Calhoun: Wake-Up Call


Now you see it, now you don't.
The hyperbolic paraboloid still stands sentinel on the 16th Street Mall, a dilapidated, Jetson-esque reminder of the days when Denver's hopes soared as high as the structure's I.M. Pei-designed roof. "Our mall has only two characteristics that distinguish it from Anytown, USA," says Denver developer David Clamage. "At the one end, there's the D&F Tower. At the other, like it or not, there's the paraboloid."

But not for long. This past summer Mayor Wellington Webb and the Denver City Council refused to recognize that the building qualified as a true Denver landmark--despite the compelling arguments of architects, historians and dozens of other fans. And just two weeks ago the city removed the paraboloid's last invisible means of support when the Denver Urban Renewal Authority approved HBE's plans for a $130 million expansion of the Adam's Mark hotel onto Zeckendorf Plaza and authorized a $25 million subsidy.

Soon the paraboloid will be history, if not historical. And in its place, Denver will get a huge box of a hotel that sucks up all the available space at the old May D&F site (still to be considered by city council: HBE's notion of putting an elevator through the Court Place sidewalk) while providing the visual appeal of a Taco Bell. Which, actually, it greatly resembles.

But then, this is prepackaged architecture, based on a formula perfected at other HBE projects around the country. Through months of negotiations with DURA's design committee, HBE's Fred Kummer gave nary an aesthetic inch (not counting, of course, the much-debated alterations to the porte cochere--which saved the city's face, but nothing else). There's no room in this HBE mix for any Denver-specific ingredients. Not the paraboloid, and certainly not a paraboloid-inspired sculpture.

A decade ago the May D&F company commissioned local artist Richard Vincent to create a piece of art at Zeckendorf Plaza, a piece that would not only be evocative of the paraboloid, but also of its urban setting. The resulting design was so successful that Vincent's metal sculpture blended into the visual landscape.

Where it remained for ten years, until a certain court ruling caught Clamage's eye. The developer, who has looked askance at DURA decisions (including the infamous "blight" study that extended the agency's domain into LoDo) before, read up on the first legal test of the 1990 Visual Artists' Rights Act. In that 1994 case, a federal judge ruled that the owners of a Queens warehouse could not remove a sculpture from the building's lobby while any of the three artists who created it were still alive--even though the people who commissioned the work were no longer associated with the building's owners.

And while May D&F is long gone, Vincent is not only alive and well, he's living in Denver--where no one from DURA, much less Adam's Mark, bothered to contact him regarding the hotel's expansion plans.

On October 2 Clamage wrote Colorado U.S. Attorney Henry Solano, citing the court case, noting that Vincent is very much alive, and suggesting that under federal law the artist had the right to demand that his sculpture remain on the property. (For that matter, Clamage added, architect Pei, being "an artist himself," might be able to demand that the paraboloid stay put.) "If you will take a moment to visit the May D&F/paraboloid site," Clamage suggested, "you will notice outdoor sculpture that is clearly evocative of the paraboloid itself."

While Solano's office declined to get involved (Clamage says he received a letter two weeks later essentially telling him to "go away"), someone obviously decided to take action. Because one day in late October, Vincent's sculpture disappeared.

One DURA boardmember calls it "quite a coincidence" that Vincent's piece should vanish a few days after the board received copies of Clamage's letter, along with his suggestion that Vincent's right to his artwork's site could supersede any HBE plans. The sculpture, this boardmember adds, "is probably an old Toyota by now."

Close. Without notifying DURA, the city's planning office or the mayor's commission on the arts--much less Vincent--Adam's Mark had the piece dismantled (not an easy task, since the sculpture had been welded together) and placed in storage. Out of sight, out of mind, out of the way--or so HBE may hope. "We don't want to see that piece disappear," says Greg Esser, who handles public art for the mayor's arts commission and has been trying to track down the sculpture's whereabouts.

But Adam's Mark is not completely ignorant of the art of the deal. In an echo of Denver's 1-percent-for-art program that applies to all city construction, DURA requires that public art be a component of any project that receives tax-increment financing. According to DURA guidelines, the amount committed must be at least 1 percent of the project's "gross bond proceeds" or "reimburseable expenses."

In the case of Adam's Mark, that comes to a fast quarter-million--a handy chunk of change for most artists. But most artists are not getting a crack at this commission. Unlike the city's 1-percent projects, which go through a public-review selection overseen by the mayor's arts commission, the DURA-ordered art is public--but the process that chooses it is not. The DURA-subsidized developer can pick any art, on any subject, by any artist, without putting the selection up for public review. (Elitch's, for example, used its DURA art funds to refurbish the carousel.) And while DURA suggests that it is "preferable to utilize a local artist," the agency does not hold the developer to that.

And in fact, HBE managed to ignore that suggestion, just as it has ignored most of the city's design preferences regarding Adam's Mark. Kummer has already chosen the artist who will receive the commission: a St. Louis woman renowned for her ballerina sculptures.

Which, come to think about it, could be appropriate after all. HBE has led Denver on quite a dance.

Is it too late to change partners?

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun