"An ornate and decorated building on the outside says the people who walk by matter, that the public space matters, right?" That's what history professor Bryant Simon said during "Going for Broke: Atlantic City Falls on Hard Times," a conversation broadcast on Fresh Air a few months ago. Though the piece revolved around the rise and fall of Atlantic City as a tourist destination, I think the sentiment is applicable to any modern city. Buildings are all around us, and whether we realize it or not, those structures are either conveying an invitation to enter or a strong warning to stay away.
I mentally circle back to the statement as I wander Denver, observing its changing cityscape. I'm not a by-foot commuter so much as I'm a curious person — I like to know what's going on in my city, so I walk around with the sole purpose of just taking it all in. I often wish Denver could talk to me directly and tell me how it feels about itself lately. But what I really want to know is how others feel about Denver's built environment: How do people experience these public and private spaces created to supposedly appeal to them? Do the structures in our shared urban sphere say, "The people who walk by matter"? Do other people even care if buildings feel good to them?
I thought about this as I enjoyed a sandwich earlier this week at Snarf's on West 38th Avenue. I have driven by the restaurant dozens of times, creeping slowly along the thoroughfare to marvel at the mid-century-modern structure. This circus tent of a building is one of a handful of its style remaining in the city, reminders of the local chain of Big Top Auto Marts once scattered across the Front Range, Denver's answer to the Texas-born 7-Eleven.
Like many Big Top buildings of present and past, this droopy roofed rotunda has lived many times over, beginning as a gas station (the first Big Top opened in 1957, a forerunner of an early convenience-store chain as well as one of the first gas stations to offer self-service pumps). Prior to Snarf's — another homegrown chain — acquiring the building in 2010, the American-style pagoda spent the previous two decades as a hair salon, painted a dull beige, with bulky oak doors surrounded by panels of glass blocks. It was as if the structure's appearance itself had no desire to attract people to the business inside.
Once Snarf's got ahold of it, though, the building was brought back to life. Entering the restaurant for the first time, I was in awe: The interior matched the exterior. The soaring windows and smiling roof painted in bright hues of purple, green and orange that beckoned customers in from the street led to an even bolder, more beautiful inside. There wasn't any of the usual tell-tale, fast-casual decor in sight: no corrugated metal panels or exposed ductwork. It felt like I was on a stationary carousel made for submarine-sandwich consumption. And for the first time in a long time, I actually wanted to sit down in a quick-lunch restaurant and enjoy more food instead of scarfing it down in my car. I felt welcome. I felt like the building was happy to have me.
"Our model is to fit into the neighborhood," Snarf's owner Jim Seidel told Westword in 2014. "We're not trying to cookie-cutter these things." This is what makes Snarf's stand out: Not one of its locations in Colorado looks the same. The fact that the company actively seeks out existing structures says a lot about its respect for the space it inhabits and the people it desires to invite in.
Resting on the border of the West Highland and Berkeley neighborhoods, the West 38th Avenue Snarf's lives inside of one of the few pieces of Googie-style architecture left on the strip. There are also ninety-year-old homes-turned-businesses; weird '80s mountain-town-looking office/massage parlors; and giant 21st-century, two-story strip malls that call 38th Avenue home. To fit into this neighborhood as a business is to appreciate its eclectic aesthetic.
In the recent piece "The Psychological Cost of Boring Buildings" via The Science of Us, Jacoba Urist writes: "...researchers argue that humans are healthier when they live among variety — a cacophony of bars, bodegas, and independent shops — or work in well-designed, unique spaces, rather than unattractive, generic ones." You hear that, developers? People need more than box after box of bland. Just because someone slaps the word "Vibe" on the exterior of a cardboard-cut-out structure and promises the best "luxury co-working and city living" or whatever doesn't make it unique or inviting.
There's so much talk of rebelling against the "big box" stores of the last twenty years that now plague our cities and suburbs. There's a renewed focus on "small," "unique" and "local" commercial entities populating our growing cities. If that's truly the case, why does thoughtless, emotionless, heartless architecture continue to be injected into every crevice of our built environment?
I hope that more businesses take a cue from Snarf's and embrace some of the older commercial architecture already established in Denver. As I've said many times before, not every building is beautiful or worth saving — but understanding what a neighborhood is conveying through its current structures is key to creating a welcome space. Retrofitting an existing structure takes imagination and ingenuity — something this city could use a lot more of as it grows. If you happen to be someone in charge of designing buildings in this new version of Denver, give it some thought before tossing up another multi-story, trailer-park-lookin' monstrosity gobbling up every inch of earth within your property lines, will you?
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