Garden Pests

Unlike in many American cities, just about every tree, shrub, plant and vine in Denver has been planted and cared for by someone. As early as the 1880s, people were bringing blue spruce trees down from the mountains and planting them among the scrub bushes and prairie grasses, which are essentially the only things that grow here naturally.

It's remained that way for a century, with succeeding generations bringing plants in from elsewhere: those wonderful pines from the mountains; stately American elms from the Midwest; gorgeous maples and locusts from back East. But every once in a while, we are reminded that only those scrub bushes and those prairie grasses truly belong here. 1995 was such a year.

The devastating Tussock moth took out spruce after spruce last spring. Dutch Elm disease felled majestic giants all summer long. And the pesky pine beetle was ever at work killing entire groves. Then, as though Mother Nature hadn't thought of everything already, there was that heavy early snow that literally broke trees in half.

And how have we responded to such a chain of calamities? We're out there cleaning up and planting more. Gardeners in Denver need to be as relentless as those pine beetles. And so do preservationists.

Which brings us to the topic at hand--the infestation of institutional and architectural egotism that is at the heart of proposed changes to the spectacular Boettcher Conservatory, the Mitchell Auditorium and the gift shop at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Oh, there's one good thing about the proposed changes to the gift shop: At least the architect who designed the Botanic Gardens, Victor Hornbein, who died last summer, didn't live long enough to see this abomination perpetrated. And it's apparently just the beginning: Soon to be announced are additions to the education wing and plans to totally gut the conservatory to bring it in line with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Residents in one or another of the swank neighborhoods that surround the gardens, many of them rich and politically well-connected, have stridently opposed major expansion at the gardens. As a result, a new building, which would solve demands for a larger gift shop and more classroom space, likely is out of the question. But rather than putting a halt to enlargement plans, the neighbors' resistance has had the tragic effect of focusing all the expansion mania on the masterful main building.

The DBG that Hornbein designed in partnership with Denver architect Ed White and that he worked on right up until his retirement in the 1980s is without question one of the great works of art in the city's built environment. It is typically seen as Hornbein's greatest accomplishment; in fact, the DBG was listed as a Denver landmark nearly 25 years ago, at a time when the paint--or, more accurately, the concrete--was barely dry on the place.

As it exists today in its original form, the gift shop lies hard by the main entrance to the building. The conservatory can be seen above and behind it, and the auditorium sits in the opposite direction, to the right of the visitors' entrance.

Hornbein made the gift shop, which was originally an inviting tea room, a point of focus because he understood that it would need to visually compete with the spectacular drama of the still-futuristic-looking conservatory. As a result, Hornbein's shop is a light-filled pavilion meant to catch our eye and our gift dollars--and it does. (So, too, does the hideous nonfunctional awning that marks the gift shop's entrance--tacked on in later years, probably by some marketing nitwit.) The low exterior concrete walls that define the shop are capped with red sandstone blocks, above which is a wood-and-glass curtain wall; shading the concrete walls are overhanging eaves with coffers that are supported by flaring pillars.

The proposed changes, which provide for the addition of just a few hundred measly square feet to the gift shop, allegedly exist today only in the crudest of preliminary drawings. But they call for no less than the total annihilation of the character of this prominent element of the main building. Don't tell me how a corner of the original wall will be saved within the new interior of the shop--that's cold comfort, because this part of the building should not be touched at all. According to well-established standards set forth by the Department of the Interior, messing with a main entrance and its immediate surroundings while adding on to a historic building is a serious no-no.

That point should be clear to everyone, especially the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, which incredibly approved this half-baked scheme a couple of weeks ago, even though the design is in the most nascent of stages. (The architectural firm of Anderson, Mason, Dale, along with architect John Prosser, who have designed the new addition, have not released a final elevation.)

Admirably, commissioner Barbara Sudler Hornby voted against the changes, finding herself, as she often does, alone on the right side of a preservation battle. Hornbein's former partner White, who also sits on the commission, appropriately abstained. And for reasons he did not reveal, so did commissioner Steven Leonard. But what's wrong with the rest of them?

I think I know.
First, I find it hard to believe that the commissioners went out to inspect the gift shop personally. There was no organized field trip, and I doubt that any of the commissioners took the initiative to inspect the area themselves. The name "gift shop" makes this portion of the building sound so inconsequential that it must have been easy to dispense with it mentally. But it's the first part of the main building visible to visitors on arrival.

Also, the commission is overworked. Commissioners serve as volunteers, and they spend too many hours on items of little consequence--most having to do with construction activities in Denver's historic districts rather than with actual historic preservation. At the same commission meeting where the DBG was sold down the river, there was a good example of this. Perhaps as the result of a pent-up need for exercising responsible oversight, which they effectively shucked in the case of the Botanic Gardens, the commissioners attempted to micro-manage the placement of the Mark di Suvero "Lao Tzu" sculpture just sited on Acoma Plaza within the boundaries of the Civic Center Historic District.

Hey, gang, it was the Botanic Gardens that needed your scrutiny, not the question of where to put a sculpture by a famous artist--especially not one that's been given to the city as a gift, unlike the mixture of public and charitable funds that will be used to vandalize the Botanic Gardens.

Another likely reason the commission rolled over is the sad legacy of the Zeckendorf Plaza fight--and the role played in that struggle by the powerful law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland (as in U.S. Senate candidate Tom Strickland). The Brownstein Hyatt boys were the dream team for Adam's Mark Hotel owner Fred Kummer, who not only gets to destroy an I.M. Pei but has gotten the city to pay for it, too. In the Zeckendorf clash, the law firm saw as its goal not simply to subvert the city's landmark process but to completely discredit it.

As a result, the landmark commission is demoralized. Go to the body today and mouth the magic words "economic necessity" and they'd let you put a neon sign on the City and County Building. And with former commissioner Seth Rosenman gone (he resigned in disgust last year over the Zeckendorf fiasco), there seems to be no strong, clear voice left to provide leadership, or even common sense, to the group.

What makes the impending damage at the Botanic Gardens doubly sad is that there are many young architects working in Denver today carefully and thoughtfully making additions to historic buildings. Former commissioner Rosenman's addition to the Bryant-Webster Elementary School is an unalloyed triumph of self-effacement and sensitivity. It's the same kind of touch that David Owen Tryba used at the Park Hill Branch Library and is now applying to LoDo's Mercantile Square. Even the most persnickety preservationist would be hard-pressed to find fault with Steve Chucovich's revisions to the Knight Fundamental Academy in Belcaro. And the list goes on.

Won't someone in a position of power at the Botanic Gardens use his imagination to come up with a new site for an expanded gift shop? What about moving administrative functions or even the library off-site? How about a tactfully designed new building that would accommodate an expanded gift shop and add the desired new classrooms? Can't DBG administrators come up with a compromise that would satisfy the demands of neighbors and still preserve the integrity of one of the city's great buildings?

It's not too late--not a single stick or stone has yet been changed at the Botanic Gardens. Gift-shop volunteers haven't even gotten around to pushing aside the revolving postcard displays to make way for the workmen. This nonsense can still be stopped. Plans are made on paper, while the Botanic Gardens is made of stone, concrete, wood and glass. The former lives in the realm of ideas, the latter in reality.

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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