Death of a Salesroom

Watching over the nearly completed destruction of I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza is reminiscent of those "thinnest books in the world" sold in novelty shops. You know the kind--Honest Lawyers or Inspired Bureaucrats. Unfortunately, the pageless gag in this case could be titled something like Great Denver Buildings.

But that's not so funny, is it?
As things now stand, Greater Denver's built environment contains perhaps only one building in a thousand that manifests even the slightest historic or architectural interest. And that's being kind. To be unkind would be to describe the city as Frank Lloyd Wright did during a lecture at the University of Denver in the 1940s--as "a pig pile."

That's not to say there aren't some areas where great buildings tend to congregate, particularly in central Denver. But although private citizens have come a long way in protecting the mansions of Capitol Hill or the public monuments of the Civic Center, the story of downtown Denver--long the home of the most important examples of commercial architecture in the Rocky Mountain region--has been a very different and a very sad tale.

Decades of demolition downtown have left only a veneer of the urban fabric. Only 17th Street retains its established character, while much of the rest of downtown is defined chiefly by parking lots or service entrances. There are even several cleared blocks along the 16th Street Mall!

The reason this has been allowed to happen is that there is no meaningful protection for historic buildings in Denver--a fact that has been clearly illustrated over the last two months with the ongoing Chinese-water-torture destruction of Pei's world-class masterpiece.

Zeckendorf Plaza until recently comprised four key architectural elements: the hotel block; the department-store box; the hyperbolic paraboloid; and the internationally influential open space that connects the three other features, blending them into one. By the time the current renovations are finished, only one of these elements will survive: the magnificent hotel. And current changes will even leave their mark on that lone survivor--the hotel is currently being stripped of its most important interior details.

The Denver Landmark Preservation Commission was established decades ago to deal with situations exactly like the one that confronted the city when Zeckendorf Plaza was threatened with destruction. The ordinance that created the landmark commission theoretically gives the city the power to prevent an owner insensitive to the cultural value of a work of architecture from destroying it.

But Denver's ordinance has no teeth, because it gives the city council the ultimate authority and thus the power to veto the decisions of the landmark commission. This is what happened with Zeckendorf in the summer of 1995. Only two councilmembers endorsed the landmarking of the plaza--Bill Scheitler and Mary DeGroot--despite the fact that Zeckendorf had been unanimously endorsed by the landmark commission. Both Scheitler and DeGroot were lame ducks at the time, though DeGroot had long been the best friend preservationists ever had on the city council and surely would have voted the same way regardless of her political status. In fact, most preservationists knew that Zeckendorf's only chance for salvation was having DeGroot elected mayor--Wellington Webb's never-believed pre-election pledges to endorse landmarking notwithstanding.

To put a sophisticated work of art such as Zeckendorf Plaza before the Webb administration or the city council for their aesthetic or intellectual evaluation is not unlike the legendary casting of pearls before swine. Even though the makeup of the council has changed considerably since last summer, preservation still has only a couple of potential allies sitting on the dais. And while the landmark commission is made up of professionals in architecture and history who are charged with objectively evaluating the merits of buildings, the city council, for the most part, makes its decisions based on political concerns. Not even the most naive among us need wonder what happens when a fight turns political: Whoever has the most money wins. And in efforts to save historic buildings, the forces of demolition always seem to have more money than their opponents in the preservation community. So the loss of Zeckendorf Plaza gave us a civics lesson we really didn't need in the first place.

When St. Louis-based hotel magnate and carpetbagger Fred Kummer came to town and purchased Zeckendorf Plaza one and a half years ago, he had a clever idea: He asked for more than $30 million in outright grants and tax set-asides, a request that amounted to taxpayer-subsidized welfare for the rich. (This is apparently what government means when it talks about public/private partnerships.) The package of free money handed to Kummer represents 80 percent of the amount he paid Omicron, the previous owner, to purchase the Pei masterpiece. And nearly two-thirds of the public subsidy has been provided through the largess of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, which floated bonds, a block of which Kummer then turned around and bought himself. That means Kummer is lending the city the money it is giving back to him while simultaneously collecting interest on the cash. Amazing.