Against the Grain

Denver and its suburbs are in a building boom that has been dubbed "supergrowth," and the negative effect in terms of lost historic buildings is reaching a critical mass. It's undeniable: Denver's established character is being erased.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the problem is twofold.

First, the vast majority of the new buildings aren't very good architecturally; most are examples of a kind of degraded historical revivalism in which formless structures are covered in synthetic stucco and meaningless ornaments -- an ersatz style that has been laughingly named "new urbanism."

Second, despite the big opportunities presented by the mostly empty Platte Valley and former Lowry Air Force Base and the big pitfalls that need to be avoided in already built-out neighborhoods like Hilltop and Montclair, urban design decisions made by local politicians, especially those related to historic preservation and the design review for new buildings, have been uninspired at best -- disastrous at worst.

There are many villains here. The mediocre designers cranking out tripe. The greedy developers who want the most for the least and who exploit open land or existing neighborhoods for profit. But sloth and avarice are old sins, and the real fault, at least in central Denver, lies with Mayor Wellington Webb and his administration's planning department.

Here's the situation. Monied interests -- developers, contractors and investors -- need to get permission from the city in order to build anything. Many also need to request zoning changes. Some even want public subsidies. The city reviews these proposals, but nothing can be done without its permission. That means that the Webb administration can help determine what the city looks like -- in the same way that the administration of former mayor Federico Peña did.

Ever wonder why lower downtown wasn't cleared for parking lots and is instead one of the city's choicest neighborhoods? Coors Field was Peña's idea. At the time, the neighborhood was run-down, and its mostly vacant buildings were prime candidates for demolition if a stadium was built. So Peña used his political power to push for the creation of the Lower Downtown Historic District, which put strict preservation controls in place. Only then did he propose the idea of Coors Field. Is there anyone who could deny the success?

Compare this to Webb's handling of east Denver, for example. Spiraling real estate values have put pressure on the largest and most important properties in Hilltop, Crestmoor and Montclair, many of them architecturally significant homes with fine old trees and shrubs. But these buildings are being demolished at an alarming rate and their grounds cleared of their mature landscaping. So where there once was a historic house, there are now two, three, or even six Highlands Ranch-style monstrosities.

Consider the sad fate of the 1921 Spanish colonial Burns Mansion that stood at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Monaco Parkway before it was demolished last year. Three ugly neo-traditional houses have replaced the elegant mansion and its grounds, and three more are planned for the near future.

There is a glimmer of hope in the city council's recent emergency moratorium on lot-splitting in Hilltop -- sponsored by Councilwoman Polly Flobeck -- but Montclair and Crestmoor are still swinging in the breeze. And the moratorium doesn't address other urgent issues such as historic preservation, landscape preservation and design review.

It's ironic that speculative builders are able to trade on the charm of these established neighborhoods while chipping away at them and destroying the things that made them desirable in the first place. Thus the loss is not subjective, but represents a genuine decline in the objective urban values of historic architecture and established landscape design.

A variation on this theme is also apparent in Cherry Creek North. Although there is little of genuine architectural value in the residential section (despite the heart-wrenching stories of elderly couples being forced to sell their half-million-dollar two-bedroom ranchers), it's a different story in the shopping section, which sports an ever-dwindling stock of first-rate commercial buildings.

One of the best -- until it was destroyed by the insensitive and thorough remodeling now under way -- was the Sears department store, at 2375 First Avenue. Built in the 1950s to a design by Denver architect Temple Buell, it featured fine masonry work in brick and stone-like aggregate trimmed in smart-looking aluminum. The building's volumes were assembled in a pleasing cubist cluster, and cantilevered aluminum overhangs helped set the futuristic tone.

And those wonderful green neon signs!

All of that will be lost. The building is being stripped to its structural members and will be reconfigured and resurfaced into oblivion. When they're done, we'll have another bland and unremarkable shopping center at the expense of a noteworthy landmark that only needed a good cleaning.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

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