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Disappearing Legacy

The Western Federal Savings Tower before some of its original features were removed.

I'm going to posit a radical claim, one that flies in the face of standard beliefs.

I think Denver was a more sophisticated town twenty or thirty years ago than it is today. And though the city is more crowded and there are a lot more big-box retailers and chain restaurants -- and, uh, K-mart/Big K is now open on Thanksgiving -- somehow I feel it's not the high-style place it once was.

In fairness, I can't say I knew Denver well then, but even someone who just arrived earlier today could easily come to the same conclusion I have.

It's the buildings that give it away. Clearly, at one time, and up until very recently, Denver was really cooking architecturally -- and now it's not. Nowhere is this more clear than downtown. In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, scores of stylish, high-status and expensive projects went up in the central business district. But the big oil crash of 1986 brought the downtown building boom to a screeching halt -- perhaps forever.

The following example highlights the difference between then and now.

In the 1980s, Denver was the kind of city that would, for example, erect a world-class Philip Johnson building, the spectacular postmodern Norwest Tower (originally called One United Bank Plaza). Now it's the kind of town that builds, just a few blocks away, the tacky Denver Pavilions -- with public money, no less.

Part of the problem is a change in the nature of downtown. The area has definitely declined as a corporate center in the last decade. Whereas in the 1980s, millions of square feet of office space were added along 16th, 17th and 18th streets -- seven million square feet in 1983 alone -- few new office buildings have been built downtown since the oil crash. And it's not that there isn't a local need for such buildings -- high-rises are sprouting like mushrooms down in the Denver Tech Center and up at Interlocken.

But while fewer corporations are choosing downtown for their headquarters, there's still considerable life there as it changes from the main commercial district to a residential and entertainment area. One good thing about this is that small and mid-sized historic buildings and warehouses, particularly in LoDo and midtown, have found new uses as lofts, bars and restaurants.

But there's a downside, especially for the biggest buildings. As the functions change, the established architectural values of their owners have fallen by the wayside. It used to be that a downtown address carried with it certain obligations mostly imposed by the need to compete with neighbors who were also business rivals. The owners took a civic pride in architecture, believing that fine design and fine materials were indicative of commercial prestige. That's why the buildings downtown are most often the work of top local, national and international architects and why they so often feature stylish designs and include the use of luxurious materials.

Let's go back to the comparison between the Norwest Tower and the Denver Pavilions. The Norwest Tower is a signature example of postmodernism by one of that movement's luminaries; it is clad in granite and marble. The Pavilions, on the other hand, is the work of a little-known California firm that specializes in shopping-center design. The complex's massing makes a mockery of postmodernism by nonsensically aping its attributes; the whole monstrosity is iced in synthetic stucco.

It's hard to imagine, but even worse than this trend toward mediocrity is the loss after loss of beautiful existing buildings. It's a familiar refrain. I. M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza was scarred by losses and insensitive changes in its conversion to the Adam's Mark Hotel. The old Denver Post building, designed by Temple Buell, was scraped and replaced with a parking lot. And now, with the passage of a capital-improvement bond initiative last month for the expansion of the Colorado Convention Center, Currigan Hall, which was designed by James Ream working with W. C. Muchow Associates, is set to be demolished. So is the Terra Tower, by Alfred Williams for Seracuse/Lawler Partners.

But the vandalism isn't finished yet.

The marvelous former Western Federal Savings Tower (later called Bank Western), which is a showy exercise in 1960s formalist-style architecture, is right now being stripped of its defining characteristics and distinctive features; it already lost its cast-concrete sunscreen. Also, the aluminum cladding on the cantilevered entry canopy has been removed, and the stone panels that once lined the lobby have been pulled off.

The building was recently bought by Legacy Partners, a Texas real-estate and development firm that plans to rename the building Legacy Tower -- an ironic note, since the misguided facelift is erasing a part of Denver's architectural legacy.

To be honest, there's nothing surprising about an out-of-town owner being out of touch with Denver history. What's surprising about the Western Federal Savings fiasco, and more than a little discouraging to many in the preservation community, is the architectural firm behind the design: Oz Architecture.

In recent years, Oz had begun to make a name for itself in preservation architecture; it carried out the spectacular and award-winning rehab of the 1929 Buerger Brothers Lofts on Champa Street, by Montana Fallis, and is even now working on the 1911 Chamber of Commerce Building, by Marean and Norton, next door. The contrast between these projects and Western Federal Savings is poignant. At the chamber building, Oz is re-creating original features foolishly removed years ago. At Western Federal Savings, Oz is foolishly removing original features. The Buerger Brothers and Chamber of Commerce restorations both came out of Oz's Denver office; the vulgar hacking up of Western Federal Savings originated in Oz's Boulder branch. It seems that the company's right hand doesn't know what its left is doing.

Too bad for Oz's reputation.

We don't really need to explore the design prepared by the company's Eduardo Illanes. We know his ideas can't be any good, since his first move was to destroy some of the building's most prominent architectural elements. Apparently it never occurred to him to simply polish the metal, wash the windows and replace lost components like the flagpoles on the 17th Street side -- so that he could have revived the exterior instead of destroying it.

Preservationists hope to scale back the plans. Let's wish them well. And maybe the preservation wizards in Oz's Denver office will get on the horn to their Boulder colleagues, notably Illanes, and do what they can to avert this looming disaster.

As it stands, Western Federal Savings is still one of the finest twentieth-century buildings in the city. It is one of the greatest accomplishments of an acknowledged master of modern architecture in Denver, Raymond Harry Ervin. Born in Kentucky in 1900, Ervin came to Denver with his parents later that year and grew up here. As was common early in the century, he didn't attend architecture school but participated in the apprentice system as his means of training. In the 1920s he entered the prestigious and influential Denver architectural firm of Fisher and Fisher, a partnership of William Elsworth Fisher and his brother Arthur Fisher. In 1932 Ervin established his own practice.

Success came early to Ervin with the 1937 Harry Huffman mansion, also called Shangri-La. The mansion is above Burns Park in Hilltop, on Shangri-La Drive (formerly Bellaire Street). It is meticulously maintained and has never been allowed to run down. Even its original landscape plan is still intact -- the place is gorgeous.

The mansion, which was built for Huffman, a wealthy theater owner and liquor distributor, is, according to Denver urban lore, meant to replicate the monastery in Lost Horizon, the 1937 Columbia Pictures film directed by Frank Capra. The legend, though, is easily debunked by actually seeing the movie, which is readily available on videotape and which reveals only the vaguest similarities between the monastery in the movie and the home. The biggest problem with the myth, however, is that construction on the mansion began in 1936, and Ervin, by necessity, had designed it even earlier, which of course meant that Shangri-La was conceived before the movie came out.

Less poetic, perhaps, are the facts. Shangri-La is a national-class example of moderne-style architecture that may be favorably compared to other substantial moderne residences across the country; it is without peer in Denver.

As did many architects during World War II, Ervin worked for the federal government. After the war, his practice blossomed, and he abandoned residential architecture and began to exclusively design large buildings. He also left behind the moderne style and in the 1950s embraced the functionalist ethos of the international style and its Miesian variant. He then moved on to the highly decorative formalist style in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.

Ervin designed two of the most beautiful, handsomely sited and well-designed modern schools in the Denver Public School system, the 1956 Hill Middle School, at 451 Clermont Street, and the 1960 George Washington High School, at 655 South Monaco Parkway. Both international-style buildings were erected not far from the architect's lifelong home on Krameria Street in Mayfair Park, just off the Sixth Avenue Parkway.

At the same time that Ervin was getting these sought-after school commissions, he was also landing even more desirable jobs designing high-rise buildings downtown. In 1954 he did the sleek Denver Club Tower, at 518 17th Street, which is constructed of glass, aluminum and a green-tinted concrete aggregate. To say that the Denver Club is coolly debonair barely captures it; in fact, it's one of the most suave and urbane buildings in all of downtown.

As a reflection of his growing success, Ervin moved his offices into the Denver Club. It was here that he took on his largest job ever, the design of the former First National Bank (now Wells Fargo), 621 17th Street, which was completed in 1958. At 28 stories, it was the city's tallest building until the oil-boom skyscrapers were constructed in the late '70s and early '80s. It is handsomely clad in a cream-colored, pre-cast terrazzo block and aluminum and glass. Above the 17th Street entrance and elsewhere are decorative cast-aluminum bas-reliefs which recall a similar, if more constrained, concrete-and-glass-block device seen around the entrance to Shangri-La.

Western Federal Savings was Ervin's next high-rise. Completed in 1962, it is considerably smaller than the First National Bank, but a lot more flamboyant with its navy-blue glass and articulated aluminum trim. Of particular interest was the cast-concrete sunscreen -- now gone -- on the bottom floors along California Street. The sunscreen helped define the building's base, which provides a platform for the twenty-story-plus tower. Also significant stylistically are the vertical columns that define the tower's structure and the wonderful mechanical penthouse, which also displays that characteristic sunscreen.

Both high-rises are fine examples of formalist-style architecture from the mid-twentieth century. The style, which was especially popular for the design of large buildings in this country, is characterized by the use of decorative flourishes such as the aluminum bas-reliefs on the First National Bank and the concrete sunscreens at Western Federal Savings. This interest in ornamentation indicates a break with the unadorned surfaces favored by the more doctrinaire modernists of the time.

Formalism thus indicates a break with the functional tenets of the international style and the Miesian style, and in this way anticipates the anti-functionalism of the later postmodern style.

Western Federal would turn out to be Ervin's last major building. He died in 1969 after a lengthy illness. His firm was succeeded by Piel, Slater, Small and Spenst, a partnership formed by four architects who had worked in his office.

It's unclear whether Western Federal Savings will survive its conversion to the Legacy Tower under the knife wielded by Oz Architecture. If not, be prepared for another Denver monument to be thoughtlessly remodeled into a monstrosity with plenty of fashionable gimmicks used to destroy the building's authentic historic integrity and original character.

What a shame. Ervin's Western Federal Savings is just too good for that.