Going Under?

Well, those little thinkers with the big ideas are at it again — trying to mess with our beloved Civic Center. Didn't the powers-that-be downtown (from city officials to civic boosters to developers) learn anything from last year's fiasco? I'm starting to think they all have some kind of mob mental defect.

If you don't remember what happened last fall, here's a recap. Just before designer and "starchitect" — as he's been called — Daniel Libeskind unveiled the Denver Art Museum's Frederic C. Hamilton Building, he asked the farm team from his temp office in China to come up with ideas to "enliven" the Civic Center ("Park and Wreck," September 14, 2006). Not only were their suggestions stunning in their stupidity (palm trees in Denver, anyone?), but they would have annihilated every defining feature of the Civic Center's gorgeous, neo-classical plan.

By those standards, the current talk of moving the Colorado Historical Society building and museum into Civic Center Park isn't so bad. By any other standard, however, it's idiotic. In fact, there are so many things wrong with this concept that I don't know where to start — except at the beginning.

Without any real public input or media scrutiny, a state buildings committee decided a couple of years ago to scrape the Colorado Judicial Heritage Center, a 1970s complex comprising the State Supreme Court and the CHS (designed by the RNL architectural firm). Nicknamed "the Toaster and the Doorstop," the handsome buildings are immediately south of the park, across Broadway from the Denver Public Library and centered between the DAM and the state Capitol building.

The committee made the decision because of the undeniable overcrowding in the courts and because of the perceived shortcomings of the Colorado History Museum portion of the CHS headquarters. Then, for no good reason, the committee said the block should be used to construct a proper courthouse while the CHS should look elsewhere for a site.

So, the CHS began scouting for alternative sites. But before I discuss the spots being considered, I need to say that the best place for it is right where it is. It's the Supreme Court that should look elsewhere. After all, the CHS actually attracts the public at large and has a crossover audience with the library and the art museum, while the courts only attract people involved in cases there.

Sadly, that won't happen, and more than a half-dozen alternate sites have been considered for the CHS, with only three still in contention: a parking lot at Colfax and Lincoln, a dark horse that I won't even discuss; the former Denver permit center, which I will address in a moment; and the park, which is currently the front-runner.

The exact spot within the park would be immediately northwest of the Greek Theater, not far from the corner of Bannock Street and West 14th Avenue Parkway, where a large stand of mature shade trees now perfectly complements the nearby roads and buildings.

The proposal, by David Owen Tryba Architects, calls for the construction of a 30,000-square-foot building in a mirror-image placement to the old Carnegie Library on the opposite side of the park. A gigantic, multi-story subterranean wing would connect the two structures, meaning most of the CHS would be underground. A new "Denver Cultural Center" and CHS's Stephen H. Hart Library would occupy some of the Carnegie, according to the plan.

Some believe that a museum in the park would run off the vagrants who congregate there now since the police began pushing them off the 16th Street Mall over the last few years. I don't have a crystal ball, but I can predict with a high degree of certainty that the social problems of public drinking, crime, violence and homelessness around Civic Center Park won't be solved by a museum.

Tryba, whose office was hired by the CHS, invited me to check out its conceptual model, but I skipped the chance. You see, I couldn't trust myself not to spill the Perrier that the receptionist would have doubtless given me all over the damn thing. And anyway, I don't need to get within smelling distance of this idea to know that it stinks.

The park simply doesn't need any more buildings in it. Not only would the added structure crowd the Greek Theater, which is perfectly separated from the City and County Building by open space and the trees I mentioned, but it would be disastrous for the CHS in terms of attracting visitors. If you hide most of the building underground, its curb appeal will be severely impaired, as it is in its current spot, and as everyone knows, a building's appearance is a key to attracting people. Also, as foretold by the problems at the DAM's Hamilton, novel roofing solutions tend to fail, and an underground building would need one even more novel than that. So I can easily imagine the park being perpetually torn up to fix the many leaks that could be expected.

Additionally, major changes along West 14th Avenue Parkway would be needed so pedestrians could walk from the CHS to the other cultural entities nearby. I know David Tryba ultimately wants to see the streets around the Civic Center submerged; I just don't know why, since most of us experience the place in our cars.

The idea to build a new CHS building in the park was first made public at a time when the CHS leadership was in a period of transition, just before veteran president Georgianna Contiguglia left her post and her successor, Ed Nichols, took over. Nichols supports the plan. (But he just got there, so what would he know?)

One of the things I've noticed while watching the urban design process over the years is that the best ideas often get the least attention. And that's what's happening now. If you stand on the sidewalk near the proposed CHS location in the park and turn around, you will behold the former permit center. Once the site of the University of Denver's law school, the center used to be a significant modernist building designed by Perkins & Will. But in the late 1980s, its character was lost during a thorough remodeling by Fentress Architects that resulted in its current incarnation. The remodel was so bad that when the city was searching for a new site for the central branch of the Denver Public Library, I suggested at a 1990 public meeting that the still-new version of the building be demolished — it was that bad. Just a dozen years later, the permit center had already outlived its usefulness, and the city offices inside were moved to the new Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building. The permit center has been vacant ever since.

What makes it superior is its location relative to other nearby cultural institutions like the Denver Art Museum's Gio Ponti tower and the CHS's own historic property, the 1880s Byers-Evans House. Furthermore, the Clyfford Still Museum, when it is built, will be just around the corner, with the art museum and library entrances just beyond that.

This site would put the CHS in the middle of everything, just as it is now.

Something that irks me about this whole discussion is that we are having it in the first place. The Civic Center was long ago identified as the premier urban space in the Mile High City, and as such, it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's also a Denver historic district overseen by the city's landmark commission.

But as if that weren't enough, the Civic Center is also supposed to have not one, but two city stewards, either of whom could have stopped this. And herein lies the source of the problem. One of those supervisory slots is held by the inept and disinterested "Won't You Go Home" Kim Bailey, head of the parks and recreation department. The other is held by in-over-his-head zoning wonk Peter "Principle" Park, who runs the planning office with a blind eye toward historic preservation, neighborhood conservation, architecture and urban design. Instead of serving as watchdogs over the Civic Center, these Hickenlooper appointees have played no role that I can see. But maybe that's for the best, considering how little talent for such things these two bureaucrats have demonstrated during their four and a half years in office.

Several public meetings are scheduled to take place on the subject over the next few weeks. A final decision could be made by late fall.

The city's most valued treasure, the Civic Center, shouldn't be left to the fantasies of developers and architects out to make some scratch regardless of what happens to our historic equities. So let's keep our fingers crossed that — as with last year's dim-witted Libeskind plan — intelligence prevails and we won't have to watch heavy equipment cut down the trees and scar the Civic Center by literally and figuratively burying the CHS there.

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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