Art Review


It's so discouraging to be interested in architecture and live in Colorado. There's very little top-drawer material here to begin with -- surely not more than 1 percent of the built environment -- and demolition seems to be relentlessly picking off the buildings in that elite 1 percent.

About a year and a half ago, I let everyone know that the threat of demolition hung over the Commercial Federal Bank building at 4301 South Broadway in Englewood. Sad to say, that threat was real, and the property's insensitive owners back in Omaha are now in the process of having the elegant work of art demolished. This is one of only a handful of genuinely significant buildings on this stretch of Broadway, and while it doesn't surprise me that out-of-state owners have little regard for Englewood's architectural history, the behavior of some Englewood officials was inexcusable.

The bank -- originally First Federal Savings -- was the work of William Muchow, one of the most important and successful architects working in Colorado during the mid-twentieth century. The building was carried out in buff-colored brick with structural steel, which was painted, exposed and used as ad hoc ornamentation. The older north wing, which is being torn down first, was conceived as a square pavilion with an elevated garden level and a raised main floor handled as a piano nobile. There were large, garden-level windows, as well as a narrow strip of eyebrow windows running right under the wide, cantilevered eaves. The roof was the most distinctive feature, though, being made up of four pyramids arranged in a grid. The newer south wing, which will be torn down later, is equally interesting. Here the garden level isn't raised; instead, the ground was lowered, with a dry moat excavated along the walls. Although this wing is completely different from the first, it related beautifully to it.

The building revealed Muchow's gift for theatrical formal expression, along with his thoughtful eye in handling structural components as decoration. When it was built, the bank exemplified the most advanced current in modern architecture, and it was one of the finest buildings of its time, style and type in the metro area. On this part of South Broadway, its distinctiveness stuck out like a far-from-sore thumb.

It's hard to believe the building's high quality wasn't obvious to everyone. But ironically -- if typically, for these situations -- those who had the least regard for the building were the ones who held its fate in their hands. In 2004, Diane Wray put forward a landmark nomination for the bank. A widely known preservation consultant, Wray lives in Englewood, and her recently published book for Historic Denver focuses on Arapahoe Acres, an architectural asset of over a hundred individually designed, mid-century modernist houses in that town.

Wray believes, as I do, that the bank building was clearly eligible for listing on the state register of historic places, as well as the National Register of Historic Places, and thus obviously should have been granted a city listing. Although not yet fifty years old, it also appeared to qualify for an exemption to the so-called fifty-year rule, owing to its exceptional architectural significance. Wray's argument was solid and fairly straightforward: The building exemplified an identified historical style, modernist expressionism; it was the work of an acknowledged master of local architecture, Muchow; and it expressed a broad cultural trend -- the association of vanguard architecture with the banking industry -- that was seen nationally at the time.

In order for Wray's nomination to go forward, there had to be a public hearing -- which meant signs announcing the hearing had to be posted on the property. But the building's owners refused to allow any signs to be posted. When Wray went to Englewood with the problem, the city decided she couldn't post signs on the public right-of-ways adjacent to the property, either. It would have been madcap comedy -- or maybe a Joseph Heller novel -- if it didn't have such a sad ending. With no signs, there could be no hearing. So a non-hearing was held, with the owners' representatives flown in from Nebraska for the occasion.

During the process, George Quittner and Tom Perkins were the front men for Commercial Federal, and throughout the long process, they argued that the building did not have historic value and wasn't eligible for listing on the National Register because it wasn't old enough. The fact that Quittner and Perkins have no known expertise in Colorado's architectural history, while Wray has been involved in almost every fifty-year-rule exception granted by the National Register in the state, didn't dissuade them from arrogantly promoting their shared position.

At the same time they were fighting Wray's nomination of the building, Englewood was embarking on a plan to redevelop South Broadway. More enlightened members of the Englewood City Council believed that preservation of the city's most important buildings, including Commercial Federal, should be a centerpiece of the redevelopment, and they suggested a moratorium on demolition along the corridor until planning guidelines could be established. Sounds rational to me, as it should to everyone. But in a vote last month, the council went four to three against the moratorium, thus sealing Commercial Federal's fate.

In the process, several members of council, notably Laurett Barrentine and Beverly Bradshaw, revealed their complete failure to understand the economic value of preservation. Barrentine even said she thought that only owners should be eligible to nominate landmarks, which would make the whole process a ridiculously meaningless exercise. Consider that in Denver, which is right next to Englewood, the city's historic districts are among the most economically vibrant areas of the city, with LoDo -- which was created in spite of considerable owner opposition -- being the most obvious example. It's clear that preservation brings home the bacon just about every time, while the scrape-off mentality does not.

This sad tale reminds me of the old saying about casting pearls before swine. Quittner and Perkins, not to mention Barrentine and Bradshaw, play the swine here, while Commercial Federal, now in ruins, stands in for that proverbial string of pearls.