The Denver Art Museum's Makeover Is a Towering Achievement

The Sie Welcome Center fronts the renovated Martin Building.
The Sie Welcome Center fronts the renovated Martin Building. James Florio Photography

The long-awaited reopening of the iconic Gio Ponti-designed tile-clad tower wing of the Denver Art Museum — now called the Martin Building — as well as the new, low-rise Sie Welcome Center immediately adjacent to it is finally here. The doors will open to the general public on Sunday, October 24, with free admission all day, and for the first time since November 2017, the entire DAM campus will be back on line. The initial plan was to reopen in stages beginning in May 2020, but then COVID got in the way. All along, though, the goal was to have the whole project finished in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the original opening of the building in October 1971.

The DAM had been around for three-quarters of a century by the time the Ponti opened; its origins date back to 1893, when the Denver Artists Club was formed. For most of its early history, however, the museum was a vagabond institution with no fixed location, instead using ad hoc spaces in various spots, including the Denver City and County Building and Chappell House, a long-demolished mansion on Capitol Hill.

In 1948, the DAM purchased its current site at the Denver Civic Center, and hired Burnham Hoyt to remodel an old car dealership into its first permanent facility. This building did not have proper climate or security controls, so when the Samuel H. Kress Foundation offered the DAM an art collection then worth $2 million, the gift was predicated on the condition that a new building would be constructed. Hoyt was again tapped as the designer, and the resulting limestone-clad box was completed in 1954.

A decade later, in the mid-1960s, it was clear that the place was bursting at the seams — not only from the accumulated bequests and acquisitions, but also the increasing number of would-be museum-goers. Then-director Otto Bach essentially handed the job of coming up with a new museum building to James Sudler, a prominent Denver architect. Sudler could have taken the job himself, but decided instead that it called for a world-class talent.
click to enlarge The 1966 model for the new Denver Art Museum. - DAM
The 1966 model for the new Denver Art Museum.
Sudler is said to have approached several candidates, including I. M. Pei, but Italy’s Gio Ponti ultimately accepted the offer and subsequently designed his only building in North America. Ponti was an off-the-wall choice; though he was an architect’s architect, he was not widely known outside the profession, unlike Pei. In his earlier built work, Sudler had demonstrated a fondness for Ponti: The architect’s influence is clearly seen in Sudler’s United States Courthouse and the Rogers Federal Building located on Stout Street between 19th and 20th streets, and the complex’s polygonal tower obviously footnotes Ponti’s famous 1958 Pirelli Building in Milan. Sudler’s Denver complex was completed in 1965, the same year he brought Ponti in for the DAM project.

Ponti was charged with creating the museum’s exterior, conjuring up an idiosyncratic Brutalist masterpiece. Meanwhile, Sudler worked out the interior, which was finished simply and functionally. Bach had determined that visitors could easily experience museum fatigue, and to counteract that, he felt that galleries should be stacked instead of running end to end. For the site of the DAM tower, Bach further determined that a pair of stacked gallery blocks would create the ideal size for spaces inside. Visitors could take the elevator to the desired floor, then almost effortlessly dart through an exhibit. While Bach was doing nothing more than some kind of voodoo way-finding, his plans actually worked well.

The resulting building features conjoined seven-story-tall, non-matching rectilinear stacks with two additional subterranean floors. The paired volumes are unified and defined by the two dozen vertically oriented planes that abut or overlap to form an angular wrap enclosing the complicated footprint. These planes are divided in places by vertically aligned windows running to the top of the walls; elsewhere, the windows pierce the planes in emphatic patterns, a few of which are seemingly random, while some are organized and geometric. The windows are variously shaped as squares, elongated rectangles and hexagons, with a few hooded and/or deeply recessed. This elaborate fenestration scheme lends the building a lot of visual interest, with Ponti creating a secondary pattern by internally lighting selected windows. Exterior neon lighting ran between the joints in the planes, from the ground floor to the roof.
click to enlarge The original Ponti Building, completed in 1971. - WAYNE THOM
The original Ponti Building, completed in 1971.
Wayne Thom
The planes have been covered in hand-set tiles — around a million of them — done in a smokey, silver-gray thermal glass. Ponti had long been interested in using tiles, designing them for makers, notably the legendary Richard Ginori, and employing them in many applications. His slightly older Cattedrale Gran Madre de Dio in Taranto, Italy, is closely associated with the DAM, with similarly conceived tiles and intricate window shapes set in patterns. The top surfaces of the DAM tiles are predominantly pyramidal, while another, smaller set is flat-surfaced. The juxtaposition of the two treatments is employed here and there to create subtle, super-graphic designs on the sides of the walls. Although both types of tiles are done in the same color, the designs themselves stand out, because their distinct profiles allow the patterns to be seen as light skims across them, either in daylight or through the elaborate recessed lighting scheme at night.

The ground floor of the southernmost volume featured a glass curtain wall punctuated at one end by a stainless-steel tunnel that had been the main entrance. Next to the tunnel was a concave, curved wall that was one side of an otherwise never-built, football-shaped auditorium. Attached but offset from the southeast end was the Hoyt-designed building.

In the late 1990s, the DAM was again in a space crunch, and an expansion was under discussion. At that time, when the appreciation of modernism had reached a nadir, some in the community advocated tearing the Ponti down and constructing something new on its site. Fortunately, this idiotic idea never got any traction with the board or with then-director Lewis Sharp, who decided instead to build a new, freestanding wing across West 13th Avenue. The successful solution was the Hamilton Building, a clutch of silvery spikes rambling along a plaza, designed by then-rising star Daniel Libeskind and completed in 2006.

Even then, the Ponti tower needed work. In the decades since it had opened, the building had become shop-worn. Tiles had cracked and broken, and a few had fallen off completely; the exterior lighting had been turned off for many years. The lights installed above certain windows had been covered over with drywall, as had several of the windows themselves. Various rooms used for storage and offices had been carved out of the galleries, seriously cutting down on exhibition space. And the elevators were overtaxed, with about half the passenger capacity needed.
click to enlarge Revitalized Gio Ponti tube entrance into the Martin Building - JAMES FLORIO PHOTOGRAPHY
Revitalized Gio Ponti tube entrance into the Martin Building
James Florio Photography
Sharp’s successor, Christoph Heinrich, came to the museum in 2007 as curator of modern and contemporary art and was promoted to deputy director in 2009. He became director in 2010 and soon began contemplating a Ponti rehab. “We started very humbly,” recalls Heinrich, saying that at first he thought the building might just need $6 or $7 million worth of repairs. In 2015, Tryba Architects drew up a master plan for the rehab of the building. In 2017, Fentress Architects teamed up with the firm of Machado Silvetti, and they were hired by the DAM to oversee the restoration of the tower and to design a new building to replace the remains of the old Hoyt building. The cost of the project turned out to be $150 million, with another $25 million in endowment money, mostly raised through donations, supplemented by $35.5 million in bond money from the city.

Curt Fentress had decided to team up with Jorge Silvetti in order to tap his well-known expertise regarding Ponti’s concepts and theories. One problem that Silvetti immediately saw was how visually disjointed the Ponti and Hamilton were, and he also took into consideration the nearby Denver Central Library by Michael Graves. He showed donors an altered image of a Cézanne still life from which he had removed a single piece of fruit, an orange, which made the remaining objects look unrelated. The next image showed the orange back in place, and the whole thing suddenly held together.

The orange in this design is the second-floor circular glass drum on the striking new Sie Welcome Center, named for Anna and John Sie in recognition of a gift of $12 million. The walls of the drum element are made from 25-foot-high sheets of concave glass. The circular volume serves to balance the verticals of the tower in the same way that the never-built auditorium would have. Forceful and insistent aesthetically, through its placement the building succeeds in creating a link to both the Hamilton and the library. The Sie, which is 50,000 square feet, provides the new main entrance. It features a spectacular lighted ceiling in a constructivist pattern, and a grand staircase in cast terrazzo with sinuous aluminum railings. Up the steps, inside that circular drum, is a gorgeously appointed event space.
click to enlarge Indigenous Arts of North America galleries. - JAMES FLORIO PHOTOGRAPHY
Indigenous Arts of North America galleries.
James Florio Photography
The Ponti tower has been renamed the Martin Building in honor of a gift of $25 million made by Sharon and Lanny Martin. On the outside, the damaged and missing tiles were restored with ceramic reproductions of the glass originals, and the obsolete exterior lighting was replaced with up-to-date technology. Aside from these restorative moves, Silvetti and Fentress made only a few exterior changes. These involve the tweaking of the ground-level glass curtain wall, the removal of the curved wall, and the expansion of the submerged forecourt that includes a new bridge supporting the tube entrance walkway, as well as a glass-walled conservation center. Inside, all those added offices and storerooms were removed, and the formerly blocked windows were uncovered, with the window lights put back in.

On the ground level, a new double-height education center was installed where the event space used to be, and the special exhibition gallery beyond was reopened. One of the most challenging interior changes was the insertion of two additional elevators opposite the existing pair that were themselves refreshed with new units. There have also been a lot of hidden improvements to the utility infrastructure. One major change was the extension of the floor plate on the second level, extending what had been just a partial mezzanine. Finally, and likely the most serious interior change, was the building out of the seventh level onto the rarely used roof deck.
click to enlarge Architecture and Design galleries. - JAMES FLORIO PHOTOGRAPHY
Architecture and Design galleries.
James Florio Photography
The permanent collection galleries on the second to seventh levels have been opened up, improving circulation and spawning new interior vistas from one space to the next, as well as providing higher visibility from the elevator lobbies where visitors alight. On level 2, there’s the Northwest Coast and Alaskan Art gallery in a space little changed from its Sudler design, with extremely tall ceilings to accommodate the totem poles, and the extended mezzanine space adjacent housing the Architecture and Design department.
Level 3 showcases Indigenous Arts of North America, one of the DAM’s largest and most significant collections, which reaches down to level 2 to encompass those totem poles. Latin American Art and Art of the Ancient Americas on level 4 allows for a survey to run from the Mayan through the Madonna up to Matta. The Asian Art collection, another major hoard, is on Level 5. Level 6 is something of a sampler, with European Art before 1800, Textile Art and Fashion, and Photography, each in its own set of rooms.

The expanded level 7, the top floor, is finally big enough to give Western American Art its due. The curators from all these individual specialties have reinstalled the galleries by bringing out old favorites alongside new or previously stored pieces. Collectively, it’s an amazing set of displays and takes hours to see in its entirety.

Jorge Silvetti and Curt Fentress have given the DAM its money’s worth; everything has been thoroughly thought out, elegantly conceived and beautifully executed. It’s a towering achievement.
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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