Death of a Salesroom

Watching over the nearly completed destruction of I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza is reminiscent of those "thinnest books in the world" sold in novelty shops. You know the kind--Honest Lawyers or Inspired Bureaucrats. Unfortunately, the pageless gag in this case could be titled something like Great Denver Buildings.

But that's not so funny, is it?
As things now stand, Greater Denver's built environment contains perhaps only one building in a thousand that manifests even the slightest historic or architectural interest. And that's being kind. To be unkind would be to describe the city as Frank Lloyd Wright did during a lecture at the University of Denver in the 1940s--as "a pig pile."

That's not to say there aren't some areas where great buildings tend to congregate, particularly in central Denver. But although private citizens have come a long way in protecting the mansions of Capitol Hill or the public monuments of the Civic Center, the story of downtown Denver--long the home of the most important examples of commercial architecture in the Rocky Mountain region--has been a very different and a very sad tale.

Decades of demolition downtown have left only a veneer of the urban fabric. Only 17th Street retains its established character, while much of the rest of downtown is defined chiefly by parking lots or service entrances. There are even several cleared blocks along the 16th Street Mall!

The reason this has been allowed to happen is that there is no meaningful protection for historic buildings in Denver--a fact that has been clearly illustrated over the last two months with the ongoing Chinese-water-torture destruction of Pei's world-class masterpiece.

Zeckendorf Plaza until recently comprised four key architectural elements: the hotel block; the department-store box; the hyperbolic paraboloid; and the internationally influential open space that connects the three other features, blending them into one. By the time the current renovations are finished, only one of these elements will survive: the magnificent hotel. And current changes will even leave their mark on that lone survivor--the hotel is currently being stripped of its most important interior details.

The Denver Landmark Preservation Commission was established decades ago to deal with situations exactly like the one that confronted the city when Zeckendorf Plaza was threatened with destruction. The ordinance that created the landmark commission theoretically gives the city the power to prevent an owner insensitive to the cultural value of a work of architecture from destroying it.

But Denver's ordinance has no teeth, because it gives the city council the ultimate authority and thus the power to veto the decisions of the landmark commission. This is what happened with Zeckendorf in the summer of 1995. Only two councilmembers endorsed the landmarking of the plaza--Bill Scheitler and Mary DeGroot--despite the fact that Zeckendorf had been unanimously endorsed by the landmark commission. Both Scheitler and DeGroot were lame ducks at the time, though DeGroot had long been the best friend preservationists ever had on the city council and surely would have voted the same way regardless of her political status. In fact, most preservationists knew that Zeckendorf's only chance for salvation was having DeGroot elected mayor--Wellington Webb's never-believed pre-election pledges to endorse landmarking notwithstanding.

To put a sophisticated work of art such as Zeckendorf Plaza before the Webb administration or the city council for their aesthetic or intellectual evaluation is not unlike the legendary casting of pearls before swine. Even though the makeup of the council has changed considerably since last summer, preservation still has only a couple of potential allies sitting on the dais. And while the landmark commission is made up of professionals in architecture and history who are charged with objectively evaluating the merits of buildings, the city council, for the most part, makes its decisions based on political concerns. Not even the most naive among us need wonder what happens when a fight turns political: Whoever has the most money wins. And in efforts to save historic buildings, the forces of demolition always seem to have more money than their opponents in the preservation community. So the loss of Zeckendorf Plaza gave us a civics lesson we really didn't need in the first place.

When St. Louis-based hotel magnate and carpetbagger Fred Kummer came to town and purchased Zeckendorf Plaza one and a half years ago, he had a clever idea: He asked for more than $30 million in outright grants and tax set-asides, a request that amounted to taxpayer-subsidized welfare for the rich. (This is apparently what government means when it talks about public/private partnerships.) The package of free money handed to Kummer represents 80 percent of the amount he paid Omicron, the previous owner, to purchase the Pei masterpiece. And nearly two-thirds of the public subsidy has been provided through the largess of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, which floated bonds, a block of which Kummer then turned around and bought himself. That means Kummer is lending the city the money it is giving back to him while simultaneously collecting interest on the cash. Amazing.

Since the stakes were so high for Kummer, he chose one of the top lawyers in town to mastermind a political campaign to destroy one of the greatest works of architecture in the western United States. The attorney of record for Kummer when Zeckendorf was sold down the river? None other than that citizen activist, Tom Strickland--the man who puts the Strickland into Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland. Just as in his present Democratic Senate campaign, the mud flew, but Strickland's hands remained clean. It surely wasn't Strickland, for example, who planted on the front page of the Denver Post a ludicrous story that sought to strip Pei's name off the complex.

Strickland was seen at several of the various public meetings that made up the death march for Zeckendorf, sitting in the gallery and scribbling notes. But, perhaps thinking ahead to his Senate run, the Tom Selleck look-alike never said a word in public. Instead, the assault on taxpayers' aesthetic and fiscal sensibilities was led by Andy Loewi, an able Brownstein lawyer whose own political dreams--to be the Denver district attorney--had already been crushed some years ago.

Loewi's approach to the job was to cast stinging ridicule. The preservation of Zeckendorf was laughable, he said, and by implication, so were the preservation activists across the aisle and the landmark commission itself. It was a strategy that didn't really work outside the Kummer camp. But that didn't matter--not when DURA was fully on board as part of Kummer's scheme team.

The public agency's turncoat position was hardly unexpected. No entity is more responsible for the sorry state of Denver's central business district than DURA, which years ago was nicknamed the "Urban Removal Authority." Since it was established in the late 1950s, DURA has been directly responsible for the loss of nearly 300 historic buildings, almost all of which once stood downtown or in Auraria. The keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, Carol Shull, once remarked to me that Denver had "suffered the loss of more historic buildings than any city of its size in America."

It was par for the course when current DURA director Susan Powers, the latest in a line of blind visionaries, opposed landmark status for Zeckendorf. But if opposing preservation was old hat at DURA, the agency now had to contend with something new: relatively recent guidelines that proscribe the authority from funding projects that threaten "landmarks or potential landmarks." There was no question that Pei's plaza qualified, since it was identified for preservation in the city's Comprehensive Plan as early as 1989. DURA's answer? Toss out the guidelines.

But if DURA's bad behavior could have been predicted, a real curve was thrown into the process when Webb's appointed planning director, Jennifer Moulton, got in bed with Powers in the campaign to destroy Zeckendorf. A former director of Historic Denver, the preservation group that led the charge to save the plaza, Moulton was often seen extending her hand to her former comrades. The trouble was, it was always the back of it, with Moulton even refusing to huddle with the preservation coalition.

Some of Moulton's more recent actions reveal just how bad the outcome really was over at 16th Street and Court Place--as well as how terrible the replacement buildings will be. Why else would Moulton have been distancing herself from the project since as early as last winter--months before Kummer's bond grab bag was even delivered? You don't need more than an iota of insight to understand how complete the Webb administration's failure was at Zeckendorf--not when Moulton, the smartest rat on the sinking ship, jumped overboard six months ago. So when you hear her apologists, notably planning-department subordinate Tyler Gibbs and planning-board member Bill Hornby, say in print that it wasn't Moulton's culpa, that she didn't collaborate with the enemies of architectural excellence, don't believe them.

As the dust settles at Zeckendorf, there are plenty of people in line for praise. Kathleen Brooker, the head of Historic Denver, took many below-the-belt hits from the scheme team but remained unwavering in her efforts. Brooker was bolstered by a veritable who's who of architecture and preservation, including Pei biographer Carter Wiseman and internationally respected architect and preservationist Robert A.M. Stern. Many professional organizations in engineering, technology, architecture and history, most notably the American Society of Architectural Historians, also did their part.

Particularly hardworking here in the city were Rich Von Luhrte, then president of the Denver chapter of the American Institute of Architects; Jim Hartmann, the president of the Colorado Historical Society; Diane Wray, the director of the Modern Architecture Preservation League; Tom Gougeon and John Parr, who courageously stood together opposing Kummer against the rest of the DURA board; the entire Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, especially Seth Rosenman, who resigned in disgust over the failure of the process; and former Pei associate and Denver architect Alan Gass, an original designer on the project, among a score of others.

Having a ringside seat for the disgraceful events that ultimately resulted in the shared loss of Zeckendorf Plaza is enough to make you ashamed to live in Denver--until you remember the citizens who, despite the tremendous odds against them, fought on till the end. But they've got their work cut out for them, because, as we all saw at Zeckendorf, the game is rigged against them.

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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