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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.

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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