Down and Out in Downtown Denver

The free-for-all campaign to erase the recent history of Denver's architecture, endorsed and enabled by Mayor Wellington Webb's administration, continues unabated. And it's amazing how many of the losses are associated with the Colorado Convention Center.

The latest heartbreaking chapter came one step closer to ending a couple of weeks ago, when the city council authorized the removal of asbestos from Currigan Exhibition Hall, a necessary step before demolition. Although the city cynically offered the superb 1960s building to anyone who could figure out how to move it, no one stepped forward. Currigan will thus join the Silver Triangle neighborhood, Zeckendorf Plaza and the Denver Post building as victims of the CCC.

One of the best -- or would that be the worst? -- ironies about this situation is the fact that the CCC, as designed by Fentress and Bradburn Architects, is butt-ugly, while Currigan is beautiful. Another choice irony, one that would be delicious if it wasn't so disheartening, is that the CCC has been a business boondoggle ever since its opening in 1990.

For the first five years, the huge facility sat empty half the time. Now, a simple-minded person like myself might conclude from this that the CCC is twice the size that it needs to be. But I guess I would be wrong, because as early as 1993, the city government and the private interests that run downtown -- the Denver Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Downtown Denver Partnership -- determined that the problem wasn't that the CCC was too big, but that there was a shortage of available hotel rooms in the area.

This idea led directly to the destruction of I.M. Pei's elegant 1950s Zeckendorf Plaza, beginning in 1996. Zeckendorf was a modernist, three-building complex clustered around a courtyard, complete with an ice-skating rink, à la Rockefeller Center. It was one of the finest works of architecture ever built in Colorado, and its destruction was partly paid for with $25 million in public subsidies from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. The money went to Fred Kummer's Adams Mark Hotel. Kummer decided to demolish the hyperbolic-paraboloid element of the plaza to make way for a cocktail lounge. Today, only the tower element survives from Pei's once-gorgeous masterpiece.

The CCC continued to perform badly. Again, the obvious answer that the Convention Center was too big was dismissed as so much nonsense. And again, a hotel was seen as the potential savior. That's right, another hotel.

This time the 1940s marble-and-travertine art-moderne-style Denver Post building, by Temple Buell, was torn down in 1998 to provide a site -- not for a hotel, but for what is so far only a hotel fantasy. The site is still a parking lot, and even now there are doubts about whether a deal will finally be made. Oh, developer Bruce Berger announced last month that he's signed up the Hyatt Regency chain, but he's done that before. Last summer he announced that Marriott would be running the hotel, and then, even though DURA had promised a $55 million subsidy, the Marriott reps didn't show. You can't blame them: The subsidy isn't slated to go to a hotel owner; rather, it will be given to the developer -- none other than Berger. And the money will go further now because the Hyatt is getting a single tower instead of the twin towers proposed for the Marriott.

While Berger was shopping for a hotel, the mayor assembled a task force to deal with the ongoing financial troubles of the CCC. Absurdly, this task force did not find that nagging vacancy rates at the facility indicated that the CCC was too big, but that it was too small! Then it recommended that the Convention Center be doubled in size. Even more preposterous, Denver voters narrowly passed a bond initiative in 1999 to pay for the expansion.

The addition is to be built on the site of the adjacent Currigan Hall, but it can't go forward, according to a provision of the bond initiative, until there's a hotel deal firmly in place. Although a final agreement with Hyatt hasn't been reached and unionized hotel workers have been making trouble for Berger, the city council has proceeded as though everything were set in stone, voting 11-1 to begin the demolition of Currigan Hall.

The wonderful Currigan Hall was the product of a national design competition held by the city. Surprisingly, a local design team headed by the distinguished Denver firm of William C. Muchow Associates won. James Ream of Ream, Quinn and Associates was the lead architect on this team, and Michael Barrett was the lead engineer. Ream's poetry and Barrett's prose came together to create a supremely elegant and thoroughly intelligent building that worked in a seamless, functional way.