Denver's Civic Center is camera-ready
I've long thought of Denver as being the Rodney Dangerfield of American cities, because we just can't get no respect. But ever since the Democrats announced they would hold their national convention in town, those of us who live here are starting to feel more like Sally Field, because it seems that they like us, they really like us.
As for myself, I've liked Denver since I got here in the early 1980s, just in time to see the oil bust, a mythical period when the price of oil tanked, believe it or not, and brought Denver to its knees. In spite of these hard times, Denver was then what it has seemingly always been: a town, as Andy Warhol described it, that was full of "cute boys" and "kooky girls." And from my vantage point, little has changed.
With the world's mass media coming to town, we need to gird ourselves for the onslaught of know-it-alls who will whisk in for a few days, only to come to definitive conclusions about our beloved city that will mostly be wrong but will nonetheless be broadcast to a wide audience that will take these fables at face value. A good example is an August 10 description of Denver from the New York Times that read: "...you can see from one end to another, it's that flat..." Wouldn't it be fun to watch the author, Eric Wilson, driving through town in the snow this winter? Flat enough for you, Eric?
Given the predictable onslaught of misinformation, I thought it might be interesting to think about what Denver means to me through one of the lenses I wear, which is to say from the perspective of architecture.
As longtime readers of this column know, I think buildings express a narrative that can be used to read a city's history. Denver is thus an open book, and its architecture reveals a place that has welcomed experimentation, fulfilled the ethos of the New West, and at the same time held onto its Wild West past, at least for marketing reasons.
Although I don't live downtown, I love it because of my interest in architecture. Nowhere in Colorado or the neighboring states is there such a concentration of significant buildings and complexes, historic, modern and contemporary.
And you can count on DNC reports to focus on downtown as well — first on the 1999 Pepsi Center, by Chris Carver for HOK Sports, where the main part of the convention is being held, and then on the 2001 Invesco Field at Mile High, by Fentress Bradburn Architects, where Barack Obama will make his acceptance speech.
These structures make points about Denver that are absolutely true. We're a sports-crazy town, and obviously we're not afraid to build dazzling, neomodernist structures to host our teams — even if we'll tear them down in a few decades.
You can also count on reporters, delegates and campaign workers descending on LoDo, since that's where all the bars are. I can take or leave the Pepsi Center and Invesco Field, but LoDo is something we should all treasure. Many of the marvelous old brick buildings exemplify the most sophisticated styles of their era, like the 1909 prairie-style Rockmount Ranch Wear building by William Ellsworth Fisher.
These stately edifices collectively tell the story of how the railroad made Denver what it was, because before they were occupied by nightclubs, restaurants or lofts, they served as distribution warehouses for marketable stuff coming in and out of the Rockies.
There are also great new structures, none greater than David Adjaye's functionalist Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, from 2007, at 15th and Delgany streets. As an aside, the neighborhood today would be nothing but parking lots if not for the efforts of former Mayor Federico Peña, a national Barack Obama co-chair, who shoved preservation down the throats of the building owners when he was in office; for that I will always respect him.
Though the sports palaces and LoDo are true-blue exemplars of our city, for my money there's no place that says Denver quite as clearly as the Civic Center and its environs. The Civic Center will definitely catch the eyes of the media, and not only because it may see a protest or two, but because it makes such a great backdrop for a TV stand-up.
It is in this relatively tight space, just a few square blocks in area, where much of the city's governmental and cultural infrastructure is located. These notable buildings, set cheek by jowl, are arranged around a beautiful jewel-like park or just beyond it. And because they were built over time, you can use them to follow the course of American architecture from the late nineteenth to the early 21st centuries.
The park in the middle of the Civic Center is based on a neoclassical plan that featured the involvement of a number of significant landscape planners. But the way it is now can mostly be traced back to Edward H. Bennett. In 1917, Bennett needed to accommodate existing elements, including the 1904 Colorado State Capitol Building, by Elijah Myers and Frank Edbrooke, and the 1906 U.S. Mint, by James Knox Taylor. The park itself, however, was a blank slate, and Bennett determined its symmetrical plan and identified sites for future buildings — in particular, the elegant Denver City and County Building, which was designed by a consortium of Denver architects in the 1930s. The monumental building defines the west side of the park and works like a bookend for the Capitol on the east.
The buildings that match the neoclassical plan are typically among people's favorites, but I prefer the modernist buildings, one of the first of which is the 1949 international-style former Annex I — how international style a name is that? — by the Denver firm of Smith, Hegner and Moore. Faced in plain sheets of gray limestone with horizontally oriented ribbon windows, it has a sleek appearance with an exaggerated profile that's long and low. Though radically different in appearance, the former Annex I is sensitive to its neighbor, the City and County Building, because it's the same height and color. The building faces the park on Cleveland Place and is attached by an atrium to the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building, which is also marvelous. That structure is by David Owen Tryba and was opened in 2002.
The former Annex I and the Webb Building are on the Civic Center's downtown side, but most of my favorite buildings are on the other side, near the Golden Triangle. At Broadway and West 14th Avenue Parkway is Burnham Hoyt's 1955 Denver Central Library. Hoyt, of Red Rocks Amphitheatre fame, was the dean of the first generation of Denver modernists, but for this, his last major commission, he reconciled his minimalist taste with the neoclassical character of the surrounding buildings. What he did was create a stripped-down modernist temple, thus anticipating the postmodernism of the late twentieth century. And, appropriately enough, that later style is what's shown off in the enormous 1995 addition immediately adjacent at Broadway and West 13th Avenue, done by the world-famous godfather of the postmodern movement, Michael Graves.
The best way to experience these two landmarks is to walk along the curve of West 14th Avenue Parkway, winding up at Acoma Plaza in front of the Denver Art Museum's North Tower. Opened in 1971, the glass-tile-clad mid-rise tower is the only building by Italian modern master Gio Ponti in all of North America. And it is, hands down, the most significant building of the whole group. Interestingly, this incredible confection was once one of the most hated buildings in Denver, but Ponti is better loved now that he's dead than he was when he designed the DAM at the end of his career.
All of that pent-up hatred for cutting-edge culture has been shifted over to the DAM's new wing, the expressionistic Hamilton Building, anyway. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, it is so outrageous, it makes the Ponti look tame — no mean feat. As could be predicted, the Hamilton, opened in 2006, has already shown up in lots of cable-news reports about Denver.
There's been a buzz over the past few months among some who believe that the Civic Center will embarrass us when the spotlights are thrown on the city. These naysayers — suburbanites, apparently — believe the Civic Center is a hellhole and that Denverites ought to be ashamed of it because some homeless guys hang out there. But when the world tunes in next week, I'm confident that this gorgeous landmark will make Denver look great. It'll be that darned flatness that will leave us humiliated.
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