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Denver city librarian Rick Ashton's been taking so many bows lately for "The Big New Library," which is on-time and on-budget, that he really ought to do an aerobics tape. Forgotten in all this excitement is the fact that had it been left up to Ashton, Denver wouldn't have gotten...
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Denver city librarian Rick Ashton's been taking so many bows lately for "The Big New Library," which is on-time and on-budget, that he really ought to do an aerobics tape. Forgotten in all this excitement is the fact that had it been left up to Ashton, Denver wouldn't have gotten the distinctive Michael Graves structure that has risen in Civic Center Plaza next to the historic Burnham Hoyt library. Instead, city residents would now be celebrating the opening of a square ten-story box on the cleared site of the old building.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves, so let's start back at the beginning. Way back.

That a library should express its civic role through architectural excellence is a long tradition for the Denver Public Library. The DPL's first permanent home, the 1909 Carnegie Library (now the City and County Annex No. 3) is a neoclassical gem in limestone--a little temple in the garden.

By the postwar 1940s, the Carnegie had gotten extremely crowded, with many materials being stored off-site. Originally, the DPL wanted to tear down the Carnegie and put a new library in its place. A struggle ensued between the city and the DPL's semi-autonomous governing commission over control of the site. The DPL lost the battle, and the venerable old building was spared.

(Unfortunately, as a part of the Carnegie's conversion to municipal offices, the elegant semicircular bay of book stacks that was visible through its windows was needlessly removed. The stacks were a testament to the city librarian who presided over the opening of the Carnegie, Charles Dudley, a man who revolutionized the basic nature of libraries when he developed the open-shelf system that allowed users to retrieve their own material. The loss of the stacks in the Carnegie's 1950s remodel gives us some idea how long Denver's city government has been imagining a great city while doing little to conserve the great things that are already here.)

As it had with the Carnegie, the DPL wanted its new home to be a fine work of architecture. The result was the 1955 central library by Burnham Hoyt, an interesting design that reconciled the influential Denver architect's machine-age vision (the aluminum windows with their opaque glass spandrels) with the more restrained neoclassical character dictated by the Civic Center site (white limestone and simplified references to the classical vocabulary). A half-circular bay not only responds to the curve in the West 14th Avenue Parkway but recalls Dudley's lost stacks from the Carnegie. Hoyt also zeroed in on bookshelves; a unique feature of the building he designed is a series of basement stacks that literally hold up the library's main floor.

As always, history repeated itself, and within a decade of its completion the Hoyt library was as overcrowded as the Carnegie had been. By the time the city got around to discussing an expansion of the library in the 1980s, the situation was dire, with only 25 percent of the library's 4.1 million-piece collection out on the shelves and the remainder languishing in storage.

Library officials had definite ideas about a new building long before voters overwhelmingly approved a $91.6 million capital construction bond in August 1990. And, like the last time, they wanted to put the new facility on the site of the old one, demolishing the earlier structure in the process. City librarian Ashton wanted the largest library possible with little regard for the building's design, and he, along with Laura Christensen, the president of the Library Commission, ran with the ideas. Among the stranger claims the two made at the time was that the Hoyt building couldn't be saved because the new building had to have a square floor plan.

A public debate ensued, and many people came forward to defend the Hoyt library. Respected architect Ron Mason even quit as a DPL consultant when it became apparent that library higher-ups were demanding the demolition of the Hoyt building.

Then former mayor Federico Pena, who, despite his many shortcomings, did have the keen ability to tell when the passage of a bond was endangered, came up with a solution. The DPL would save the old library, incorporating it into a new complex that would be designed by the winner of a national architectural competition. Ashton and Christensen's embrace of Pena's compromise was just this side of kicking and screaming.

The city's request for qualifications in October 1990 drew responses from many of Denver's--and the world's--most notable architects. Playing an unheralded role in the process was Craig Miller, curator of the Denver Art Museum's architecture, design and graphics department. Miller phoned Cesar Pelli, Aldo Rossi and Ettore Sottsass, among other famous architects (including the ultimate winner, Graves), and urged them to enter. The three finalists were hastily chosen at a meeting held by a Pena-appointed design-selection committee--quite a trick, given that only a few of the committee members knew anything at all about contemporary architecture.

Because politics determined the three finalists, a local needed to be among them, and highly respected Denver architect George Hoover joined two internationally known figures, Graves and Robert A. M. Stern, as the finalists. But after everyone got a glimpse of the three proposals in March 1991, it was apparent that the contest had turned into a horse race between the two big guys, Stern and Graves.

The commission could have been Hoover's for the taking, given the popular attitude that the library should go to a hometown designer. But his outlandish scheme, more novel than it was well thought out, cost him the job. Even the amateurs on the selection committee could tell the thing was a dog. The most memorable aspect of Hoover's proposal was the structure he proposed to put on the roof of the Hoyt building, a cross between a barrel vault and a Slinky meant to express the intrinsic link between books and, well, covered wagons.

My favorite was Stern's, a traditional library building that deftly picked up on Hoyt's modernism--in large part because Stern made a conscious effort to incorporate details from other Hoyt buildings. However, the Graves proposal, prepared with the help of Denver architect Brian Klipp, was nearly as good. And the building is an unqualified success, even if it may not be everyone's cup of tea.

Graves's greatest triumph is the building's effect on the scale of the Civic Center Plaza. The library visually joins the Security Life Center of 1986 to the Denver Art Museum of 1971. On the Broadway side, the new building helps to define a piazza in front of 1977's Colorado History Museum by closing off the west side, where the space formerly bled into a parking lot.

From the standpoint of historic preservation, the new building dutifully--and appropriately--pays its respects to the Hoyt original. From both Broadway and the park, the Hoyt building, which is currently undergoing restoration and renovation, retains its individuality. Graves misses on the Acoma Plaza side, where the obtrusive Children's Storytelling Pavilion blocks our view of the Hoyt building. But in all other respects, the relationship of the new addition to the old library has been handled expertly.

The Graves addition even owes much of its design to its predecessor. The complicated formal relationships that are trademark Graves are, at the same time, a response to Hoyt's work. A riot of forms makes up the building's anything-but-square footprint, and numerous elements--towers, bays, rotundas--are used to scale down the bulk of the huge addition, preventing it from dwarfing the much smaller Hoyt building. From across Civic Center Park, especially at night, this profusion of forms looks like a whole city skyline in a single block.

Many specific details in the Graves building also carry through from the Hoyt. At the base of both buildings, large windows suggest an exaggerated ground floor but actually screen two different stories; above, small square windows turn the third floor of both buildings into a false mezzanine. This effect is particularly well-shown on the Broadway side, where it continues over from the Hoyt to the Graves.

Since Graves is a chief proponent of the postmodern "more is more" philosophy, it's not surprising to find the new building thick with architectural and decorative details. There's the elaborate mix of stone and man-made materials that clad the exterior. The masonry lies along the base of the building and features subtle string courses that create horizontal lines high above. The white limestone of the Hoyt building is counterbalanced by the use of the same material on the 13th Avenue side, bracketing Graves's red and gray-green components in between. Then there are the star-shaped bronze plates that hold the shingles onto the pyramid-shaped roof of the Acoma Plaza tower.

Inside, Graves's decorative hand is visible everywhere. Walls and ceilings are figured with rectilinear ornament. The architect even designed most of the light fixtures, the carpets, the library tables and the computer terminals in the form of carrel-like desks.

Graves creates spaces that are inherently ceremonial, especially the spectacular Schlessman Hall, the principal room on the ground floor that recalls the grand public spaces of the past. Buff and gray-green limestone and light-colored maple are used extensively in the hall, which is several stories high and runs through the building, creating an east-west axis. A mammoth seventy-panel mural by Los Angeles artist Edward Ruscha is planned for this space, but it has not yet been in-stalled. Balconies from the floors above overlook Schlessman Hall, providing glimpses of the interior. Throughout the building are windows that provide views from one interior space to another, which help us to appreciate the maze of rooms.

Anywhere you go in the building, these ever-changing spaces constantly create visual drama. The main entrance, which is on the Acoma Plaza side, is fitted out with limestone on the floors and the walls. A Graves "folly" (trade lingo for an architectural conceit with no function, in this case a grid of light-colored maple struts) envelops the square-shaped entry. The "folly," which separates the entry from the down staircases on either side, suggests a lantern. The image is carried out in many other places throughout the library, and it's an appropriate one, since books are often compared not to covered wagons but to beacons.

Many of the architectural elements hinted at by the exterior are fully expressed on the interior. The submerged rotunda on 13th Avenue, for example, is completely round inside. Going up through the floors, it forms some of the building's best interior spaces--in particular, the two-story-tall main reference room just off Schlessman Hall and, upstairs, the spectacular Gates Western History Reading Room. Access to the Gates room is provided through a gallery that showcases the fine-art collection the DPL has been putting together for decades. The antique gilt-framed oil paintings, including the masterpiece of the collection, Albert Bierstadt's nineteenth-century view of Estes Park, prepare us for the luxury within. Fancy veneer work adorns the maple bookshelves that radiate around another Graves "folly"--this time a found one; it's a fragment of an old Oregon oil derrick, made of fir and used as a centerpiece for the room.

I do have one major criticism of the Graves library from the point of view of urban design--there are simply too many colors. Buildings in multiple shades are a Graves signature, but couldn't he have stuck to the established tones of the Civic Center, using the many shades that lie between gray and buff?

"The Big New Library" is an instant landmark, or, to be exact, two landmarks: Hoyt's old classic and Graves's new one. The complex can already be said to constitute one of the most significant public buildings in the state. For a change, Denver got the project it should have, even if, given the selection process, we probably didn't deserve it.

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