It's hard to live in Colorado and, at the same time, to love architecture. The problem is twofold: There's very little of the built environment that's any good, and the few buildings that are good are constantly being threatened with demolition or insensitive remodeling.
I was contemplating these ideas while driving past Children's Hospital on Downing Street last week, and, as usual, I was reminded of Lua Blankenship. I've never met Blankenship, who was the hospital's president for a short time, but I think of him whenever I'm in this area. It was Blankenship, more than anyone else, who decided to demolish the Boettcher School -- which once stood on Downing between 18th and 19th avenues -- in order to expand Children's Hospital.
Boettcher was a modernist masterpiece created by Burnham Hoyt, one of the most artistically distinguished architects in the city's history. Hoyt is best known for designing the magnificent Red Rocks Amphitheatre. The school, with its poured-in-place cast concrete and experimental green-tinted aggregate and aluminum trim, was a high-style building. But Boettcher wasn't only a first-rate example of vanguard modern architecture; it was also one of the first buildings in the world to be handicapped-accessible. Originally designed in 1938 to serve as a school for Children's patients, the facility was connected to the hospital by a tunnel accessed by elegant, gently sloping ramps.
Of course, now that Children's is moving to the Fitzsimons campus in Aurora, Blankenship's expansion plans have been scrapped. And Blankenship is long gone, teaching at Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia.
As I was driving past Court Place on 15th Street, my mind, of course, turned to memories of Fred Kummer, the president of HBE, which owns the Adam's Mark Hotel. Like Blankenship, Kummer presided over the destruction of one of the city's greatest architectural treasures -- in this case, I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza.
Begun in 1956, the plaza was one of Pei's earliest major projects, and it boasted a three-part composition that included a department store, a high-rise hotel and an open-air courtyard with a sunken ice-skating rink. The department store had a novel entrance pavilion in the form of a hyperbolic paraboloid. Today the paraboloid is gone, the department store has been entirely resurfaced, and the ice-skating rink is a driveway. Only the tower survives.
Kummer, who lives in the St. Louis area, has visited Denver only a few times; he recently announced that he was putting the hotel up for sale after owning it for less than ten years.
As I continued down 15th, I suddenly thought of James Mejia, director of the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation during the final years of Wellington Webb's administration. I was skirting the edge of the ruined Skyline Park, once a world-class piece of landscape architecture that was done in 1970 by Lawrence Halprin, a designer who is as famous in his field as Pei is in his. Skyline ran below grade from 15th to 18th streets, with each block anchored by a distinctive fountain. The park was lined with aggregate walls and planters, which created a wide, meandering walk that opened up into courtyards and staircases.
Private interests pressured the city to destroy the park, which they claimed attracted vagrants, but instead of Mejia playing the role of park protector, as he should have done, he facilitated its destruction.
The city's budget woes are preventing the construction of the main design features of Skyline's planned replacement, but Mejia is no longer concerned, having left to go to graduate school at Princeton.
You see the pattern, don't you? People with little or no commitment to living here are making life-and-death decisions about our most important works of architecture. People like Blankenship, Kummer and Mejia make choices that absolutely diminish the character of the area, and -- all the more galling -- they don't have to live with their poor decisions. But we do!
This trip down memory lane has more than a nostalgic value because, as Sonny and Cher would say, the beat goes on. Two more area landmarks are headed for the chopping block because, again, people who care little or nothing about our region are making the calls.
The first is down in Englewood, and the name to remember here is George Quittner, Commercial Federal Bank's director of purchasing and property administration. He's the guy who decided the little jewel-box bank at 4301 South Broadway has got to go.
Now, truthfully, Englewood's central business district, on South Broadway around Hampden Avenue, is pretty grim and has little to recommend it. The City of Englewood commissioned a planning study recently to evaluate the buildings on South Broadway; in the report, the Walgreens building was identified as being exemplary. In other words, a structure need only clear a very low hurdle to be considered notable in downtown Englewood.
The Commercial Federal Bank, however, doesn't need any "Walgreens standard" grade inflation in order to earn top marks. No, the bank's a high-quality work of architecture in comparison to all others of its date and type -- and not just in Englewood, but anywhere in this state. That's not a surprise: It was designed by William Muchow, one of the most successful and accomplished architects to have worked in Colorado in the second half of the twentieth century.
The bank, constructed originally for First Federal Savings, has a complicated massing, with two pavilions of roughly equal size connected by a wing that serves as the main entrance. The entire building is constructed of buff-colored brick joined by mortar tinted to match. Though principally horizontal in orientation, the bank has a strong vertical rhythm. This vocabulary of verticals includes staircase railings, window mullions, and decorative and structural ribs that together create added visual interest.
The two pavilions correspond to the two phases in which the bank was constructed; the south wing dates from 1963 and the north from 1969. The south pavilion is partly surrounded along the front and side by a dry moat surfaced in gravel, which allows the garden level to be open to the sun. The north pavilion is more striking -- especially the unconventional roof composed of four square pyramids arranged in a grid. Clearly the north wing was designed to complement the south, which it does perfectly.
Commercial Federal plans to demolish the bank in the first quarter of 2004 and then construct a new, more modest bank at one end of the site and sell off the rest of the lot. Not that it will be readily sellable, as this part of South Broadway is lined with thrift stores, pawnshops and used-car lots. In fact, the only notable structure for blocks in either direction is this lovely little bank.
Quittner lives in Omaha, as does the architect designing the replacement bank. It's that same old thing again: Someone from somewhere else deciding to dismantle our architectural heritage with seemingly nothing to be done to stop it.
"Unstoppable" would certainly be an apt description of what's set to befall that notable Platte Valley monument Ocean Journey. Here the key name is Tilman Fertitta, the president of Landry's. As many will recall, Fertitta came to town earlier this year to snap up Ocean Journey for $13.6 million, a fraction of the $93 million the aquarium cost to build only a couple of years ago. Fertitta is renaming the place the Downtown Aquarium in Denver and plans to open a combination seafood restaurant and aquarium. No, this is not a joke: Landry's has already opened the Downtown Aquarium in Houston.
It's so sad, because Ocean Journey is such a good building, so intelligent, so sensitive to its site. It was created with a full-tilt attitude. There's cutting-edge aquarium design, an art program that includes a number of specially created pieces and architectural design of the highest order, thanks to creator Odyssea, a one-time-only partnership of RNL Design and Anderson Mason Dale.
Ron Mason did the building's exterior, which is one of his greatest accomplishments. A lot of ideas are crammed into Mason's neo-modernist approach, but they've been so elegantly laid out that it's breathtaking. The aptly named Mason used the masonry core that surrounds the fish tanks to make references to the century-old buildings not far away in LoDo, while the undulating metal-and-glass walls (which Fentress Bradburn later cribbed for Invesco Field) reflect Mason's faith in the ideas of our time.
But Mason's not in charge anymore, and others are now going to wreck his masterpiece. The first bad change -- anticipate many more -- is a fake stone cave, what Landry's calls a "grotto," being slapped onto the front of the building. (Gag me with a trident!)
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In October, at a meeting of the Blueprint Denver Committee of the Denver City Council, representatives of Landry's presented the "grotto" idea. Though it will be some months before any changes are made to Ocean Journey, the good folks from Landry's are already getting their ducks in a row -- or, rather, councilmembers in their pockets.
Rick Garcia was embarrassing to watch as he explained to the other councilmembers that the "grotto" was necessary because Ocean Journey was changing from a "scientific" use to an "amusement" one. As he spoke what was transparently Landry's party line, I wondered if Garcia had memorized a script or if he used cue cards. Then it got even worse when Jeanne Robb -- very apparently ad-libbing -- said, "Denver's now open for business, and Landry's will soon be open for dinner."
Robb was referring to the slogan Mayor John Hickenlooper used during his campaign this past summer. Don't expect any leadership on Ocean Journey from Hickenlooper, though. He still hasn't appointed a planning director, so there's no one to tell Fertitta to go back to the drawing board.
It's horrible to contemplate, but it seems the Commercial Federal Bank and Ocean Journey will soon be subtracted from the ever-dwindling list of fine buildings in the metro area. And here's the irksome part: Just like Blankenship, Kummer and Mejia, Quittner and Fertitta couldn't care less.