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Nightmare on Dale Street

The south elevation of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
R. F. Delaney

The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is one of the finest early-modern buildings in the country, which means it's the rarest kind of treasure in Colorado's bleak architectural environment. Only such monuments as the prehistoric ruins at Mesa Verde and the 1960s Air Force Academy Chapel, by Walter Netsch of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, are even comparable.

Completed in 1936, the Fine Arts Center is the premiere accomplishment of its architect, New Mexico's John Gaw Meem. Blessed with an almost unlimited budget by art patron Alice Bemis Taylor and her circle of millionaire friends, Meem was able to fully realize his vision and, in that way, fully express his era. In addition, he was able to completely flesh out the building with original murals, metalwork and even custom-made furniture and decorations.

Representing a modernized version of an American Indian pueblo of the sort seen in northern New Mexico, the walls of the building step back and away from the street as they ascend to the sky, just as the ancient pueblos do.

The building is constructed to a standard unimaginably high in today's throwaway, design-build world, in which architects are the employees of developers. Built on a battered podium created out of expertly laid field stone, it is executed in cast-in-place concrete trimmed out in a black aggregate. The casting technique is expressed through the horizontal lines that mark the separate pourings. It's interesting to compare the quality of the original construction to more recently added features. The wheel-chair ramp, for example, is only twenty years old or so, but the concrete is already crumbling; the original walls, which are three times as old, are still sound.

The building's two principal elevations are on the south side, where the main entrance is marked by a simplified classical order accented by murals, and the west side, where a magnificent balcony overlooks Monument Valley Park. It is at the juncture of these sides that the building's massing culminates and creates the emblematic view made famous in both historic and contemporary photos. The building is truly a paradise for lovers of art and architecture.

Sadly, a serpent -- or perhaps a nest of them -- has slithered into this aesthetic Garden of Eden.

It was around Thanksgiving that I received the first of a number of disturbing phone calls. Artists, architects and collectors from southern Colorado wanted to know if I'd heard anything about expansion plans for the center. They told me that a proposed addition was set to destroy its architectural character.

"You really need to look into this," they said.

With the holidays approaching, I put it off for a time. And anyway, I thought, wasn't the Fine Arts Center under the control of the gifted David Turner? He wasn't going to let anything bad happen to that building. He loved it. In fact, he'd even written a book about it in 1996 to commemorate its sixtieth anniversary.

A shadow of a doubt remained, though, and given how important the building is, I put it at the top of my list of New Year's resolutions. In the middle of January, I went to see for myself what was up down there.

I met with director Turner, deputy director/director of development Carolyn Moershel and public-relations manager Erin Hannan. As soon as I entered the conference room and saw what they were considering, every hair on my body stood on end. This involuntary visceral response is what typically happens to me when unmitigated stupidity rears its ugly head. And stupidity is clearly what has guided their process so far -- there's just no other word for it.

Since then, I have sat on the story, hoping that the group of staff and trustees who have been working on the expansion plan would come to its senses. But with the public unveiling of the plan last week, hope of a happy outcome has all but disappeared.

If you know anything about architecture, the design process thus far will strike you as little more than a bad joke. It will make you laugh. But if you care about the Fine Arts Center, as I do, you'll want to cry.

What they are considering is so horrible, I've literally lost sleep over it. They want to smack a 50,000-square-foot addition onto the front of the building! This shoe box will be immediately to the west of the main entrance and extend to the west end of the building, meaning that both the south and west elevations, the key sides of the building, will be annihilated.

And just for good measure, the addition will be plunked down on top of the picturesque, serpentine portion of Dale Street that connects the building to the park, thereby destroying the building's brilliant and sensitive relationship to its site, a steep hill overlooking Monument Valley Park and the mountains beyond.  

The center's staff and trustees have been guided by the apparently artistically impaired Minneapolis-based architectural firm of Hammel, Green & Abramson. Not only are HGA's ideas contemptibly ignorant and insensitive, but the supporting materials -- the programmatic footprint of the would-be floor plan and the massing model -- are completely substandard. As I looked at HGA's work, I began to think of architectural students -- and I mean first-year students.

Obviously, hiring HGA, a firm that specializes in the design of brand-new cultural facilities, was a huge mistake. A building like the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center needs a specialist in historic preservation, not some functional planning wonk, and it needs an intelligent and sensitive architect.

The process at the Fine Arts Center represents the exact opposite of what's been going on at the Denver Art Museum regarding its own expansion. DAM director Lewis Sharp's first move was to protect the existing Gio Ponti building (a fine building indeed, but not so fine as Meem's). Sharp then hired world-class architect Daniel Libeskind to design the addition. Then, and only then, did Sharp come to the programming needs of the building. In Colorado Springs they went to program planners first. No wonder they wound up with such an inferior product: Their process was inferior from the start.

Turner insisted at our meeting that HGA had considered the historic character of the building and had used an in-house historic-preservation consultant to rationalize the plans. And at one point, I was asked if I would accept the new addition if the Fine Arts Center could find an independent preservation consultant who would endorse it. "Anyone who endorses this idea has lost their right to a credible opinion on the matter," I responded.

At this point, it's important to note that HGA wasn't hired to design the addition -- though surely they would like to be -- but to establish criteria so that the job can be bid on in the coming months. Even so, the company did get to identify the location for the addition, and by choosing the southwest corner of the building, HGA ensured that even if a talented architectural firm -- instead of HGA itself -- gets the job, the original building will be vandalized.

How did HGA convince Turner to go along with its terrible idea? It's a hard question to answer, considering that there are two other locations where an addition could be built without negatively affecting the Meem building.

The first and most obvious of these is on the east side, where a sculpture garden provides the necessary space. I know this because I picked up HGA's amateurish massing model and placed it in the space representing the garden, and it fit. In addition, the garden, which is made up of easy-to-move pieces, is right along Cascade Avenue, one of the city's main thoroughfares. Right now the Fine Arts Center has no identity on Cascade since it is set back behind the sculpture garden.

Another advantage of this location is that it is directly across Cascade Avenue from the site on which Colorado College is building the Cornerstone Arts Complex (designed by the legendary Antoine Predock). In one of the many embarrassing moments during our meeting, Turner admitted to me that his group had carried on its two-year process unaware that the Cornerstone was coming on line. That's why HGA's plan doesn't take this important development into account -- not, as we might expect, because of the company's perpetual ineptitude.

The second potential expansion site is across Dale Street, in the current parking lot. This could be a freestanding wing connected to the Meem belowground. My instincts tell me that this is what Turner would really like to do. Unfortunately, Moershel is already deeply committed to HGA's plans. The appeal for her seems to be related to issues like the optimum placement of the dumpsters and the loading dock; the HGA plan is perfect in these regards.

More formidable allies of the plan are members of the board of trustees. Though not in attendance at my meeting with Turner and crew, Diane Sikes was singled out by them as having played a leading role in the pathetic design process. Sikes, an Arizona transplant who's a past president of the Fine Arts Center's board of trustees, is obviously a newcomer to architecture, historic preservation and to the center itself. Otherwise, why would she be so smitten with HGA's fifth-rate ideas? And that goes for the other trustees who are on board, too.

Now, believe it or not, there are at least two good things that can be said about the proposed addition, aside from Moershel's pet projects, the dumpsters and loading dock.  

First, the Fine Arts Center doesn't own the land HGA selected for the addition. It belongs to Monument Valley Park, itself a part of an original deed of land from General William Jackson Palmer to the city he founded, Colorado Springs. The Palmer Trust forbids the sale or disposal of Palmer-owned land deeded to the public.

Second, the center doesn't have the money, and millions of dollars will be needed.

Here's hoping the center gets neither the land nor the money to fulfill its nightmare of a dream, because if it does, the stately Meem masterpiece will be tragically defaced.


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