Eve of Destruction
Downtown is on the verge of losing the historic Denver Post building, at 15th and California streets, to make way for a "temporary" parking lot. Preservationists are hoping to find a way to save the building, but they may have little chance of doing so.
Developer Bruce Berger says he will ask the city for permission to level the building and replace it with a parking lot. Berger has the property under contract from its owner, the Los Angeles-based Times Mirror Co., which formerly owned the Post. While a price has not been disclosed, Times Mirror had been asking $8.5 million for the block.
The Post building has been vacant since the newspaper moved its offices in 1989. The block, just across the street from the Colorado Convention Center, is considered a prime site for a new hotel. And building a 1,000-room hotel to serve the convention center would likely require a multi-million-dollar subsidy from the city.
Berger insists he has no choice but to tear the building down. He says that several national hotel companies are interested in the property, but they want the site cleared before they'll spend millions on a project.
"Large hotel chains would be concerned if it wasn't free and clear," says Berger.
He also says there is no way to incorporate the building into a new high-rise hotel. Because of the layout of one-way streets around the site, architects working on the project have told city officials that the corner where it sits is the only possible site for the hotel's porte cochere, or covered driveway.
"We've spent a lot of money on architectural studies," says Berger. "You cannot accommodate a hotel and parking if you keep the building. If it could be saved, we would."
But preservationists say the building is architecturally significant, one of just a handful of local examples of the 1940s art moderne style of architecture. This style featured streamlined facades accented with glass blocks and geometric patterns.
"To me, the building is stylistically very unique," says Diane Wray, a boardmember of the Modern Architecture Preservation League. "There are only two examples of this style downtown."
Denver has lost several important buildings from this period in the past few years, and activists like Wray fear the 1940s could become a lost decade in Denver's architectural history. The only other downtown art moderne structure is the former Guaranty Title building, at 909 17th Street, which is now being renovated into a hotel.
To some, Berger's plan to level the block is eerily reminiscent of Denver in the 1970s and early 1980s, when entire city blocks were bulldozed for "temporary" parking lots, many of which are still in use. The most visible of these took up the two blocks between Welton Street and Tremont Place on the 16th Street Mall. For more than ten years the city desperately tried to spur some kind of development there, finally luring the Pavilions project, now under construction with a $24 million city subsidy.
If Berger gets his way, there will be another block of parking space downtown, just across the street from the Pavilions.
"I have concerns about parking as an interim use," says Denver City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt. "We could end up with a parking lot there for years."
Barnes-Gelt remembers a huge fight that erupted in 1990 when the old Central Bank building at 15th and Arapahoe streets--a city-designated historic landmark--was scheduled for demolition. Despite the efforts of preservationists, that building was destroyed and replaced with a parking lot. Barnes-Gelt says that experience should be a warning as the city ponders the fate of the old Post building.
"Given our unfortunate history of demolishing buildings without a timetable for reuse, it's troubling," she adds.
Previous to the Central Bank demolition, downtown property owners had an automatic right to open parking lots on their property. But many believed that the opportunity to create lucrative parking lots was encouraging the destruction of historic buildings, and the city council eventually changed downtown zoning in response to public outcry. Outside of the lower downtown historic district, owners still have the right to demolish their buildings, but they have to ask the city for permission to open a parking lot. That's why Berger must ask for city council approval of his plan.
"This will be a good test of the support the city has for the revised zoning," says Historic Denver president Kathleen Brooker.
Berger insists that his property won't be a parking lot for long. He says several hotel developers have their eye on downtown Denver and are keenly interested in building a big hotel to serve the convention center. He also says that construction of a new hotel is not dependent upon the proposed expansion of the convention center.
"It's our intention to begin marketing for a hotel immediately," Berger says. "It's our goal to do it sooner rather than later. We believe the market would support a second hotel today."
Barnes-Gelt predicts that whatever development group emerges to build the new hotel will inevitably ask for some kind of public subsidy. "I don't know how they could build a convention-center hotel without a public investment," she says.
The Post occupied its former headquarters for more than forty years. Despite that long history, the paper has been rooting for the destruction of the building, even describing it in an editorial as a "heap of old cinderblocks." The daily seems determined to prove that sentiment won't sway its allegiance to big money. Columnist Chuck Green even took a break from writing about the murder of JonBenet Ramsey to say the building should be "condemned into a dustheap."
The Post has a poor track record when it comes to historic preservation. The newspaper was an enthusiastic backer of the Skyline Urban Renewal project that leveled much of historic Denver in the 1970s, and it supported the destruction of the I.M. Pei-designed paraboloid by the Adam's Mark Hotel.
But the Post didn't always think so little of its own heritage. When the building opened in 1950--commissioned by Post heiress Helen Bonfils and designed by legendary Denver architect Temple Buell--the newspaper spent weeks boasting about its new multi-million-dollar headquarters. The Post's longtime slogan, "O Justice, When Expelled From Other Habitations Make This Thy Dwelling Place," was painted above the entrance, and a statue of blindfolded Justice with scale in hand stood on the roof of the building.
The newspaper even sent popular columnist Red Fenwick on a horseback tour of neighboring states to celebrate its new building. Fenwick's assignment was to deliver one solid silver, gold-trimmed spur to the governor of each of the thirteen states regarded as part of the "Rocky Mountain Empire." He drove around the West in a Lincoln sedan, carrying his three-year-old pinto gelding, G-Boy, in a horse trailer. Dressed in a white Stetson, chaps and leather vest, Fenwick rode G-Boy up the steps of each state capitol to deliver the Post's silver spurs.
Despite the importance of the Post building in Denver's history, saving it promises to be an uphill battle. Preservationists have had a difficult time convincing the public that post-war architecture is something worth keeping. Besides the paraboloid, recent losses include the Boettcher School, at 19th and Downing, which many believed to be one of the best examples of 1940s international style design in Denver.
Brooker says the old Denver Public Library building in Civic Center is the only post-war building threatened with demolition that was eventually saved, becoming part of the new library. That building held sentimental value for a generation of people who grew up with the library, but the other post-war structures haven't elicited as much emotion.
"These post-war buildings are hard for people to see as significant," says Brooker. "It takes more acute vision to look at landmarks of the recent past."
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