Down and Out in Downtown Denver

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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.

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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