Mary Voelz Chandler on Denver's demolition history and her updated architectural guide

I.M. Pei's Hyperbolic Paraboloid, demolished in 1996.
I.M. Pei's Hyperbolic Paraboloid, demolished in 1996.

Mary Voelz Chandler knows her structures. An art and design critic for the Rocky Mountain News until it folded in 2009, Chandler now works directly in the building field, as a communications specialist with G.H. Phipps Construction. She shared her knowledge in 2001's Guide to Denver Architecture; now she's back with a new and improved version that covers fresh architectural developments of the last decade as well as long-gone structures of the past.

Chandler is a master at surveying and assessing the changing Denver skyline. In advance of her speaking engagement at Tattered Cover LoDo tonight, we spoke with her about the city's booming development and the architectural marvels of Denver's past that have been lost to demolition.

See also: I.M. Pissed

Merchants Row, located at 910 26th Street.
Merchants Row, located at 910 26th Street.

Westword: Why did you choose to rework, revamp and release this second edition of the Guide to Denver Architecture now, in 2013?

Mary Voelz Chandler: This book builds off the first edition pretty heavily, which came out in 2001. Along with committee that I was working with, I think we started this in 1991. So it was an eleven-year project. It just went on and on. Then, when it became apparent that the AIA (American Institute of Architects) was coming back here in 2013 for its national convention, we sort of re-grouped in late 2010.

I had brought home all of my files from the Rocky Mountain News, which had closed in February of 2009. Where we started with the second edition was, I made a list by looking at all of these files and just by knowing what buildings had been demolished. It was such a bad period -- there was very little development in early '09 through I'd say about '10, because the economy totally tanked. But it was amazing to me how much was built between 2001 and 2008 and how much was started, and eventually did make it out of the ground.

I don't know how many new buildings there are in this book -- I haven't counted. We took some things out because to add new things, we didn't want the book to be so big that people needed a sherpa to help them with it. I mean, it is supposed to be a guidebook.

The last National AIA Convention here in was in June of 2001, and the big thing then was that they wanted to see LoDo and there was the new airport and the Buell. This time around, there was so much more to see -- Stapleton, Lowry, the new Denver Art Museum, Central Platte Valley -- which appeared overnight, out of the ground. When I moved here in '84, I called it "the Black Hole of Denver" because it was just train tracks and mattresses and junk.

Stapleton and Lowry grew out of old transportation and military development and then the Anschutz Medical Campus -- it's just like, wow. I go out there every once in a while just to look at. It is just extraordinary what goes on there.

To me, that is one of the most interesting parts about Denver right now -- we don't just have one particular area where we're seeing growth happening. Even our city skyline has changed over the last thirty years.

That has changed, and I think the push to, well... the horrible Skyline Urban Renewal Project of the late '50s and early '60s cleared 27 square blocks. Some of that was residential, some of it was deemed blighted. It was immigrant and minority (neighborhoods) and some of the city fathers just didn't quite approve.

So, the very last infill for that was, I think, Tabor Center. But then, other buildings were being torn down, and they were just lying there becoming parking lots. I have nothing against occasional parking lots -- we all need them. But the infill really started again with The Spire and the Four Seasons and a lot of other things. The Pavilions, which I think has improved greatly -- they did some revamping of it so it looks better, though it is still not the Taj Mahal. But that was two square blocks of parking lots -- along the mall, of all places. I think gradual infill has been really wonderful.

What's going on at Union Station now and this new bus route along 18th and 19th streets is pretty exciting. I live in north Capitol Hill and the growth here has been like, whoa. Where did all of this come from? In some cases, there has been a loss of nice, older homes. But in other cases, I don't think it was a terrible loss. It is a vibrant neighborhood and I love it. I work in the Tech Center -- which is like going to a different planet everyday.

Look at Highland -- all of these things are happening in little neighborhoods that were almost, not given up on, but...  

Denver Art Museum.
Denver Art Museum.

The development in Highland is something I have mixed feelings about.

There are issues there that are -- how do I put this? My second husband, David Chandler, who was a Westword investigative reporter until he died in 1994, when we were looking for a house in the late '80s because the prices were good, we looked over there. We were sort of warned away from it because it was the west side of town and you only wanted to live on the east side... oh, okay.

But really, any home we found (in Highland) ,it would take so much money for plumbing, wiring, the boiler, whatever -- we couldn't handle that. Now when I go over there, it is like a mob scene. I think some of the new residential development is really wonderful, but some of it is pretty derivative. I mean it's sort of copycat, like, just throw it up.

Yeah, and some of that residential development over there -- I called it "neo-classical Macaroni Grill" architecture. It's like random Tuscan villas smashed between two beautiful Denver Squares. That kind of development makes me wonder if builders are even looking at a neighborhood -- or if they even care.

Well, there's some of that. But I think Highland and Curtis Park have fared better in terms of these neo-modern buildings. I used to live in a 1941 Tudor in Hilltop -- it's been modified so many times that when I drive by it now, it's like, I used to live there?

But you're right, there's a lot of faux-Tuscan and faux-villa and faux-Mediterranean something. I don't know where these ideas come from -- it's like people must like space, and beige. Get me away from the beige.

When I sold my house in Hilltop, my first choice was to go and look at a house in Arapahoe Acres because I really love mid-century modern. That style has taken a big hit downtown and in other public buildings. But the yards were so huge -- I thought, I am not a yard work person. The landscaping was very carefully calibrated to fit the homes. So I ended up in north Capitol Hill in a 1901 building that was built as private apartments and now it's condos.

There's so much new development happening right now -- do architects and builders really take into account what is already there? It feels like apartment buildings are just being slapped up as fast as they can, and it scares me to think about what Denver might look like in the future.

Well, I think some do and I know some don't. You're right in that some of the apartment buildings that have gone up toward the north of LoDo and into RiNo and some along south Broadway that are trying to take advantage of the light rail -- some of them I look at and think, why? But then others, if you drive around Curtis Park, there are some new projects there -- like Merchants Row and a few others -- they are just so sharp, and so in-tune with the scale and the materials.

Even though they look totally different from a beautiful Victorian, they fit in. The architects and developer have been extremely thoughtful. It really just depends on who is doing it -- and how fast they want to make their money.

People are moving here in droves and I understand the need for housing development. It's just sometimes I see things like corrugated metal on the outsides of buildings. I understand the need for both innovation and preservation -- I just wonder if they are thinking.

Corrugated metal, if used correctly as an accent material, I think it is fine. But it really depends on the architect. It is important to bring a sense of style and grace and a good composition into the mix. But I don't know -- these patchwork color things along Broadway. I get off I-25 to come home on Lincoln and I look at that every night and think, what?

I love color, when used in building. But I don't know what they're thinking. I don't know who the designers are, because they may be in-house with the developer. But you're right -- there are so many people moving here. There was piece on Westword recently about this giant dinner at Civic Center to try to get the Millennials involved in civic planning, politics, whatever. I'm sure people who are Millennials don't like being called Millennials. But there is this age group that is coming to Denver -- which is great. We need new waves of people to be here, new architects, new artists. It has to keep moving or else we die.

I do worry about the current administration and a rush to develop. I worry about this disconnect with neighborhoods, because Denver's strength lies in it's neighborhoods -- not just in our inner circles. It is all of us.  

Rendering of the Hyperbolic Paraboloid, built in 1958.
Rendering of the Hyperbolic Paraboloid, built in 1958.

Why is a book like yours important to the people who live in Denver?

I think people need to -- and most people do -- react to their surroundings. I have this theory: if you throw a party in a nice place, you'll have less mess than if you throw a party in, I don't know, a basement. I think most people respond with behavior and I think they respond with respect.

I started reacting to buildings when I was a little kid. I've told my friends this -- it's intellectual, it's emotional and it's visceral. If I'm dealing with a building that is confusing or cheaply made or the materials are crummy or it is just awkwardly or badly done, I get a stomachache. Along with feeling very sad that this thing is going to be part of our environment for probably a while. Although buildings tend to get knocked down here after about thirty years -- which is weird.

I think people understand the forces that shape what their city looks like and how they behave in it. We live in buildings, we work in buildings, we go to school in buildings. They have an influence on us. I think people should be aware of their surroundings -- always. And celebrate the people who do the right thing.

Is there a building in particular that you miss that has been demolished?

Yes. And it came down in 1996 and there was a huge fight over it. It was downtown and it was part of the May D&F complex. This horrible man from St. Louis bought what I believe was a Hilton at the time and made it an Adam's Mark. He knocked down this incredible structure called the Hyperbolic Paraboloid. It was part of a complex -- there was the slab -- the hotel, you've got the box -- which was the May D&F, and then there was this odd, wonderful-looking mid-century modern building called the Hyperbolic Paraboloid. It is in the book, under the "Rest In Peace" section, because it was being fought for so long. It was gone by the 2001 book.

That caused such a fight. It was sort of like the sides lined up -- some of the architects took the wrong side, let's put it that way. Also, some of the city fathers took the wrong side, because they were dying to get development at that end of 16th Street Mall. It was so painful to watch it go down. Once it was gone, people were saying to me, "Mary, We see what you mean. We miss it."

I stopped writing about architecture for several months because I thought, I can't do this. I just can't do it. If people are this economically frantic, what next? All of this started -- this concern for preservation in this city -- it began in the '70s with the Molly Brown House and some of the historic buildings on the Auraria Campus. In 1990 when the Central Bank was torn down -- which was one of these glorious Jacques Benedict buildings -- it was a fight between a bank and an insurance company and someone else. It was all on paper. But the building came down.

If that can happen, anything can happen. I'm not the only person who still groans when I drive by where the Hyperbolic Paraboloid was and see this crummy hotel entry that the developer put up. That is the one that really hurt.

Catch Mary Voelz Chandler tonight at Tattered Cover LoDo for a conversation and book signing starting at 7:30 p.m. She will be joined by members of the Denver Architectural Foundation for a panel discussion of the Guide to Denver Architecture, 2nd Edition. The event is free; for more information, visit the Fulcrum Pushing website.

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