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Brave New Englewood

"In Stance," by Stephen Hokanson, welded-steel sculpture.

The City of Englewood provides a tragic example of planning gone horribly wrong. It's a sad story that started decades ago.

One early planning disaster began in the 1980s, when the heart of what used to be a small town was torn out to make room for a redevelopment scheme cooked up by the Englewood Urban Renewal Authority. In 1981, the EURA called for the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century commercial buildings that once stood between South Broadway and South Bannock Street in the 3300 and 3400 blocks to be replaced by a King Soopers, retail shops and a conference center/hotel. While I don't doubt that this plan would have been just dreamy, most of it never happened, although there is a King Soopers smack in the middle of the formerly charming business district. An interesting detail is that Susan Powers, then the executive director of the EURA, came up with the plan. Powers, of course, went on to head the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, and in that position she spearheaded the effort to destroy I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza, which was located in downtown Denver. This was not the only destructive project Powers endorsed at DURA, just the most glaring one. And here's an example that proves that truth is stranger than fiction: After being a one-woman demolition derby while serving in back-to-back public positions for nearly two decades, Powers, now a private developer is -- seriously -- a historic preservationist! She's just redeveloped the old Denver Fire Clay factory into lofts, and phase one was so successful, she launched phase two.

Oh, great: She's finally seen the light -- and only twenty years too late.

But bad ideas in Englewood go back further than the Powers era, back at least to 1968, when a public park was turned into Cinderella City. The massive mall itself, near the corner of Broadway and Hampden Avenue, has now been torn down and is being replaced by Englewood's CityCenter, a jumble of half-baked concepts masquerading as a planned town center. The new buildings are mostly pretty bad, comic-book versions of traditional architecture. They can be described as postmodernism reduced to meaningless gestures.

The style (dare I call it that?) is associated with the new-urbanism movement, a wildly successful ideology that is destroying towns all over America. The model is Main Street at Disneyland, but done less convincingly and more cheaply. The appeal of the new urbanism is apparent: It meets the goals of developers while co-opting the ideals of the community, all under the sedative haze created by pseudo-small-town buildings.

The delicious irony here? Englewood is, in a sense, remaking what it destroyed in the '80s.

But if you think nostalgia meant the powers that be in Englewood would take a belatedly enlightened look at the genuinely historic buildings that have survived, you are wrong.

Just west of Cinderella City stood the old Englewood Library and City Hall, formerly Norgren Industries. Both were good examples of mid-twentieth-century modernism, and both were demolished as part of the still-under-construction CityCenter. In these buildings, and others like them, certain attributes of the international style were combined with Wright's Usonian technique. This should have had an added value in Englewood, considering that the modernist Arapahoe Acres -- the nation's first post-war neighborhood to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- is located here, too, making modernism the suburb's only claim to architectural fame. (And we can't forget the other modernist landmark in Englewood, the 1970s Colonial Bank. Just blocks from the CityCenter, this world-class expressionist masterpiece by Denver's Charles Deaton is clearly the most important building in Englewood.)

So let's see -- the only historic architecture in Englewood of any value is old modernist architecture. The city owned two modernist buildings and wanted to create a new center of town in the vicinity. Wouldn't common sense have suggested to even the dimmest member of the planning staff that the old modernist buildings might be nice to have in the new CityCenter? Apparently not. Because instead of common sense, new urbanism guided the decisions, and new urbanism is as dismissive of historic architecture as it is of contemporary architecture.

The only element of Cinderella City to survive was a former department store at the west end of the mall. The building, originally constructed for the Broadway Southwest chain, was given a $10 million face-lift overseen by Denver architect David Tryba, who also designed an adjacent building that is nearing completion. These buildings are two of the few bright spots at CityCenter; another is the nearby light-rail station with its dramatic pedestrian bridge.

The former department store has been renamed the Civic Center (isn't there already one of those in the area?), and it houses the relocated library, the city's council chambers and offices and -- here's the good part -- the Museum of Outdoor Arts. The relocation of MOA to Englewood was a lucky break, both for the city and for the museum.

 

The MOA was founded twenty years ago by wealthy real-estate developer John Madden and his daughter, Cynthia Madden Leitner. The idea was to have a museum without walls made up of a collection of sculptures that would be installed in outdoor public places. Today, the museum has a multi-million-dollar budget and a multi-million-dollar permanent collection.

Originally, MOA was in Greenwood Village, and a good deal of the collection is displayed in Fiddler's Green Center, nearby Sampson Park or in the area. Some standouts include "Disco Emergente," a signature 1984 bronze by Italian modernist Arnaldo Pomodoro; "Large Spindle Piece," a 1968 bronze by English modern master Henry Moore; and a raft of neo-traditional pieces including the six bronzes from the "Alice in Wonderland" series by Harry Marinsky.

A few years ago, MOA learned that it would have to move from Greenwood Plaza. "We knew for about three years that we'd be getting a big rent increase," says Leitner, who is the museum's executive director, "an increase we weren't prepared to pay and that we couldn't pay, not if we were going to continue our programs."

At the same time, Englewood was embarking on its Cinderella City redo, and since there were no cultural facilities whatsoever in the town, city representatives went looking for art and culture. This situation turned out to be ideal for MOA. Last year, an agreement was reached. In exchange for a twenty-year commitment to Englewood, MOA would be given spacious and rent-free offices on the second floor of the Civic Center, right above the library.

MOA brought a good deal of its permanent collection to Englewood and is using it to decorate the Civic Center as well as the newly constructed Englewood Parkway and the town square that links the light-rail station to the rest of the CityCenter development. In the square and in the forecourts that lead to the station are many of MOA's best-known pieces. Permanent sites for these treasures have yet to be determined, and Leitner says a lot of things will be moved around when the CityCenter is finished. On site, there's a marvelous kinetic piece from 1989 by Robert Mangold called "Windsong III." Not far away is another kinetic sculpture, "Two Open Trapezoids, Eccentric V," by George Rickey. Closer to the station, on the path to the multi-level parking lot (and hopefully, one of the pieces that will be moved), is the mammoth "Brooklyn Bridge," from 1976, by Red Grooms.

A few interior spaces in the Civic Center have been used to display sculpture, but there are many more opportunities, and MOA should take advantage of them. One striking piece is "Luke the Evangelist," an early-twentieth-century bronze by Ivan Mestrovich, one of the former Yugoslavia's premier sculptors. It sits in a niche at the second-floor landing of the grand staircase, where it looks great. Leitner says it may be the only major Mestrovich in the United States.

The museum is also looking to expand into a vacant space immediately adjacent to its offices, and it could really use the extra square footage. According to Leitner, MOA wants the space for what she calls "a multi-purpose" room. But -- if I could throw my two cents in -- I'd like to see a proper gallery there, especially in light of the museum's desire to purchase a collection of some thirty contemporary sculptures from the International Sculpture Center.

The ISC, a nonprofit advocacy group for contemporary sculpture, has its headquarters outside Princeton, New Jersey, where it provides various services to sculptors, maintains a sculpture garden and publishes Sculpture magazine. For the past four years, the ISC has hired curators to organize annual shows made up of pieces donated by artists. In the past, the collections have been sold to corporate and private collectors, but the MOA would like to buy this year's.

As it is, all but one of the sculptures -- now part of a traveling show called Collection IV -- are installed in the MOA lobby or along the corridors. The remaining piece, 1997's "Bella Donna," by Woods Davy, is downstairs, inside the front door of the Civic Center. By far the largest sculpture in the collection, the Davy is made up of a square base, a vertical spike, and a group of large river rocks piled lyrically on top. It's elegant, if a little dangerous-looking.

The exhibit starts off with the sole Colorado piece, Mangold's "PTTSAAES 4-01," a stainless-steel zigzagging vertical form on three legs. Across from it is "Untitled," by New York master Mark di Suvero, a stainless-steel, titanium and wood sculpture in which an elaborate cluster of shapes balances on a vertical pole.

 

The di Suvero is too small to go outside and too valuable to risk being stolen. A similar piece is Sir Anthony Caro's "Table Piece Y-34," made from steel in 1983-85. If it were up to me, I'd keep the undated John Henry piece, "Untitled," inside, too, even though it's larger than the other two. If it is put outside, the rich, orange-red paint that covers the radiating steel bars will fade and need to be redone.

However, Guy Dill's gorgeous "Wolf Angel," from 1998, could be placed outside. The sculpture, a series of arching shapes in black painted steel, rests on a disk of stainless steel. Though it's not very large, it does have a monumental presence. That could also be said for Stephen Hokanson's "In Stance," a welded-steel sculpture from 2000 that features a long cantilevered element, and John Hock's "Franconia F. Horse II," a fabricated steel cluster also from 2000.

Leitner wants to install these pieces in a sculpture garden she hopes to build between the Civic Center and the under-construction building by Tryba. "We're talking to Englewood about it right now," she says.

The money hasn't yet been raised to purchase the ISC collection, but MOA is committed to getting it. "We're exploring a number of funding options," Leitner says. "We're even considering an adopt-a-sculpture concept where individual donors could purchase individual pieces, but if worse comes to worst, we'll pay for it ourselves."

It may take more than the ISC collection and the cartload of sculptures MOA brought with it to dress up the less-than-promising Englewood CityCenter. But you know what? It couldn't hurt.


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