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In the opposite direction from Sears, across Second Avenue, is the Archdiocese of Denver's Chancery Building. What brings this building to mind and what links it to the Sears, aside from geography, is that the Chancery is apparently about to be sold to a Tucson-based developer and turned into a luxury hotel and high-end shopping center.

The early word on this redevelopment is pretty good. According to the developer, Keith Pochter, who has signed a letter of intent to purchase the building, he will "absolutely not tear it down."

"The existing building is significant, and we want to and will save it," Pochter says in a telephone interview.

(Wait a minute. Didn't Fred Kummer come to town with a promise to save I.M. Pei's hyperbolic paraboloid? Few, though, are as craven as Kummer--let's give Pochter the benefit of the doubt.)

Designed in 1958 as the Bankers Union Life Insurance Building, the Chancery features the lavish use of granite (some of which was replaced in the 1980s) and beautiful metal details, notably the large transom screens over the doors. The design, which is more conservative than that of the Sears store, is built on a T-plan that sets a two-story block at a right angle to the high-rise block. One of the most successful devices employed in the Chancery is the placement of walls with windows at right angles to blank walls, which gives the building an abstract and sculptural quality.

Like the Sears store, the Chancery is the work of a great Denver architect, in this case, J. Roger Musick, who, like Buell, started out as a traditional revivalist in the 1920s, embraced modernism in the 1930s and emerged as a full-blown modernist by the 1950s.

Musick was born in Missouri but came to Boulder as a toddler in 1903. In the 1920s he studied architecture and painting at New York's Beaux Arts Institute of Design, returning home in 1929 to join the highly regarded architectural firm of his older brother, G. Meredith Musick. While employed by his brother, the younger Musick in 1930 designed one of his greatest buildings, the riotous art-deco-style Bryant-Webster Elementary School, at 3635 Quivas Street in northwest Denver. Bryant-Webster has been well-preserved, and when an addition was made a few years ago, Denver architect Seth Rosenman fortunately came through with a supremely sensitive solution.

In 1934 Musick opened his own firm, devoting his practice mostly to residential design. After World War II, during which Musick served in the Army Corps of Engineers, he resumed his career and increasingly received prestigious commercial and institutional commissions. One of his finest postwar efforts is the former Stearns-Rogers Building at 660 Bannock Street, which now houses the administrative offices of Denver Health. The 1954 building has recently undergone a minimal, if thorough, rehab after years of standing vacant.

Musick's Chancery building, erected only a few years after the Stearns-Rogers, has never needed a rehab because it has never been neglected. The staining and wear and tear seen on most 1950s buildings has never been allowed to happen at the Chancery. It has been meticulously maintained, first by Bankers Union Life, which used it as a home office, and then by the Denver archdiocese, which bought it in the 1970s. Developer Pochter, however, will need to thoroughly remodel the interior to accommodate a hotel and retail shops and is planning an addition in the parking lot on the east side.

The plight of the Cherry Creek Elm notwithstanding, Pochter's vow to save the Chancery, if sincere, proves that developers in Cherry Creek, as they have in LoDo, can help preserve Denver's established character and still satisfy commercial necessities. The Chancery and the Sears store are both still firmly rooted in the city's architectural landscape. Let's hope neither is chopped down.

Speaking of attempts to preserve Old Denver--which, by the way, is the only kind of boosterism the city's official boosters don't like--a local preservationist recently made an interesting trip to New York. Diane Wray, director of the Modern Architecture Preservation League, traveled to the Big Apple to provide the successor firm of I.M. Pei with photographic documentation of the destruction of Pei's hyperbolic paraboloid at Zeckendorf Plaza.

(Pei does care about his creation: A little-known offshoot of the Zeckendorf saga was the architect's attempt in 1995 with partner Henry Cobb and Denver architect Alan Gass to present alternatives to the demolition of Zeckendorf Plaza. Nothing came of the effort.)

While Wray was in town, the firm of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners opened its extensive photo archive to her. That large collection of slides and photos catalogues chronologically Pei's major projects. And guess which one comes first? Denver's Mile High Center, at 17th Avenue and Broadway. Second is Zeckendorf Plaza.

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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