Summertime Blues

When I came to Denver in the 1980s, the Mile High City was a great place to be if you were a fan of architecture, as I am. At the time, the oil boom was transforming downtown into what it is today, with new high-rises popping up like mushrooms. The designs were high-quality work by some of the most important architects and firms in the world, including SOM, Kohn Pederson Fox and Philip Johnson.

As I got to know the city, and as the oil boom turned into the oil bust, I began to appreciate not only the work of the big-time international firms, but also the buildings that were designed by locals. I discovered that there was a modernist architectural scene here as early as the 1930s, with major talents having designed scores of buildings. In fact, the city is rich in mid-century modern treats, those high-style structures done between the '40s and the '60s.

But in the intervening decades, Denver's first-rate stock has suffered great indignities, none more so than those mid-century modern treasures. And this summer, it looks like even more old modern structures are being demolished or remodeled.

That brings us to Country Club Gardens, which is being assaulted by the erection of two thirty-story towers. If you've never seen the magical place, do so before the wrecking balls and excavators get there. The complex faces Downing Street between Bayaud and Ellsworth avenues. Built in 1940, the five-building cycle designed by the distinguished firm of Fisher, Fisher and Hubbell is a masterpiece of the art moderne style. The rectilinear flat-roofed buildings, carried out in red brick accented by belt courses in cream-colored terra cotta, are swank and chic. But this is Denver, so Country Club Gardens has just got to be messed with.

The Broe Group, headed up by mega-rich developer and investor Pat Broe, has owned Country Club Gardens for many years and is responsible for Country Club Tower, the clunky, postmodern high-rise southeast of the complex. Several years ago, Broe proposed scrapping the entire site of Country Club Gardens and covering its six acres with a forest of high-rises. This led to a pitched preservation battle that resulted in a compromise in 2001: Country Club Gardens became a protected historic district in exchange for Broe's being able to erect three thirty-story high-rises, all under the auspices of the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission. (And they call this preservation?)

Last year, Broe came up with a different and definitely better plan than the three-tower idea, proposing instead to build only two towers. But since the original agreement was official city business, he needed to go to the Denver City Council to get it changed.

At first there was some resistance, in particular from the residents of the adjacent Norman, a historic revival-style building from the 1920s designed by Denver architect William Norman Bowman. They felt that the project was still too big — after all, thirty-story buildings on the Front Range only exist downtown and at the Tech Center.

Unfortunately, by the time the plan hit the city council last week, all but token opposition had folded. The preservationists had backed off, with some even testifying in favor of Broe's change. Critics backed down because there was an explicit threat that if Broe was denied the change, he'd put up the three towers he already had permission to build. This was obviously not a credible threat, but that fact was never understood by the opponents of development. Let's see, a developer is allowed to build three buildings but opts to build only two. Why? I've got an idea: The numbers won't crunch, and only two towers will sell.

The design for the not-yet-started towers is being done by Oz Architecture, with the new structures picking up design cues from the existing complex and incorporating portions of some of the old buildings, while other parts will be left untouched. The problem with adding anything to Country Club Gardens is that it's already complete. Not only that, but it has a formal plan that's symmetrical when seen from Downing — a characteristic that will be lost when the new elements are added. Well, I guess half a loaf is better than none.

Shifting gears from the half-a-loaf approach to the half-assed sort brings us to the vandalism currently going on at the Petroleum Club Building, at 110 16th Street. One of only a handful of mid-century modernist high-rises downtown, the Petroleum Club is also one of the finest. Completed in 1957 according to a design by Denver architect Charles D. Strong, the building originally combined rental space for office and retail clients with a fancy members-only club on the top floor. Strong is an interesting architect who worked his way through art deco and art moderne, as seen in his most famous works, the apartment buildings on Poet's Row (Sherman Street between 10th and 11th avenues), before arriving at full-tilt modernism, as shown at the Petroleum Club.

The building has an elaborate footprint that wraps around the corner of 16th and Broadway. The base is done in black stone laid in stacks, with articulated joint lines running horizontally, and metal and glass doors and windows. Above is a canopy that once had a gorgeous expressionistic form that was sinuous and sculptural. This canopy wrapped around the two principal sides of the building to cover both main entrances. On the tower's shaft, metal and enameled panel filled out the Miesian glass curtain walls. The enameled panels were white and a bluish gray and were used to exaggerate the building's verticality and create white ribs rhythmically running up the sides defining the tower.

I bring up the Petroleum Club because in the past few weeks it's been tagged, and neither the police nor the Landmark Commission can do anything about it. The owners, Boulder-based partners Tim Borst and Lou DellaCava, decided to tart up the building, and what they've done is so stupid, ugly and downright pathetic, I'm almost embarrassed for them. The facelift is as ignorantly conceived, clumsily designed and crudely carried out as is imaginable. When I went down there — tipped off by a friend who was actually sobbing in front of the building as she told me about it — I looked in vain for the name of the "designer" who had come up with this art-disco nonsense. Apparently, no one is willing to take the blame.

To start with, parts of the first floor are covered with new metal cladding, while shiny metal strips have been strategically laid over the stone. Signage appended to the building and to the canopy has a theme-restaurant quality to it and would look more at home at FlatIron Crossing than here, just steps from the Civic Center. Most gut-wrenching of all are the idiotic alterations to the canopy, which is now pierced by plastic skylights accented by metal fins. The quality of construction of these new features made me think that they'd come out of someone's garage workshop. Above, the curtain wall has been spray-painted gray so that those vertical elements are painted out, making the tower look shorter.

The Denver Newspaper Agency building next door was obviously designed (by Newman Cavender & Doane) partly as a response and homage to the Petroleum Club. This is apparent in both the height and massing of the DNA on the Broadway side, but also in the white color that was clearly intended to match the adjacent Petroleum Club. Not anymore. I love delicious ironies, but not in this case.

Let me finish up with some more bad news. The former Mountain Bell Building, now the Qwest Building, at 1005 17th Street, lost the low-rise pavilion and elevated plazas that were among its defining characteristics. The elegant late-modern-style complex, designed by John Rodgers for the Denver firm of RNL in 1977, formerly comprised this low-rise element paired with a high-rise tower, which to this point remains unmolested. It was RNL's greatest early accomplishment, and it is definitely less interesting now than it was a few months ago. Future plans for the cleared site of the pavilion and elevated plazas have not been made public.

One particularly ominous aspect of the Mountain Bell demolition is the revelation that buildings that have been standing for only a few decades and are still in perfect condition are just as threatened as old ones.

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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