Denver city librarian Rick Ashton's been taking so many bows lately for "The Big New Library," which is on-time and on-budget, that he really ought to do an aerobics tape. Forgotten in all this excitement is the fact that had it been left up to Ashton, Denver wouldn't have gotten the distinctive Michael Graves structure that has risen in Civic Center Plaza next to the historic Burnham Hoyt library. Instead, city residents would now be celebrating the opening of a square ten-story box on the cleared site of the old building.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves, so let's start back at the beginning. Way back.

That a library should express its civic role through architectural excellence is a long tradition for the Denver Public Library. The DPL's first permanent home, the 1909 Carnegie Library (now the City and County Annex No. 3) is a neoclassical gem in limestone--a little temple in the garden.

By the postwar 1940s, the Carnegie had gotten extremely crowded, with many materials being stored off-site. Originally, the DPL wanted to tear down the Carnegie and put a new library in its place. A struggle ensued between the city and the DPL's semi-autonomous governing commission over control of the site. The DPL lost the battle, and the venerable old building was spared.

(Unfortunately, as a part of the Carnegie's conversion to municipal offices, the elegant semicircular bay of book stacks that was visible through its windows was needlessly removed. The stacks were a testament to the city librarian who presided over the opening of the Carnegie, Charles Dudley, a man who revolutionized the basic nature of libraries when he developed the open-shelf system that allowed users to retrieve their own material. The loss of the stacks in the Carnegie's 1950s remodel gives us some idea how long Denver's city government has been imagining a great city while doing little to conserve the great things that are already here.)

As it had with the Carnegie, the DPL wanted its new home to be a fine work of architecture. The result was the 1955 central library by Burnham Hoyt, an interesting design that reconciled the influential Denver architect's machine-age vision (the aluminum windows with their opaque glass spandrels) with the more restrained neoclassical character dictated by the Civic Center site (white limestone and simplified references to the classical vocabulary). A half-circular bay not only responds to the curve in the West 14th Avenue Parkway but recalls Dudley's lost stacks from the Carnegie. Hoyt also zeroed in on bookshelves; a unique feature of the building he designed is a series of basement stacks that literally hold up the library's main floor.

As always, history repeated itself, and within a decade of its completion the Hoyt library was as overcrowded as the Carnegie had been. By the time the city got around to discussing an expansion of the library in the 1980s, the situation was dire, with only 25 percent of the library's 4.1 million-piece collection out on the shelves and the remainder languishing in storage.

Library officials had definite ideas about a new building long before voters overwhelmingly approved a $91.6 million capital construction bond in August 1990. And, like the last time, they wanted to put the new facility on the site of the old one, demolishing the earlier structure in the process. City librarian Ashton wanted the largest library possible with little regard for the building's design, and he, along with Laura Christensen, the president of the Library Commission, ran with the ideas. Among the stranger claims the two made at the time was that the Hoyt building couldn't be saved because the new building had to have a square floor plan.

A public debate ensued, and many people came forward to defend the Hoyt library. Respected architect Ron Mason even quit as a DPL consultant when it became apparent that library higher-ups were demanding the demolition of the Hoyt building.

Then former mayor Federico Pena, who, despite his many shortcomings, did have the keen ability to tell when the passage of a bond was endangered, came up with a solution. The DPL would save the old library, incorporating it into a new complex that would be designed by the winner of a national architectural competition. Ashton and Christensen's embrace of Pena's compromise was just this side of kicking and screaming.

The city's request for qualifications in October 1990 drew responses from many of Denver's--and the world's--most notable architects. Playing an unheralded role in the process was Craig Miller, curator of the Denver Art Museum's architecture, design and graphics department. Miller phoned Cesar Pelli, Aldo Rossi and Ettore Sottsass, among other famous architects (including the ultimate winner, Graves), and urged them to enter. The three finalists were hastily chosen at a meeting held by a Pena-appointed design-selection committee--quite a trick, given that only a few of the committee members knew anything at all about contemporary architecture.