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Why Civic Center Park is a cherished urban treasure...and a National Historic Landmark

Although there are similar spaces across the country, Civic Center Park is a cherished urban treasure for Denver and, by extension, the entire time zone.

The park and the structures within it, as well as the State Capitol, Lincoln Park, the Denver City and County Building and several outlying buildings, are collectively designated as a National Historic Landmark, the highest distinction for historic architecture and the only one in Denver.

The nominators for the Civic Center landmark designation focused on the area's Beaux Arts roots, and although it started there, it has since morphed into a promenade architecturale, with some of the state's most important buildings in a range of styles, all clustered together over a few square blocks. For me, the Civic Center is much more than what those nominators saw. It also includes state offices near the Capitol, the museum district to the south, and, to the west, the United States Mint and the Denver Justice Center.


Civic Center Park

The keen eyes that will be in town June 20-22 as part of the American Institute of Architects' major national convention will no doubt be gazing at these landmarks as conventioneers check out downtown — so it's worth discussing the origin of Denver's Civic Center as the product of two separate yet convergentthreads.

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First, Denver developer Henry Brown, who owned the Brown Palace Hotel, donated land as a site for the State Capitol. Work to prepare the site began in 1886; construction, planned out by Elijah Myers, a specialist in state capitol designs, started in 1890. The building was completed in 1904, with the gold dome — the neoclassical structure's only remarkable feature — being completed in 1908. (The dome is currently shrouded as it undergoes repairs and replacement; new gold is expected to be delivered this month.)

Second, another Denver developer, Robert Speer, who would eventually become mayor, went to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a World's Fair that would have a huge impact on American architecture. Despite the fact that Chicago was a center for modernism, the fair was built along Beaux Arts neoclassical lines — like the set for a swords-and-sandals film. When Speer returned to Denver, he saw a city as ugly as a "pig pile," as Frank Lloyd Wright later described it, and set about changing that.

This harking back to the ancients had two effects — one good and one bad. The good: The fair launched the "City Beautiful" movement that brought the high-minded, if conservative, neoclassical sensibility to cities around the country. The bad: It set modern architecture back a couple of generations, and it wouldn't be until the mid-20th century that things got back on course.

Beginning in 1905, one plan after another for Denver's Civic Center was proposed, including some that were actually started before being discarded. But the final incarnation was the result of a 1917 plan by Edward Bennett, who incorporated some ideas that had previously been laid out by his many predecessors on the project, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. notable among them.

The buildings from the neoclassical phase were built before 1940. An early example is the McNichols Building, designed as a Carnegie Library by Albert Ross and completed in 1909 — eight years before Bennett's plan was adopted. The building should have a twin on the south end of the park, but it doesn't, one of the many idiosyncrasies of the place. Though it appears to have an overall symmetry, the plan is actually asymmetrical, the result of colliding street grids and aborted plans.

I'll just mention two other neoclassical buildings worth noting: the 1915 Colorado State Museum Building immediately south of the Capitol, a gleaming white-marble gem by Frank Edbrooke; and the Denver City and County Building, which is the western wall of the Civic Center proper. This outlandish building (made more so during the holidays by a garish lighting display) was dedicated in 1932. Designed by a consortium of local architects, it was neoclassicism's last gasp on the Civic Center. Everything built afterward reflected contemporary architectural trends.

From my point of view, it's after World War II that things started to get interesting, as modern buildings, many with daring designs for their dates, were erected. The first of these was a University of Denver classroom building, later dubbed the Annex I. This sleek International-style low-rise building on Cleveland Place is free of ornamentation, aside from the placement of the windows. It was completed in 1949 by local Bauhaus enthusiasts Smith, Hegner and Moore. Also from this era is Burnham Hoyt's modernist Central Library, from 1956, at West 14th Avenue and Broadway. Both were designed as part of the existing neoclassical group, in that they were clad in light-colored limestone like the City and County Building.

Despite a sea of parking lots surrounding much of the Civic Center at the time, both mid-century-modern buildings were threatened with demolition during the 1990s but were ultimately saved by large additions. In the case of Annex I, it's the 2002 neo-modernist Wellington Webb Building, by David Tryba. For the library, it's the 1995 Michael Graves-designed postmodern addition. (Over the past two decades, Civic Center's defenders have had to constantly fight off well-placed "visionaries" — like the ones who wanted to tear down these two buildings — who have proposed a litany of plans that would have been detrimental to the established character of the group.)

Fans of the building-as-a-work-of-art concept — count me among them — can't help but marvel at the Denver Art Museum's 1971 tower, just west of the library. It links itself to the other elements of the group for no other reason than because it's gray, a milky gray produced by the thousands of glass tiles covering it. The building, a glitzy take on brutalism, is the only major work by Gio Ponti in North America, and it is fabulous. It's hard to think of this strange building, with its cut-out skyline, as looking conventional, but that's what Daniel Libeskind's deconstructionist Hamilton Building, from 2006, across the street to the south, does to it. Though reviled by many, I love the Hamilton, and, having been there almost as many times as some employees, I can say with confidence that it works great as an exhibition venue.

There's been something of a museum-building boom in this area, with Brad Cloepfil's restrained and exquisitely detailed Clyfford Still Museum, from 2011, situated immediately west of the Hamilton. A block east is the newest museum, 2012's History Colorado Center, the crowning achievement — so far — of David Tryba's career. The complicated and thoughtful massing gives the building a prominent presence along Broadway. (Like the Still, History Colorado is artfully detailed, but unlike the Still, where there are riches on view inside, at History Colorado the interior has been filled to the rafters with some of the dumbest displays imaginable.)

I'll close this tiptoe through the Civic Center by saying how lucky Denver was that the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse, by Denver's klipp (now part of gkkworks), with Keat Tan in the design chair, turned out so well, because the bureaucratic process leading up to its design set expectations very low: Our hapless city managers showed off an ignorance of architecture by mixing together neo-traditional and neo-modern sensibilities, nearly guaranteeing that the complex would not jell coherently. They also ran off starchitect Steven Holl, whose ultra-smart design was rejected.

The history of architecture in Denver in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries — and, by extension, the history of American architecture — is written across the greater Civic Center.

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