The Joys of Summer

The west elevation of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

It is the happiest news imaginable. The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center has finally, if reluctantly, abandoned its plans to build an addition on the facade at the southwest corner of the building next to the main entrance. Any addition placed in this spot, no matter how inspired, would have unavoidably destroyed the original character of this 1936 masterpiece of modernism by New Mexico's John Gaw Meem.

The wrongheaded proposal was cooked up by a committee that included center director David Turner, director of development Carolyn Moershel, and members of the board of trustees, notably former board president Diane Sikes. The committee had been charged with exploring the idea of expanding the Fine Arts Center, a difficult job for anyone, since the building is perfect as it is -- taking into account some deferred maintenance -- and should be left alone.

The center was Meem's most important commission, and he was provided with an almost unlimited budget put up by prominent socialite Alice Bemis Taylor and a coterie of her wealthy friends. It is an intelligent and inspired blend of the indigenous Pueblo style of the Southwest and the moderne and art-deco styles of the 1930s. The structure's rectilinear volumes, created out of cast-in-place concrete, step back from the ground floor with the building's dramatic massing culminating at the southwest corner -- right where they wanted to put the addition!

Both the exterior and the interior are ornamented with integral murals painted by some of the most important artists working in the region at that time, including Kenneth Adams and Frank Mechau. There is also abundant custom metalwork in the form of chandeliers and railings, as well as original furniture and other furnishings that were likewise specifically designed and executed for the building. The entry hall, the west hall, the theater, its lobby and the garden gallery are surely among the finest interior spaces in the entire time zone.

Considering all of this, it seems obvious that the center's board of trustees would have wanted to ensure that the building was meticulously if not fanatically preserved and that any changes would be sensitive to the original. But instead of consulting with a firm that specializes in historic preservation, the committee members hired Hammel, Green and Abrahamson out of Minneapolis, a facilities-planning firm, to advise them. HGA apparently came to the project thinking the building was a blank slate on which they could make any kind of mark. It's safe to say that the committee screwed up immediately when it hired HGA some two years ago. Thus the terrible plans, revealed in March, were essentially inevitable. Garbage in, garbage out.

And believe it or not, the concept of defacing the building's facade wasn't even the worst idea HGA suggested in its laundry list of expansion sites. It's as though HGA representatives toured the building, found its most crucial and significant attributes, and then thought up ways to destroy them.

One idea was that the west elevation should be demolished in order to put the addition there. The west elevation faces Monument Valley Park and is distinguished by the exquisitely figured and detailed balcony that runs across it. HGA thought the balcony's details could be incorporated in the new addition and that would make it all okay. But even the committee could see this was a dog and rejected it. Another idea was that the open-air interior courtyard, which is completely surrounded by the building, could be filled in. Again, the committee rejected this ridiculous option.

But somehow they did go for the idea of putting an addition on the front. Luckily, there was more than one fly in the ointment: The Fine Arts Center doesn't own the land on which it wanted to build, although the committee didn't realize this at first. Furthermore, that specific parcel of land wasn't up for grabs at all since it's part of Monument Valley Park, which itself is protected from changes by an inviolable trust established by the city's founder, General William Jackson Palmer.

The decision to abandon the southwest corner of the building as the expansion site partly involved a legal tangle with the Palmer Trust provisions and partly involved public outrage over the plan. But so far, bad PR hasn't dampened the center committee's enthusiasm for an addition in another location. Count on the committee not rehiring HGA, especially since the three new potential sites had all been rejected previously by the firm.

The first possible site is the sculpture garden on the east side of the building. The advantages of this site are that it would provide the Fine Arts Center with a presence on Cascade Avenue, one of the city's main thoroughfares, and allow the center to create a visual link to the new Cornerstone Arts Complex, which is being designed by New Mexico architect Antoine Predock and will soon rise right across Cascade as a part of Colorado College.  

The second option, and probably the best -- although it would surely be the most expensive -- is to construct a freestanding annex, incorporating parking, directly across Dale Street on the site of the present parking lot. The annex could be connected to the existing center via an underground concourse of the sort that connects the Denver Art Museum to the Denver Public Library. This would allow the center to create an iconic building with its own fine qualities. This option has been nicknamed by some "the Libeskind option," in reference to the outrageously original and individualistic DAM wing being designed by Daniel Libeskind, which is to be physically separated from the existing Gio Ponti-designed art museum.

The last site being considered is on the north side of the Fine Arts Center, where the Bemis Art School for Children and the historic Carpenter House now stand. If this site were chosen, the turn-of-the-last-century Carpenter House could be moved, but the Bemis would be destroyed -- even if it is somehow incorporated into the new addition. A fine building, the Bemis is a 1960s brutalist-style conception by the distinguished modernist firm of Dietz Lusk and John Wallace. It was carried out in cast-in-place concrete and black tinted glass. The main doors are deeply recessed under a concrete canopy and are especially noteworthy because they were hand-carved by Mary Chenoweth. The Bemis is completely original in design, yet it also refers and responds to the Meem building.

This clearly makes the north site the worst of the three options.

And as the Bemis issue illustrates, there's no guarantee that the Fine Arts Center will do the right thing this time around, since most of the same players are in the same place they were last time. But presumably they learned something.

If the Fine Arts Center appears safe from vandals for the time being, the same cannot be said for either the Denver Botanic Gardens or the Auditorium Theatre -- both top-tier examples of Denver architecture and both threatened by possible "improvement" plans. The threats come in the form of tens of millions of dollars of bond money, which both facilities are hoping to seek from the voters this fall. A lot of damage can be done with that kind of money, so be afraid -- be very afraid.

The 1960s Botanic Gardens was designed by the legendary Victor Hornbein of the firm of Hornbein and White. The original elements exemplify the Usonian expressionist style, first developed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The old conservatory is really something. It's made of cast-in-place concrete punctuated by plastic windows arranged in a honeycomb pattern, and it was so futuristic-looking when it was built that it appeared in Woody Allen's science-fiction comedy Sleeper. Though the Botanic Gardens is a listed Denver landmark and is thus protected from the most egregious of affronts, it has nonetheless suffered some insensitive changes in recent years. And with $40 million, the amount the Gardens is seeking, there is the potential for much more insensitivity.

As there is at the Auditorium Theatre, which is seeking $65 million -- a couple million more than the Denver Art Museum got for its new wing a couple of years ago -- for what it calls safety-code improvements and performance-space upgrades. (For $65 million, they could probably re-create the original 1908 neo-classical interior of this structure by Denver architect Robert O. Willison -- though I guarantee they won't.) Depending on how the bond initiative is worded, however, some of the money could be used to alter other elements of the so-called Plex (the Denver Performing Arts Complex), in spite of the fact that the Auditorium Theatre is administered by the city's division of theaters and arenas, which is separate from DPAC.

That's because the administration of Mayor Wellington Webb and the Denver City Council are increasingly coordinating projects between public, quasi-public and private interests. For an example, look at what's been happening at the DAM, with the recent addition of a planned residential tower to be sited across from the new addition. This proposal, which came out of left field, proves that things can change dramatically after a successful bond election.

That makes the Boettcher Concert Hall the most imminently threatened landmark. The Boettcher is a fabulous 1970s period piece by the renowned New York architectural firm of Hardy, Holzman, Pfeiffer, and it's an original component of the Kevin Roche master-planned DPAC.

Regardless of its high quality, some dimwits have already suggested that the Boettcher needs to be replaced by exaggerating its problems. The most significant of these "problems" is also one of the Boettcher's strengths -- its experimental floor plan for concerts in the round. This was a cutting-edge concept when the concert hall was built, which makes the Boettcher not only architecturally significant but historically significant as well.  

The Denver Botanic Gardens and the Auditorium Theatre may not win their bond elections. They may not even get their proposals placed on the ballot. But if these organizations do manage to win over the voters, let's hope they take an enlightened approach to their respective dream projects. That would be a nice change.

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