Down and Out in Downtown Denver

The free-for-all campaign to erase the recent history of Denver's architecture, endorsed and enabled by Mayor Wellington Webb's administration, continues unabated. And it's amazing how many of the losses are associated with the Colorado Convention Center.

The latest heartbreaking chapter came one step closer to ending a couple of weeks ago, when the city council authorized the removal of asbestos from Currigan Exhibition Hall, a necessary step before demolition. Although the city cynically offered the superb 1960s building to anyone who could figure out how to move it, no one stepped forward. Currigan will thus join the Silver Triangle neighborhood, Zeckendorf Plaza and the Denver Post building as victims of the CCC.

One of the best -- or would that be the worst? -- ironies about this situation is the fact that the CCC, as designed by Fentress and Bradburn Architects, is butt-ugly, while Currigan is beautiful. Another choice irony, one that would be delicious if it wasn't so disheartening, is that the CCC has been a business boondoggle ever since its opening in 1990.

For the first five years, the huge facility sat empty half the time. Now, a simple-minded person like myself might conclude from this that the CCC is twice the size that it needs to be. But I guess I would be wrong, because as early as 1993, the city government and the private interests that run downtown -- the Denver Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Downtown Denver Partnership -- determined that the problem wasn't that the CCC was too big, but that there was a shortage of available hotel rooms in the area.

This idea led directly to the destruction of I.M. Pei's elegant 1950s Zeckendorf Plaza, beginning in 1996. Zeckendorf was a modernist, three-building complex clustered around a courtyard, complete with an ice-skating rink, à la Rockefeller Center. It was one of the finest works of architecture ever built in Colorado, and its destruction was partly paid for with $25 million in public subsidies from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. The money went to Fred Kummer's Adams Mark Hotel. Kummer decided to demolish the hyperbolic-paraboloid element of the plaza to make way for a cocktail lounge. Today, only the tower element survives from Pei's once-gorgeous masterpiece.

The CCC continued to perform badly. Again, the obvious answer that the Convention Center was too big was dismissed as so much nonsense. And again, a hotel was seen as the potential savior. That's right, another hotel.

This time the 1940s marble-and-travertine art-moderne-style Denver Post building, by Temple Buell, was torn down in 1998 to provide a site -- not for a hotel, but for what is so far only a hotel fantasy. The site is still a parking lot, and even now there are doubts about whether a deal will finally be made. Oh, developer Bruce Berger announced last month that he's signed up the Hyatt Regency chain, but he's done that before. Last summer he announced that Marriott would be running the hotel, and then, even though DURA had promised a $55 million subsidy, the Marriott reps didn't show. You can't blame them: The subsidy isn't slated to go to a hotel owner; rather, it will be given to the developer -- none other than Berger. And the money will go further now because the Hyatt is getting a single tower instead of the twin towers proposed for the Marriott.

While Berger was shopping for a hotel, the mayor assembled a task force to deal with the ongoing financial troubles of the CCC. Absurdly, this task force did not find that nagging vacancy rates at the facility indicated that the CCC was too big, but that it was too small! Then it recommended that the Convention Center be doubled in size. Even more preposterous, Denver voters narrowly passed a bond initiative in 1999 to pay for the expansion.

The addition is to be built on the site of the adjacent Currigan Hall, but it can't go forward, according to a provision of the bond initiative, until there's a hotel deal firmly in place. Although a final agreement with Hyatt hasn't been reached and unionized hotel workers have been making trouble for Berger, the city council has proceeded as though everything were set in stone, voting 11-1 to begin the demolition of Currigan Hall.

The wonderful Currigan Hall was the product of a national design competition held by the city. Surprisingly, a local design team headed by the distinguished Denver firm of William C. Muchow Associates won. James Ream of Ream, Quinn and Associates was the lead architect on this team, and Michael Barrett was the lead engineer. Ream's poetry and Barrett's prose came together to create a supremely elegant and thoroughly intelligent building that worked in a seamless, functional way.

It is the exact opposite of the CCC.

There should have been an all-out struggle to save Currigan before the bond election, but preservationists, headed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, elected to come up with a "creative" solution instead. Their idea to move Currigan to another site, however, was doomed from the start. And the fact that the effort would have represented the largest such endeavor in the history of the world didn't dampen the support for this conceivable but unreasonable goal.

Believe it or not, some people still think Currigan will be moved, and they'll argue with me about it. But just as I knew when it was first suggested, there is no way the building will ever be moved. In fact, by suggesting it in the first place, the National Trust short-circuited any real chance to save the building or incorporate it into the program of the new Convention Center. This idea of reusing Currigan right where it is -- the building is still in wonderful shape -- was suggested early on by some preservationists, including Historic Denver's Kathleen Brooker, but Curt Fentress, the architect chosen to consult with the task force, dismissed it out of hand. Reusing Currigan would get in the way of his megalomaniacal plans for the CCC.

It's now too late for any but those on the demolition crew to catch a glimpse of the theatrical yet rational interior of Currigan Hall, but there's still time to look at the exterior, and I urge everyone, even those familiar with Currigan, to do so before it comes down. What a terrible loss that will be.

There's a little bit more time to enjoy Skyline Park, which runs up the side of Arapahoe Street between 15th and 18th streets, but not much.

Again, a cabal of public and private interests, headed by the Webb administration, is set to destroy the park, despite the fact that there's nothing essentially wrong with it and that, like Currigan, it's a valuable element in the city's dwindling stock of first-rate material culture. Like Zeckendorf, Skyline is a significant work of art by an acknowledged master in the field, Lawrence Halprin, one of the world's premier landscape designers. Now in his eighties, Halprin is still in active practice in San Francisco.

Skyline is really unusual. It's recessed beneath grade in places while at grade in others; you have to walk through it to appreciate it. Along the edges, sculptural berms and planters made of cast-concrete aggregate are filled with trees and bushes. These elements shelter a meandering walkway punctuated by three fountains, each distinctly different in design. The fountains have not been well maintained by the city, however, and run only sporadically. The trees and bushes are mostly in good shape, as is the aggregate; claims to the contrary aren't true. The D & F Tower also stands in the park.

In 1998, Denver voters approved $40 million-plus in bond money for city park improvements. A modest $2 million was allocated to Skyline Park, predicated on another $1 million in matching funds from private donors. In 1999, the Downtown Denver Partnership hired the local landscape firm of Design Workshop to come up with a conceptual scheme for a revamped Skyline. Those who had hoped that the park would be preserved were sadly disappointed when Design Workshop's scheme was released in a brochure and appeared in the December 1999 issue of Landscape Architecture. The plan, gushingly described by writer Michael Leccese, was not so much pedestrian-friendly as simply pedestrian.

Design Workshop proposed bringing the entire park up to street level, demolishing the berms, planters and fountains and covering the whole thing with sod alternating with brick pavers. It was right out of one of those Time-Life how-to books on patios and barbecue pits. The landscape architects from Design Workshop, Todd Johnson and Sue Oberliesen, proved not only that they are incapable of working with Halprin's park, but that they shouldn't even be trusted to sharpen the old man's pencils. The design was so obviously mediocre, in fact, that even the Downtown Partnership realized it and went back to the drawing board. This time a design competition was held, and the Toronto firm of Urban Strategies was hired to act as a neutral facilitator in the writing of the competition's Request for Proposals.

A couple of weeks ago, Ken Greenberg of Urban Strategies addressed a public meeting concerning the newly penned Skyline RFP. He made it clear that in spite of his purported neutrality, he wasn't going to be bothered with preserving what he called an "obsolete park." No -- he'd like to see things like an ice-skating rink there, you know, à la Zeckendorf Plaza. And as one questioner after another asked about preservation, Greenberg became increasingly exasperated and even rude, coyly pretending that he couldn't understand why people wouldn't accept his evasive and non-committal answers.

Although the Downtown Denver Partnership commissioned Paul Foster, a respected architect in private practice, to thoroughly research and document the existing park, preservation is not a part of the RFP.

On the other hand, $3 million isn't much money, and it's worth less all the time. So maybe they won't be able to afford to knock down the park's sculptural attributes and will have to keep them instead. We can always hope.

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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