treasure...and a National Historic Landmark

Why Civic Center Park is a cherished urban treasure...and a National Historic Landmark
Trevor Andersen
The Civic Center, with downtown rising behind it.

Although there are similar spaces across the country, Civic Center Park is a cherished urban treasure for Denver and, by extension, the entire time zone.

The park and the structures within it, as well as the State Capitol, Lincoln Park, the Denver City and County Building and several outlying buildings, are collectively designated as a National Historic Landmark, the highest distinction for historic architecture and the only one in Denver.

The nominators for the Civic Center landmark designation focused on the area's Beaux Arts roots, and although it started there, it has since morphed into a promenade architecturale, with some of the state's most important buildings in a range of styles, all clustered together over a few square blocks. For me, the Civic Center is much more than what those nominators saw. It also includes state offices near the Capitol, the museum district to the south, and, to the west, the United States Mint and the Denver Justice Center.

The keen eyes that will be in town June 20-22 as part of the American Institute of Architects' major national convention will no doubt be gazing at these landmarks as conventioneers check out downtown — so it's worth discussing the origin of Denver's Civic Center as the product of two separate yet convergentthreads.

First, Denver developer Henry Brown, who owned the Brown Palace Hotel, donated land as a site for the State Capitol. Work to prepare the site began in 1886; construction, planned out by Elijah Myers, a specialist in state capitol designs, started in 1890. The building was completed in 1904, with the gold dome — the neoclassical structure's only remarkable feature — being completed in 1908. (The dome is currently shrouded as it undergoes repairs and replacement; new gold is expected to be delivered this month.)

Second, another Denver developer, Robert Speer, who would eventually become mayor, went to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a World's Fair that would have a huge impact on American architecture. Despite the fact that Chicago was a center for modernism, the fair was built along Beaux Arts neoclassical lines — like the set for a swords-and-sandals film. When Speer returned to Denver, he saw a city as ugly as a "pig pile," as Frank Lloyd Wright later described it, and set about changing that.

This harking back to the ancients had two effects — one good and one bad. The good: The fair launched the "City Beautiful" movement that brought the high-minded, if conservative, neoclassical sensibility to cities around the country. The bad: It set modern architecture back a couple of generations, and it wouldn't be until the mid-20th century that things got back on course.

Beginning in 1905, one plan after another for Denver's Civic Center was proposed, including some that were actually started before being discarded. But the final incarnation was the result of a 1917 plan by Edward Bennett, who incorporated some ideas that had previously been laid out by his many predecessors on the project, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. notable among them.

The buildings from the neoclassical phase were built before 1940. An early example is the McNichols Building, designed as a Carnegie Library by Albert Ross and completed in 1909 — eight years before Bennett's plan was adopted. The building should have a twin on the south end of the park, but it doesn't, one of the many idiosyncrasies of the place. Though it appears to have an overall symmetry, the plan is actually asymmetrical, the result of colliding street grids and aborted plans.

I'll just mention two other neoclassical buildings worth noting: the 1915 Colorado State Museum Building immediately south of the Capitol, a gleaming white-marble gem by Frank Edbrooke; and the Denver City and County Building, which is the western wall of the Civic Center proper. This outlandish building (made more so during the holidays by a garish lighting display) was dedicated in 1932. Designed by a consortium of local architects, it was neoclassicism's last gasp on the Civic Center. Everything built afterward reflected contemporary architectural trends.

From my point of view, it's after World War II that things started to get interesting, as modern buildings, many with daring designs for their dates, were erected. The first of these was a University of Denver classroom building, later dubbed the Annex I. This sleek International-style low-rise building on Cleveland Place is free of ornamentation, aside from the placement of the windows. It was completed in 1949 by local Bauhaus enthusiasts Smith, Hegner and Moore. Also from this era is Burnham Hoyt's modernist Central Library, from 1956, at West 14th Avenue and Broadway. Both were designed as part of the existing neoclassical group, in that they were clad in light-colored limestone like the City and County Building.

Despite a sea of parking lots surrounding much of the Civic Center at the time, both mid-century-modern buildings were threatened with demolition during the 1990s but were ultimately saved by large additions. In the case of Annex I, it's the 2002 neo-modernist Wellington Webb Building, by David Tryba. For the library, it's the 1995 Michael Graves-designed postmodern addition. (Over the past two decades, Civic Center's defenders have had to constantly fight off well-placed "visionaries" — like the ones who wanted to tear down these two buildings — who have proposed a litany of plans that would have been detrimental to the established character of the group.)

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4 comments
Johnny Genova
Johnny Genova

Yeah it's great, just get rid of the crack heads.

Karen Trujillo
Karen Trujillo

Uh-huh...60+ native...it best be well maintained at all times!

Che Harness
Che Harness

It's a great place with a lot of history. I've always enjoyed the fountain when it's on. The theater area has always seemed majestic to me and the perfect venue for expression of public opinion and community bonding. I love the free shows that have been going on there this summer!!

Syd Tastic
Syd Tastic

Every time I go past Civic Center Park, someone offers to sell me weed. That place is stoned, creepy guy central most days.

 
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