A Historic Building Like Fairview Should Never Be Tarted Up With Art

One of several street murals that cover the brick walls of the historic Fairview Elementary School.
One of several street murals that cover the brick walls of the historic Fairview Elementary School. Robert Delaney
Murals have been embraced by many of this city’s building owners because of how they can change the character of their properties and, by extension, even a neighborhood, as we’ve seen in RiNo. Some are on the back and sides of buildings, as at RedLine, or all over structures that are either derelict or of no particular architectural distinction, like nearly all of those on upper Larimer Street. Following the same logic, it made sense when Denver Arts & Venues got behind the idea of putting murals on the retaining walls along the Cherry Creek bike path. Murals have become so popular that some buildings are now being designed to accommodate them from the start, such as the Dylan Apartments on Brighton Boulevard.

But a landmark building should absolutely, positively and unquestionably never get tarted up with murals. A tragic case in point: Fairview Elementary School, at 2715 West 11th Avenue, which was substantially vandalized with paint in 2017. It wasn’t a bunch of graffiti taggers who did the damage, however. It was a pair of city entities, Arts & Venues and Denver Public Schools, which had partnered with the Raw Project, a group out of Miami that promotes this kind of sacrilege nationally. I don’t blame the artists who were chosen for the project (some of their murals are actually pretty good), but I do blame Arts & Venues and DPS for facilitating the denigration of an important historic building out of a kind of mindless enthusiasm for hipsterism.
click to enlarge A mural by Italy-based artist zed1 at Fairview Elementary School. - KENZIE BRUCE
A mural by Italy-based artist zed1 at Fairview Elementary School.
Kenzie Bruce
Looking at what was done to Fairview, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Surely any yutz with eyes could see that the school is a first-rate historic building; I’m a modern-and-contemporary guy, and I could tell that much. It’s a grand example of 1920s beaux-arts neoclassicism, which was the style of choice for important buildings at that time. The structure displays the highest level of construction craft, which simply couldn’t be re-created today. There is fancy buff-colored brickwork, including passages of an incredible diamond pattern, accented by terra cotta around the doorways and in the form of the rectangular Corinthian capitals — but the most astounding features are the jasperware-style friezes at the roofline, with raised reliefs in cream against a Wedgwood-blue field.

The quality of these characteristics should come as no surprise, because Fairview was the work of an acknowledged master of Denver architecture, Eugene Groves, and it’s clearly the most significant work of architecture in its immediate neighborhood, a low-income community. If it were instead located in a more affluent — and, dare I say, more white — area like Washington Park, it would boast bronze landmark plaques and, I assure you, would not have been turned into a carnival sideshow.

Denver has definitely changed since Fairview was built. Although the Sun Valley neighborhood was poor even then, Denver Public Schools decided to erect an important building there, one that could have fit into the richest district in the city. But today, DPS and the city have so little regard for that area and its residents that they’ve turned this landmark into a piece of disposable trash.

See more photos of Raw Project pieces on Denver schools here; see twelve far more successful Denver murals here.
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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