I'll be as clear as glass. It is an act of barbarism to even raise the question of whether I. M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza is worth preserving, let alone to threaten it with destruction, as St. Louis-based absentee landlord Fred Kummer has. The plaza ranks as one of the greatest architectural triumphs not just in Denver or in Colorado, but in the entire Mountain time zone.
The 1950s-era complex on the 16th Street Mall now comprises the newly renamed Adam's Mark Hotel and the vacant former May D&F department store with its famous hyperbolic paraboloid entrance. It was an early and important commission for Pei that helped to establish his worldwide reputation by making national and international architectural news from the day he unveiled the model. And it was big local news, too.
The totemic quality of Pei's name, known even to those who know little else about architecture, is a formidable publicity problem for anyone who wants to destroy the plaza. Especially if, like Kummer, you have your hand out for a big, fat taxpayer subsidy in the form of a $30 million check from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority.
That's why Kummer's disinformation team cooked up the idea of stripping Pei's famous name from the complex. But documentation of Pei's central role in the design of the plaza is abundant, and many eyewitness participants are still alive, so no one close to the process fell for it. (However, the made-up story that Pei's role was limited at Zeckendorf did somehow wind up on the front page of the Denver Post last December.)
There are indications that DURA, long the ray of darkness in downtown, will immediately roll over for Kummer when the time comes, in violation of its own guidelines. Mayor Wellington Webb probably will, too, along with the Webb-controlled Planning and Community Development office, in spite of the fact that the city's 1989 Comprehensive Plan specifically identifies Zeckendorf Plaza as being worthy of preservation.
Why would the private goals of an out-of-towner triumph over Denver's long-term planning mandates? Well, as with the Nuggets' arena deal, some of Kummer's local consultants can also be found working toward the mayor's re-election.
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Kummer's plan, which would, among other things, replace the Zeckendorf's hyperbolic paraboloid with an "elegant glass box," looks like a done deal. Except that public scrutiny of the process doesn't even begin until next week, when the Denver Landmarks Commission holds a hearing on a proposal by Historic Denver to designate Zeckendorf Plaza as a historic district.
Unlike most volunteer advisory boards, which tend to be dominated by amateurs and hacks, the Landmarks Commission is almost completely made up of people who have devoted their entire lives to architecture, landscape design, history or historic preservation. Barring a postponement of the vote--a procedural move that is within the commission's power--Pei's masterpiece will be recommended for historic status (a step that was endorsed last week by the Denver Planning Board, not to be confused with the planning and community-development office). After all, Denver's landmark ordinance was written in the first place with a situation like this one in mind: great architecture, insensitive owner.
On an optimistic note, there's always the possibility that Kummer may belatedly recognize that his plans to destroy a beloved and readily recognizable symbol of downtown Denver is turning into a public-relations nightmare.
Nah. His highly paid consultants will need to point that one out to him.
The Denver Landmarks Commission will hold a public hearing on Zeckendorf Plaza at 2 p.m. April 18, in Room 203 of the City Permit Center, 200 West 14th Avenue.