Model of the Hamilton Building and its surrounding 
    complex, by Daniel Libeskind.
Model of the Hamilton Building and its surrounding complex, by Daniel Libeskind.

Changing Views

Daniel Libeskind must be happy with Denver since, unlike in New York, the Polish-born American architect has been allowed to follow his vision to its logical conclusion. In New York, Libeskind's Freedom Tower, which will be erected on the site where the World Trade Center once stood, was neutered and made conventional. Here in Denver, on the other hand, he's been encouraged to pull out all the stops for the Denver Art Museum's Hamilton Building. That's why Denver is going to wind up with a signature Libeskind complex, and New York is not.

The Hamilton Building is rising like a vision from 13th Avenue and what would be Acoma Street if it hadn't been vacated to provide a future front lawn. Being able to watch this apparition emerge from the ground has been an ongoing treat. As its multi-planar form began to emerge this past spring and summer, it really looked like an enormous modernist sculpture. But as the titanium cladding goes on, it's easier to imagine it as a solid, and the brilliance of its urban design features is beginning to emerge.

From every direction, the outlandish building, which is both crystalline and cacophonous, becomes an immediate focal point. It looks stupendous from the south, where it provides a centerpiece for a picture-perfect view of the skyline. As viewed from the Civic Center to the north, it peeks out from behind Acoma Plaza, perfectly filling the opening created by the existing DAM and the Denver Public Library.

I've liked the Libeskind design from the start, but I did think he was spinning a preposterous yarn when he said his design was partly a response to the existing art museum. Oh, please, I thought, what a shmoozer. The current DAM is a masterpiece by Italy's Gio Ponti, done in collaboration with Denver's James Sudler. It's fairly outrageous formally and in its details, especially the glass tiles that cover its many elevations. How in heaven's name was the Libeskind going to relate to the Ponti?

Well, guess what? I was wrong. Libeskind's building addresses the Ponti in a variety of ways. The most obvious example is the use of the titanium panels on the Hamilton, which is a kindred feature to the tiles on the old building. Not only that, but the cladding material on both buildings is arranged in alternating geometric patterns.

In other Libeskind-related news, the first phase of the housing component of the project, called Museum Residences, was unveiled a month or so ago and is already more than 50 percent sold -- even before construction has begun. The 56 luxury condominiums are priced from $350,000 to $1.5 million and are part of a mixed-use project that will also include shops and restaurants. The second phase calls for the construction of a residential tower, but that won't even start for a couple of years. The condominiums, the restaurants, the shops and the tower were all a part of the original model of the Hamilton Building done by Libeskind. The Hamilton is conceived as the centerpiece of an elaborate rhythm of forms. On the north, it will be held in check by the wall-as-gateway created by the Michael Graves-designed Denver Public Library and the Ponti DAM; on the south side, the spike of the not-yet-constructed tower will serve the same purpose. I think it's going to be fabulous.

Less encouraging has been the soap opera -- by which I mean a turbulent story filled with bad dialogue -- concerning the Commercial Federal Savings Bank at 4301 South Broadway. The owners, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, want to tear the lovely thing down, while some civic-minded people in Englewood want to stop them. At the same time, the City of Englewood is developing guidelines for rehabilitating the down-at-the-heels South Broadway corridor, while preservationists have identified the bank, the work of legendary Denver architect William Muchow, as being among the most important buildings on South Broadway in Englewood. This is called being between a rock and a hard place -- a typical story in historic preservation.

Let's put the issue in the context of Englewood's built environment: The most important period of the town's history is the 1950s and &'60s, when it boomed as a Denver suburb. It was during this time that the first architecturally significant buildings were constructed. The most famous examples are the more than 100 modernist houses in Arapahoe Acres, located northwest of the intersection of Dartmouth Avenue and South Franklin Street. It was master-planned by Eugene Sternberg, with most of the houses done by Edward Hawkins. The neighborhood became the first post-war development in the country to be listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places, and it's recently been the subject of a guidebook published by Historic Denver. Also noteworthy are the handsome, mostly small modernist banks located in the old central business district, including Muchow's Commercial Federal and Charles Deaton's out-of-this-world Colonial Bank, at 3501 South Broadway. That building, which looks like a flying saucer, is the closest thing in the metro area to the architect's world-famous Sculpted House in Genesee.

Now back to Commercial Federal. The building is composed of two related structures, with the north wing being slightly older than the south. Both are constructed of buff-colored brick with exposed-steel structural members used in lieu of ornament. The north wing, which is empty, is a raised pavilion surmounted by a squat roof made up of four pyramids. The south wing is somewhat submerged and is surrounded by a gravel-lined moat that allows sunlight into the garden-level windows. There's not much of visual interest on this part of South Broadway, so the bank stands out like a beacon, catching the eye of nearly every passerby. This alone makes the idea of destroying it absurd.

As a result of the considerable weight of the evidence presented by historic-preservation consultant Diane Wray Tomasso, Englewood community development director Robert Simpson ordered that no demolition permit be issued for the bank pending a hearing on its eligibility under city landmark guidelines. Unfortunately, this provision was rescinded.

There had been a hearing planned to discuss making Commercial Federal an Englewood landmark on November 9, but it didn't happen. That is, testimony was given, but it wasn't a hearing. The Nebraska corporation that owns the building refused to allow hearing notices to be posted on the property, and the city administration decided it was improper to post the notices on the public right-of-way. Because there was no proper notice for the hearing, it could not proceed.

Nonetheless, corporate suits did fly in from Omaha to give the typical song and dance of those who want to tear down buildings. How they're normally for preservation, just not this time. One of their principal arguments is that the building is laden with asbestos, as are most that date before the 1970s. I guess that kind of argument flies in the backwaters where those suits are from, but here in metro Denver, it's well known that proper asbestos removal must be done in precisely the same way, whether the building is torn down or saved.

There is talk of a moratorium on demolition on South Broadway until planning guidelines for the street's redevelopment can be completed. However, it may already be too late for Commercial Federal, since its out-of-town owners applied for a demolition permit on November 22 and may have it in hand as early as December 3. By the way, if the bank were listed as an Englewood landmark, it would be only the second building in the town so designated. The other one is the Skerritt House, homestead of the city's founder.

Landmark protection is much further along in Denver, and that's why there's more hope for Hangar 61, in the 8600 block of Montview Boulevard at Stapleton. The Denver Landmark Preservation Commission referred the building's fate to the City Council, with hearings yet to be scheduled. That means there's an indefinite stay on demolition. However, there's an ironic twist to this story: The City of Denver owns Hangar 61 through its Stapleton Development Corporation, while Stapleton developer Forest City, the entity endangering it, does not.

Hangar 61 was built in 1960 to house the Ideal Cement Company's plane. It's a bold expressionist triumph created out of steel and thin-shell concrete. It was designed by the distinguished Denver architectural firm of Fisher and Fisher and Davis and engineered by Milo Ketchum. The structure is in a somewhat rundown condition, and rehab costs are estimated to be in the $200,000 range, which is quite a small amount in the big scheme of things. Unfortunately, the Hangar is an eyesore to the people in city government and those who work for Forest City who apparently believe that beauty is achieved through vinyl siding and pseudo-traditional architecture. To those of us who love architecture, though, it's an irreplaceable gem. The volunteer effort to save the marvelous Hangar 61 is being headed up by David Walter, an artist and partner in Ironton Studios and Gallery. Surely some imaginative use can be found for the building, which is one of the only airport-related resources still standing at Stapleton.

It's ironic that as new versions of the expressionist ethos such as the DAM's Hamilton Building and the adjacent Museum Residences are under construction, the existing examples of the same mid-twentieth-century zeitgeist -- e.g., Commercial Federal and Hangar 61 -- are being threatened with demolition. Modernist expressionism has been hit especially hard in recent years around here. There's I. M. Pei's lost hyperbolic paraboloid at Zeckendorf Plaza on the 16th Street Mall, as well as two missing gems by James Sudler: the badly remodeled Daly Insurance Building and the stripped Columbine Building, both once gracing Sherman Street just north of the State Capitol. Think of how great it would be if these buildings were still around, each only a few blocks from Libeskind's Hamilton Building and complex. Neither Commercial Federal nor Hangar 61 is that close to the new museum, but stylistically speaking, they're not that far away, either. Public officials in Englewood and Denver have the chance to correct the mistakes of the past by saving those two buildings, but we'll just have to wait and see if, against all odds, they will.


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