An Impressive Array of Architecture Grew in Civic Center Park

The Denver City and County Building was added in 1932.
The Denver City and County Building was added in 1932. Denver Public Library
click to enlarge The Denver City and County Building was added in 1932. - DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY
The Denver City and County Building was added in 1932.
Denver Public Library
The Denver Art Museum’s glittering new Sie Welcome Center is the latest landmark at Civic Center Park, which runs from Broadway to Bannock Street and West 14th to West Colfax avenues. The Sie connects to the recently refreshed Martin Building; though fifty years old this month, the tile-clad tower is still startlingly vanguard in appearance.

Along with the Sie and the Martin, the park boasts an astounding concentration of governmental and cultural institutions, each with its own distinctive structure. Taken together, they offer a history of civic architecture from the past century, written in stone.

The idea for the Civic Center actually goes back to 1893, when a politically ambitious Denverite, Robert Speer, attended the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he was stuck by the neoclassical buildings on the fairgrounds. In 1904, Speer was elected mayor of Denver. Intending to use the urban design ideas he’d brought back from Chicago, he had his administration acquire the land between two extant Beaux Arts buildings, the 1904 Colorado State Capitol by Elijah Myers and Frank Edbrooke, and the 1906 U.S. Mint by James Knox Taylor. Several ultimately rejected plans for the site were proposed. Before a final scheme was codified, Albert Ross’s dignified gray flannel suit of a structure, the 1909 Carnegie Library (now the McNichols Building) was finished. Speer left the mayor’s office in 1912 but ran again in 1916; after he was re-elected, he brought in architect Edward Bennett to come up with a Civic Center plan that was finally accepted and led directly to today’s park.

Speer died in 1918 in the influenza pandemic, and didn’t live long enough to see the realization of Bennett’s designs. Those included the pseudo-symmetry of the paths, along with the Greek Amphitheater by Marean and Norton and the Voorhies Memorial by Fisher and Fisher, both completed in 1919. Those colonnaded confections serve as bookends for the north/south axis. The east end of the east/west axis pointed at the Capitol, so the empty west end needed something to reinforce it, and the gawdy, circa 1932 Denver City and County Building filled that bill. It was designed by over three dozen local architects who formed the Allied Architects Association, led by Robert Fuller.
click to enlarge The entrance to the Denver Art Museum in 1971. - DAM
The entrance to the Denver Art Museum in 1971.
All of these buildings were traditional evocations of Ancient Greece and Rome, then the chosen approach for high-status constructions. That sensibility would change after World War II, when looking to the future was preferred over imitating the past. At this point, Civic Center architecture changed radically, with cutting-edge style taking over. The first of the modernist buildings is the former Annex I, a pure Bauhaus-style exercise by Smith, Hegner and Moore, built in 1949. This was quickly followed by the quietly elegant 1955 Denver Central Library by Burnham Hoyt, of Red Rocks fame.

And then came the DAM’s effervescent tower, the first Civic Center building to become internationally known. Designed by Gio Ponti and James Sudler, it opened in 1971. A couple of decades later, Michael Graves’s funky yet monumental 1995 polychromed. postmodern addition to Hoyt’s Central Library gained similar acclaim.

The first decades of the 21st century saw a Civic Center building boom launched by David Tryba’s sleek 2002 Wellington Webb Municipal Building, attached to the Annex I. This period reached an apex in 2006 with Daniel Libeskind’s stack of colliding titanium-clad wedges, the DAM’s famous Hamilton Building. The Hamilton and the Ponti, now renamed the Martin Building, are on opposite sides of the street, creating an obvious need to unify them. The circular glass drum of the new Sie Center, designed by Machado Silvetti and Fentress Architects, miraculously does just that by balancing the exaggerated horizontality of the Hamilton with the emphatic verticality of the Martin.
This orgy of substantial structures contrasts sadly with the recent wreck of the park itself. But by the time the fences come down, perhaps the city will have used the kind of imagination displayed in the buildings around the park’s edges to create just as solid a solution for the Civic Center.
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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