Building For the Future

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At one time, the 17th Street commercial district was lined with brick and stone buildings designed by Edbrooke. Most of them have been replaced by mediocre glass and steel high-rises, but several of Edbrooke's buildings still stand out in the cityscape. The Brown Palace Hotel--widely regarded as the best building in Denver--is his undisputed masterpiece, but other surviving Edbrooke buildings include the Masonic Building, the Denver Dry, the Oxford Hotel, Central Presbyterian Church, the main building at Loretto Heights and Tryba's own Fisher Mansion.

While Edbrooke focused on the commercial heart of Denver, William Lang became the city's most popular domestic architect. Dozens of his fanciful homes still dot Capitol Hill, including a remarkable set of row houses in the 1600 block of Washington Street and the Molly Brown House, at 1340 Pennsylvania Street. Lang also designed the former St. Mark's Church, at 12th and Lincoln, now the site of a popular nightclub.

Roeschlaub became known as Denver's foremost institutional architect, designing schools and churches all over the city. His existing buildings include the Dora Moore school, University Hall at the University of Denver, the Central City Opera House and Trinity Methodist Church.

While Edbrooke and Roeschlaub enjoyed long and successful careers, Lang's tragic life shows just how precarious the profession of architecture can be. After the silver crash of 1893, Lang's practice was ruined, and he began a descent into alcoholism. He left his wife and daughter in Denver in 1896 and went to live with a brother near Chicago. He was killed the next year, run over by a locomotive while walking down railroad tracks.

While each of these architects had a unique style, certain consistent design elements linked them together and helped establish a Denver style. They often used an orangish-colored brick--the color came from Colorado clay--now seen all over lower downtown. They also incorporated stone from the Rocky Mountains into many of their buildings.

The Denver aesthetic that emerged at that time, Tryba says, consisted of a palette of earth tones and a design sense that was a more modern and stripped-down version of the Chicago style. The Brown Palace is the best example of this emerging regional sensibility, he adds.

"We were really lucky, because people building at the turn of the century hired these great architects who came from Chicago and the East and stayed here because they fell in love with Denver," says Tryba.

Denver's architectural renaissance ended with the crash of 1893, part of the manic-depressive economic cycle that's shaped Denver ever since. But the design mores of that epoch persisted in Denver until WWII, and Tryba passionately believes that Denver architects need to return to those values in the 21st century.

Michael Brenneman, developer of Hotel Teatro in the former Tramway Building at 14th and Arapahoe streets, worked with Tryba and his assistant, Bill Moon, for more than a year on the $18.5 million renovation. Even though Tryba had never done a hotel before, Brenneman wanted him involved on both the building and the interior design. "We didn't want to do another chain hotel," he says. "It had to have a unique design."

The onetime headquarters for Denver's early-twentieth-century mass-transit system, the building has a marble lobby, brass elevators and molded plaster ceilings. Tryba didn't gut the interior, as many other architects do when working on historic buildings.

"There's a lot of architects that want every building to be about themselves," says Brenneman. "The building had been vacant for seven years and was badly deteriorated; the challenges were manifold. It really took a lot to restore the historic parts of the building. He did a great job."

Those who've devoted their careers to saving Denver's historic buildings say Tryba is one of just a handful of architects in Denver who really understand historic renovations. "For an architect to take on a design project where he'll be invisible at the end is a challenge," says Diane Wray, a local consultant who specializes in renovation. "David makes decisions most architects aren't capable of."

Denver planning director Jennifer Moulton, herself an architect, praises Tryba for his sense of design and willingness to take risks. But Moulton bristles at his criticism that Denver is going too slowly in trying to bring housing downtown. "Denver has been nationally recognized for developing downtown housing," says Moulton. "It doesn't happen overnight. David is very passionate and idealistic, but things don't happen that quickly."

Many factors affect the creation of downtown housing, says Moulton, including the cost of land and the ability of builders to meet demand. She points out that the cities Tryba admires took hundreds of years to develop. "Boston is 300 years old," says Moulton. "I'm not sure Denver will be like Boston in David's lifetime."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers

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