Civic Center Park is breathtaking at night. The moonlight illuminates the white marble of the Beaux Arts buildings, bringing out every curve, every cornice. There is a stillness that makes the park seem like its own insular world, with the sounds and rhythms of city life muffled far off in the distance. The old-fashioned lampposts glow like oversized fireflies, providing puddles of light that are strong enough to read by but not so bright that they create a noon-at-midnight spectacle. Very few people are in the park this late. Only one drunk is passed out in the trees near the Greek Amphitheatre, and the others who stroll by are convivial. Two men in all white run by with a puppy in tow, and although they are moving quickly, they slow down to greet my Rottweiler, Nina, whom I've brought to spend the night with me. Over the past two decades, Civic Center Park has gotten a reputation as drug-dealer central, but all is quiet on this Tuesday night. On a fear scale of one to ten, I'm sliding into negative numbers.
Why, I wonder, would anyone want to mess with this magical place, make it over in his own image -- even if that person is Daniel Libeskind?
The architect behind the Denver Art Museum's new Hamilton Building will unveil his vision for Civic Center Park at a public meeting on Thursday, June 15, at the Colorado Convention Center, thus ending months of speculation over the hundred-year-old park's future -- and no doubt starting another round. Last October, as part of an ongoing assessment of the city, the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation finished a master plan for Civic Center Park -- which encompasses all of the land from Broadway to Bannock Street and 14th Avenue Parkway to Colfax Avenue -- that details a $41 million wish list for resurrecting the area, including everything from removing the tagging from the balustrades to creating a restaurant in the old Carnegie Library. Taking a cue from New York, which revitalized Central Park with the help of a private, non-profit group, the master plan established the Civic Center Conservancy, a group of high-powered-but-hush-hush leaders who not only helped complete the plan, but will be in charge of raising the bulk of the money to subsidize its proposals. (Parks and Rec receives only $6 million to $8 million a year to fund capital improvements in all of its parks, and has a $70 million maintenance backlog.) So far, conservancy leaders have raised $80,000 from its members to have Libeskind outline his vision for realizing the master plan. Or revising it beyond recognition.
The sad reality is that the Civic Center has been messed with from the beginning. This patch of sometimes scorched earth has been a hotbed of political infighting, intrigue and unrest since 1906, when journalist/internationally known city planner Charles Mulford Robinson devised the first incarnation of a Civic Center plan at the behest of then-mayor Robert Speer. The State Capitol had been completed fourteen years before, and Robinson envisioned a grand park that would "emphasize and dignify" the structure with "the preservation of a very grand mountain view." There were few obstacles to his creative vision, as the Capitol, the Denver Mint and the Denver County Courthouse, at 16th Street and Court Place, were the only major buildings then in the area, although a Carnegie Library was in the works. Robinson anchored his grand new square at the northwest corner of Colfax and Broadway. To tie in the Mint, the Capitol and the courthouse, he proposed a series of small parks along Colfax Avenue.
After citizens turned down a bond issue that would have funded Civic Center Park, Speer went back to the drawing board and came up with a cheaper, scaled-down version of Robinson's plan. That failed at the ballot box, too. For his third attempt, Speer brought in sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, who completely overhauled the plan in favor of a plaza that would stretch from the Capitol on an east-west axis -- the foundation of today's Civic Center Park. In 1909, Speer again asked citizens to approve a bond project -- this time limiting the vote to those living in the district around the proposed Civic Center. The measure passed, but the results became the focus of a court battle between the city and stalwart opponents, who argued that more than 25 percent of the area's property owners had voted against the bond, which should have been enough to kill the project. The fight escalated all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled in the city's favor in 1911.
But nothing's truly settled until the wrecking balls and bulldozers arrive -- and maybe not then, either. Speer chose not to run for another term, and new mayor Henry Arnold brought in the Olmsted brothers -- sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, famous for designing New York's Central Park and the White House grounds -- to re-conceive the town-square concept. When construction began, it followed this plan, and by 1914 there were gravel walks outlining the central lawn and the sunken garden; a site for the future Denver City & County Building had been platted, as well. The work stopped in 1916, when Speer was re-elected. He hated the Olmsteds' ideas and hired architect Edward H. Bennett from Chicago.