Denver Art Museum Will Renovate North Building Designed by Gio Ponti

At the Collector’s Choice fundraiser on Thursday,  December 8, at the Denver Art Museum, director Christoph Heinrich formally announced that the museum would undertake a more than $150 million rehab of the North Building. He also revealed that husband-and-wife benefactors J. Landis Martin and Sharon Martin had pledged to contribute $25 million toward that effort. In acknowledgment of this impressive gift, the refurbished building will be named the J. Landis and Sharon Martin Building. The DAM intends to complete the project by 2021, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the structure.

The Denver Art Museum’s North Building (soon to be the Martin Building) comprises a pair of entwined seven-story towers designed by Gio Ponti and James Sudler. Its site is a prominent one on the south side of the Civic Center, just west of Michael Graves’s Central Library.
The North Building is a Denver icon, to put it mildly. An early example of museum-as-art-object, the gray, glass-covered mid-rise opened its doors to the public in 1971. Its design was considered outrageous then, an opinion that has changed little in the intervening decades. The building is also significant because it is the only one in North America constructed according to a design by Ponti, a legendary Italian architect and designer. Ponti was famous when he designed the place, and is even more famous now that he's passed away.

A decade ago, in 2006, the museum opened the Hamilton Building designed by Daniel Libeskind, across West 13th Avenue, and the museum's focus inevitably shifted away from the North Building. Even then, officials at the museum knew that mechanical, electrical, HVAC, plumbing and other utilities were obsolete, and one deficit, the shortage of elevators, was actually affecting visitor experiences.

Those issues are all going to be dealt with. The preliminary plans that Heinrich showed me include a new bay of elevators subtly slotted opposite the existing ones. But the plans include much more than updating: There are some prominent alterations, especially with regard to the interior. Fortunately, some of the most extreme ideas that have floated during formal design discussions — such as putting an elevator on the exterior on the back side — have been jettisoned.

Fentress Architects in Denver, together with Machado Silvetti from Boston, will oversee the job. Machado Silvetti partner Jorge Silvetti has had a longstanding interest in Ponti’s career, which surely attracted him to the project.
The biggest changes currently suggested are those proposed for the front of the building and the area to the south. Don’t worry about the stainless-steel tube entrance: that’s not going to be damaged in any way. In fact, you could say that it will be enhanced by the addition of a bridge over the recessed courtyard. That courtyard is currently accessed through a side gate, but in the plans, the entire submerged space will be opened up and greatly extended, running from the tube to the current rectilinear wing that houses the restaurant Palettes.

This limestone-covered box, though connected to the Ponti towers, is actually a separate building. It’s the remains of a 1950s-era museum, the rest of which was torn down to make room for the Ponti. This wing is to be demolished and replaced by a new multi-story radial pavilion that will provide an additional entrance to the North Building, convenient to the Hamilton.

One sad note: The curved wall out front, a remnant of an unbuilt portion of the museum, will be removed.
Another big change: The never completely finished seventh floor — half is now a rooftop patio — will be enclosed, though that will not be visible from the street, since the walls are already there. Plans include the retention of some outdoor spaces on the roof: in particular, the areas next to those inverted arches that pierce the skyline, with the rest of the large floor plate to be finished off as galleries. In addition, many other interior changes will be made, including the extension of the second floor over the double-height gallery beyond the elevators, which will provide additional exhibition space.

In a recent interview I had with director Heinrich, he expressed his great respect for Ponti’s work, and it was apparent that he held the building in the highest regard. No surprise, then, that he has advocated taking a gentle hand with the reconditioning. And J. Landis Martin, the donor and, not incidentally, the DAM’s board chairman, has described the Ponti as “one of the most significant objects in the museum’s collection.” In Denver, which has become a veritable demolition derby of late, these preservation-minded views in regard to this building are comforting.
Construction on the North Building is set to get under way by the end of 2017.

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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