On May 23, the Denver Botanic Gardens was among the first of the city’s cultural institutions to begin a phased reopening after Governor Jared Polis’s Colorado stay-at-home order transitioned into the looser Safer at Home phase. The Gardens had a big advantage over the Denver Art Museum or the still-shuttered Denver Performing Arts Complex: It is almost completely located outside. Yet the majority of its indoor spaces, most notably the iconic Boettcher Conservatory, are still closed. That’s about to change: While the conservatory will not be reopening any time soon, the newly constructed Freyer-Newman Center, which houses facilities for art, science and education, will finally let the public in on Saturday, September 26.
The opening of the Freyer-Newman Center marks the last phase of an ambitious master plan created by Tryba Architects and carried out during Denver Botanic Gardens CEO Brian Vogt’s tenure, which began in 2007. The new building cost $40 million, while another $5 million was spent rehabbing the Boettcher Memorial Center. That was funded by private donors and the General Obligation Bond passed in Denver in 2017.
David Daniel, a principal at Denver’s Davis Partnership Architects, designed the Freyer-Newman Center. He is the mastermind behind 2019's zig-zagging Prism office building at 999 17th Street, which I named one of the ten best new buildings downtown.
The Freyer-Newman Center boasts its own individual identity while referring back to the original Usonian style of the 1960s campus designed by the late Victor Hornbein. The Usonian philosophy championed the relationship of the building to its site, and it privileged the connections between indoors and outdoors. It was developed in the mid-twentieth century by Frank Lloyd Wright and was his attempt to create a purely American style of architecture, hence “US-onian.” Hornbein was Colorado’s premier proponent of this approach, which he used in some of the original structures at the Gardens and the stunning Ross-Broadway Branch Library at 33 East Bayaud Avenue.
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The most obvious Hornbein-inspired elements to be employed in Daniel’s Freyer-Newman Center are the simplified tree shapes used as structural supports in front of the entrance and in the atrium, along with the juxtaposition of cast concrete to red limestone in the masonry walls. However, Daniel’s extensive use of glass curtain walls, divided into strictly horizontal/vertical grids, is a distinct departure from the existing Hornbein details.
Visitors will enter the building directly through the main entrance on York Street, or via a staircase at the north end of the Boettcher, which is open even if the adjacent conservatory isn’t. I took the stairs connecting one building to the other when I went on a tour with Lisa Eldred, DBG director of exhibitions and learning engagement and the senior curator, joined by associate director and associate curator Jen Tobias. By going through the Boettcher to access the Freyer-Newman Center, it was easy to see how the mood of the Hornbein interior seamlessly transitions into Daniel’s, much more so than the exterior does.
At the top of a dark-gray stone staircase is an open gateway framed by three pointed arches. They’re part of the geometric tree motif Hornbein used, originally serving as the spines of a box window on the north side of the Boettcher. This gateway marks the place where the Boettcher ends and the sky bridge to the Freyer-Newman Center begins.
The new building, finished in the spring, offers four handsome exhibition spaces. Originally it was supposed to open this past summer with a blockbuster exhibition, The Contour of Feeling, dedicated to the work of internationally known New York sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard. The show would have filled all four galleries, with an additional piece outside. After the pandemic forced the DBG to close, the Rydingsvard extravaganza was pushed back until 2022. That meant that Eldred and Tobias needed to conjure up first-rate exhibits in just a few months — and they did.
In the main gallery is From the Vault, an exhibit comprising pieces from the Denver Botanic Gardens' various collections, from rare books to dried fungi. In a smaller adjacent space is Garden & Haven, the annual botanical illustration show by the students from the on-site school. In another pair of conjoined galleries is Ghost Forest, a Melanie Walker solo made up of photographic images of logs and leaves on fabric, and Pink Lemonade Hope, a more intimate solo featuring the well-known heart-shaped prints adorned with the word “hope” or its Spanish translation, “esperanza," by Koko Bayer.
In addition to this set of galleries, the building also houses staff offices, an auditorium and six classrooms, which all have audio/video capacity, something that’s already come in handy in this time of remote learning. There is the handsomely appointed Helen Fowler Library, devoted to books about plants. And there are also state-of-the-art plant science laboratories and herbaria for plants, fungi and molds.
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The galleries are smart-looking and the library is elegant, but the star of the interior spaces is the central atrium, rising two stories from the ground-floor York Street entrance. The floors are gray stone laid in rectangular panels, and on either side; the walls are covered in grills of vertically arranged boards, at the bottom of which are integral cantilevered benches made of thick slabs of red sandstone. The tops of these grills form the railings of the second-floor overlooks. The back wall is mostly glass on the ground floor, allowing a glimpse into the laboratories, and on the second floor is a ten-by-forty-foot LED video screen with changing images. Structural steel elements in the shape of those aforementioned constructivist trees support the roof, an enormous gabled skylight. The sun is partly screened by wooden boards laid on the diagonal below it.
The whole place is intelligently thought out by architect Daniel and his team, making it the latest compelling attraction to have blossomed at the Gardens.
To see the Freyer-Newman Center, visitors must order timed tickets in advance at the Denver Botanic Gardens website. Masks and social distancing are required on site. As expected, there will be no opening reception.