Rust in Peace

Is Currigan Exhibition Hall destined to become a part of the Denver Art Museum's permanent collection?

If Denver voters approve the $200 million proposed expansion of the nine-year-old Colorado Convention Center next fall, Currigan's thirty-year role as part of the city's convention complex will come to an abrupt halt. Current plans call for tearing down Currigan and building the expansion in its place.

Currigan, which cost just over $7 million, was funded through a bond issue approved by Denver voters in 1964. When it opened in 1969, it was heralded as a masterwork of cutting-edge engineering. The building, designed by the Denver firm of Muchow, Ream and Larson, was based on an innovative steel structure that allowed for the construction of a 100,000-square-foot exhibition hall with no supporting interior columns. Another innovation was the exterior hung with weathered steel panels, which were designed to rust almost immediately and give the building its unusual appearance.

Currigan was controversial even before it opened. Some thought the building looked like a rusted-out mining cart, while others found its look modern and exciting. The building quickly collected several national architecture and design awards.

Thirty years later, historic preservationists believe it's important to save Currigan as a distinguished example of 1960s design. "It's really an engineering landmark," says Kathleen Brooker, president of Historic Denver. "It's a very elegant, clever design that was groundbreaking at the time."

So groundbreaking, in fact, that it might be feasible to move the block-long building to another location. City officials are now exploring the option of moving Currigan from its current site, freeing the block at 14th and Stout streets for a convention-center expansion, and rebuilding it somewhere else.

"Currigan's frame is constructed in such a way that it's possible for it to be disassembled and reassembled elsewhere," says Liz Orr, a special assistant to Mayor Wellington Webb who's been working on the convention-center proposal.

Under one scenario, Currigan would be moved and rebuilt on the 13th Avenue parking lot adjacent to the Denver Art Museum, giving the museum an instant 100,000-square-foot exhibition hall that could be used for special exhibits and to showcase contemporary art. Not only does the museum badly need more exhibition space, but it would be likely to appreciate Currigan's unique design--and an architecturally appreciative home is critical to the concept.

Although Orr says it's too early to know exactly how much it would cost to move Currigan, relocating the building is likely be more expensive than putting up a new structure. "If somebody were just going to build a big box, that would be much cheaper," she says.

Denver Art Museum director Lewis Sharp confirms that the museum is looking into the possibility of acquiring Currigan but emphasizes that the idea is still in the exploratory phase. "We're looking at our long-term needs and whether Currigan could house those needs," he says, adding that the museum has to answer multiple questions before it can make any sort of commitment.

For example, the museum must be certain the building can be moved at a reasonable cost--if it can actually be moved at all. "No one has really looked me squarely in the eye and said, 'Lewis, it can be moved,'" he says.

But the museum can certainly use the space. Recently it's taken a higher profile, announcing ambitious plans to host traveling exhibitions of works by Toulouse-Lautrec and Matisse, as well as a major exhibit of Impressionist paintings from European museums. And not only is the museum running out of room for the large, splashy shows that the public wants to see, Sharp says, but it also wants to devote more space to contemporary art on a permanent basis.

"We need more space desperately," says Sharp. "Our special exhibition halls are not large enough. We hope we can expand to meet those needs."

Even if Currigan can be moved, though, it was not designed to accommodate art--another thing Sharp says museum staff and boardmembers need to consider as they study options over the next several months.

But whether or not Currigan is added to the museum's inventory, Sharp thinks it's important that the building be preserved in some fashion. "If it has to be moved, I would hope someone in the city of Denver could find a use for it," he says.

Last month, a city-appointed task force recommended that the Colorado Convention Center be doubled in size. The mayor and city council must sign off on the proposal before it can be referred to voters in November; if voters approve, the $200 million expansion would be paid for with taxes on hotel rooms, rental cars and restaurant meals. The center currently has 300,000 square feet of space, and the proposed expansion would add over 200,000 more. But Currigan would have to go, say backers of the plan, who argue that the building is outmoded and no longer serves the needs of many conventions. If moving Currigan becomes part of the plan, however, city council could decide to include the costs of moving Currigan in the bond proposal it submits to voters.

City officials caution that it's premature to predict Currigan's ultimate fate. Voters could turn down the expansion plan, which will likely be criticized as an unnecessary public subsidy for downtown hotels. Raising taxes to benefit the tourism industry has proven unpopular in Colorado since voters in 1993 killed the statewide sales tax that funded the Colorado Tourism Board.

"It's too early to speculate what the future will be," says Ellen Ittelson, a senior city planner who has been working on the convention-center expansion. "Currigan is in many ways a landmark. If the community agrees we need to expand the convention center, then there's the question of how do you honor that building."

Perhaps by selling it to a suburb, another idea city hall bureaucrats have reportedly floated. But Lakewood city manager Mike Rock says his city probably wouldn't have much use for Currigan. "We're not really in the convention business," he says. "We leave that to Denver."

Still, Rock notes that Lakewood has started a collection of old buildings that Denver doesn't want. Last year that city moved the former Gil & Ethel's beauty parlor and barber shop--heralded as a fine example of art moderne design--from West Alameda Avenue to the Lakewood Heritage Center. Perhaps Currigan could join the lineup, he suggests, then laughs. "It would be right up there with owning a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers

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