Well Done

The culture boom that's been hitting the Front Range has reached another milestone: On Saturday, August 4, at 10 a.m., a ribbon-cutting ceremony will open the new two-story, 48,000-square-foot wing that has been subtly added to the magnificent and iconic Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, a 1930s modernist masterpiece that represents the greatest accomplishment of its designer, New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem. It's hard to believe that something that began so badly could come out so unbelievably good.

It all started in 2001, when facilities-planning firm Hamel Green and Abrahamson, which had been hired by the CSFAC, proposed a shoebox addition on the front of the building ("Nightmare on Dale Street," March 15, 2001). It was as if HGA had conducted a study to find the worst place for an expansion. It was architectural malpractice, as far as I'm concerned, but the CSFAC didn't sue HGA; instead, it became a cheerleader for the nonsense.

HGA's dimwitted plan only got as far as its announcement before it fell under its own weight, toppling many of the leaders who had disgraced themselves by being involved. Diane Sikes, then head of the board of trustees, and David Turner, then director, are both now long gone, as are many other members of the board, such as Sean O'Meallie. I say good riddance to them; clearly they weren't fit to hold the reins of an institution as important as the CSFAC. Turner was replaced by the able Michael De Marsche, who has shepherded the process to its conclusion with nary a hitch.

After regrouping, the CSFAC held a closed competition with the idea of creating a freestanding wing in the parking lot across Dale Street and connecting it with the main building through an underground corridor. The famous Gwathmey Siegel firm won the competition with a fabulous concept that responded to the original building and had its own distinctive flavor. That is, it would have been fabulous — but the nearly $70 million cost was a deal-breaker, since it was more than twice what the CSFAC thought it could raise.

Finally, in 2003, the board contacted Denver architect David Owen Tryba, whose firm had been first runner-up in the competition, and asked him to craft a plan that would cost less than $30 million and to identify a location where the building could be constructed without negatively affecting the great landmark. Tryba wanted this job so much he could taste it. He grew up in Colorado Springs and had been impressed by the Meem building since he was a child. "There's an air about the place that's hard to describe," says Tryba. "The monumentality — the amazing sense of scale. You knew you weren't anywhere else, that this place was important and special."

Taking that reverential approach, Tryba's idea was to insert his $28.4 million addition to the north and east of the building, tucking most of it away from Dale Street, behind the existing structure, in a former service court and on the vacated space of a previous addition. The extreme modesty of the site selected by Tryba — which is essentially out of sight — reminded me of what Burnham Hoyt did with his 1930s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, carefully and perfectly putting planters and theater seats in between the cliffs.

On the outside, the new wing is, in many ways, clearly generated out of the old building, yet the addition's design and details are not copies of what was already there. Instead, Tryba used complementary massing, materials and details to contrast quietly with those employed by Meem. "Rather than aping the old building, we link it though a juxtaposition of solid and void," notes Tryba, referring to the emphatic substantiality of the main building and the insubstantiality of the wing. This is especially true on the east side, which faces busy Cascade Avenue, where the wing that's visible is almost entirely made of glass and thin ribs of aluminum.

Though you could enter the extension on this side, through a door in the sculpture garden that accesses the impressive atrium and grand staircase, I think it makes better sense to go in through the main entrance of the Meem building. That way you can see how effectively Tryba and his team — which included Jeff Poorten and Bill Moon, among others — were able to seamlessly connect the new space to the old.

During construction, Tryba also oversaw various improvements and restorations to the Meem, such as the careful and excellently carried out refurbishing of the spectacular theater and the removal of the offensive and ugly wheelchair ramps that had been added to the El Pomar Corridor. The elegant space, restored to its original splendor, hierarchically descends in stages, lending the area a ceremonial presence while also following the contours of the hillside on which the building sits. The ramps are now tucked away in what had been a set of galleries on the south side of the El Pomar, where new restrooms and a bar, the Deco Lounge, have been also located. For the first time in memory, the windows in these spaces, with their stunning aluminum elements, have been opened up, and the effect, in the Deco Lounge in particular, is magical.

The connection between the Meem original and the Tryba addition is conceived as a continuation of the El Pomar Corridor, and whereas in the old building it falls away from the lobby, in the new part it rises up and away, again responding to the hillside location. The floors are done in terrazzo, as in the original, but the designs are distinct from one another. The new part of the El Pomar Corridor is light-filled, being partly illuminated by skylights and by a two-story glass-curtain wall that provides views of the interior courtyard garden and the exterior of Meem's garden gallery.

The courtyard garden is one of the only disappointments in the new wing. It is now smaller than it used to be and has lost its stately old spruce trees and brick staircase in a concession to commercialism: It's going to be rented out for weddings and other events, and I guess the trees and steps were in the way.

The scale of the new wing is very different, and yet it has the feeling of Meem's building. This was achieved partly through the inspired detailing created by the Tryba team, such as the blank friezes over some of the doors, the incised lines that run along the bottom of the walls, the black granite sills and aluminum fins on the window walls, and other parts of the fenestration.

One of the reasons the addition was built was to provide proper exhibition spaces for both the CSFAC's impressive permanent collection and for traveling exhibits. And on both scores, it brilliantly succeeds. While curators at Daniel Libeskind's Frederic C. Hamilton Building, at the Denver Art Museum, will need a decade to figure out how to use the outlandish facilities, those who wish to display art in the Tryba-designed Fine Arts Center wing can do so easily on their initial encounter. On the first floor are a set of galleries for the center's Taylor Museum, which owns treasures in the field of Native art, Hispanic art and American art. During the opening, this section will also display the marvelous Western art collected by the late Dusty Loo and his wife, Kathy, which is a promised gift to the CSFAC. Upstairs is another set of galleries, including an enormous double-height room where the Frederick R. Weisman Foundation show of contemporary art will open this weekend.

The Fine Arts Center's new wing is stunning, and architect David Owen Tryba has outdone himself, proving to everyone that he is among the best architects working in the region today. Not only that, but with this project, his oeuvre has entered the annals of the history of architecture in the West. His intelligent, sensitive and subtle creation is that good — it really is. And believe me, I'd be the first to point it out if it wasn't.