Art

Death of a Salesroom

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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.

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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