The Landmark Preservation Commission makes some history

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For more photos of the building in jeopardy, go to westword.com/slideshow.

I just watched history being made.

Or at least recognized.


Landmark Preservation Commission, Victor Hornbein, Ed White, Shea Properties

The last time I attended a Landmark Preservation Commission meeting, the commissioners voted to remove the oldest building on my historic block from landmark protection ("The View," May 27, 2008), paving the way for its new owner to wipe an 1888 bungalow off the face of the map and then double, triple her investment by building a massive duplex on the spot, obscuring the view of that historic block from the rest of the city. Now, a year later and many thousand DOW points lower, it seemed unlikely that the commission would suddenly show a spine and spurn a developer willing to do something, anything in downturned Denver. After all, Shea Properties just wanted to demolish two pesky, circa '60s buildings by the architectural firm of Hornbein and White on the old University of Colorado Health Sciences campus, buildings that the commission was now being asked to recommend for landmark designation.

Like the buildings they created, Victor Hornbein and Ed White are landmark figures in this town. In a 1995 interview with National Parks Service historian Rodd Wheaton, Hornbein had listed those two CU structures among his finest accomplishments, along with the Denver Botanic Gardens, Cory Elementary School and the Ross-Broadway Branch Library. As Wheaton said a year later, after Hornbein passed away, the architect "had an innate understanding of the Colorado climate and designed for it. He understood what happened here."

And what keeps happening.

White, who is still living, has already been commemorated as Tim Gray in Jack Kerouac's On the Road. And he not only appears in the book, but he inspired how Kerouac would construct it. Back when he was an architecture student at Columbia University in the '40s, White told Kerouac he should work from word sketches. "I was making sketches, and it occurred to me, because he was always observing things, that it would help if he carried notebooks with him," White explained. When Kerouac visited the young architect in Denver, he found plenty to fill those notebooks.

White himself did much more than sketch buildings. He saved them, too. He was one of the founders of Historic Denver, the private organization started to save what was left of Denver's past after the scrape-it-off '60s. He pushed for historic status for Annex 1, the building whose preservation so influenced the design of the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building, where the Landmark Preservation Commission meets. And he served on that commission for close to three decades, as his son, Jamie, pointed out when he spoke to the current commissioners on Tuesday.

This fall, when Jamie suddenly discovered that the Hornbein and White-designed John F. Kennedy Childhood Development Center and Children's Psychiatric Day Care Center seemed doomed, he told me that he was thinking of making a last-ditch effort to save his father's legacy. "I thought, I have to step up to the plate — especially considering everything my dad did," he says. "He battled to save so many buildings over the decades." I suggested he contact Michael Paglia, Westword's longtime art critic and a determined champion of urban design (Artbeat, September 17). Under a city ordinance adopted after Shea made its bid to develop the old Health Sciences property into a retail-residential complex, a building can be put forward for landmark consideration after its owners apply for a demolition permit — technically, a "certificate of non-historic," which Shea had done for thirteen buildings, including these two, on September 24. Until that notice appeared, Jamie hadn't realized the buildings might disappear, he says. Working with Wheaton, Paglia prepared White's applications to gain landmark status for the Hornbein and White structures.

Architecture this strong should speak for itself — but it didn't hurt to have two knowledgeable advocates writing the script. Both the Childhood Development Center, constructed in 1968, and the Day Care Center, constructed in 1962, exemplify Frank Lloyd Wright's "Usonian style." In doing so, they clearly have architectural importance — one of the three criteria that the landmark commission must consider under city ordinance. They also meet the second standard, for historical importance, because they were "a manifestation of the growing interest nationally and in Colorado in the field of child mental health during the first two decades of the second half of the 20th century," the applications point out. When Hornbein and White was hired, "a day-care center for mentally ill children was fairly novel," and the architects "attempted to design the building with children in mind and...created an intimate environment with small and inviting spaces." The third key factor, geographic importance, is satisfied by the buildings' prominent placement on Eighth Avenue, making them visual landmarks for the city.

In fact, it's impossible to imagine this town without them. Jim Bershof, the commissioner who was acting as chairman of the group Tuesday, grew up in the neighborhood. "I watched them being built," he recalled.

Fran Mishler, a city staffer assigned to the assess the applications, summarized the action thus far for the commission. On November 19, the Denver Planning Board, which is headed by developer Brad Buchanan, had considered the landmark applications — and recommended against designation for the buildings. But unlike the planning board, Mishler noted, the landmark commission is required to consider only the historic, architectural and geographic significance, "and both meet the criteria in all three categories."

Tom Ragonetti, Shea's attorney, didn't agree. When the developer took on the project, he told the commission, Shea worked with Historic Denver on an agreement to save the nurses' dorm and the quadrangle — and nothing else. "These buildings are not on the list," he added, and with the plan poised for "final adoption," this was no time to even consider putting them there.

Bob Musgraves, the new head of Historic Denver, couldn't shed much light on the deal his predecessor had cut. Although he acknowledged that the buildings in question were "prime Denver examples of mid-century stylings," given Historic Denver's earlier action, the group is "not able to take a position" to save the buildings now, he said. "We hope to see Historic Denver playing a more active role in the future."

A future in which these buildings would have no chance of existing — if Jamie White hadn't decided to save them. "I don't know why everyone was so surprised that someone went ahead and asked for them to be a landmark," he told me. "That's the process."

And then another surprise: living history. Brooks Waldman, an architect and urban planner, had worked in Victor Hornbein's office as a student and was involved with the design of the Day Care Center. "The scale is very human, very thoughtful," he said. "I can't imagine that a creative development company can't make use of these buildings."

Finally, Paglia — who, like Wheaton, described his interest in the project as "civic duty" and volunteered his efforts — reminded the commissioners of the architectural legacy they just might be able to save. And he cautioned them to look south to the Gates property, where decades of history have been wiped out and development is now stalled.

And then I watched history being made. Because instead of bending over backward for the developer, every one of the commissioners stood firmly in favor of giving the buildings landmark designation. "I do think we put the landmark commission in an awkward position," said historian Stephen Leonard (the only member who'd voted to save the bungalow on my block). But even so, that was no reason to rubber-stamp whatever deal Historic Denver, a private organization, might have made with a developer two years ago. "I am happy," he added, "to hear that Historic Denver's commitment to historic preservation is rekindled."

And on the record.

From here, the landmark recommendation goes to Denver City Council, which must issue the final approval — or rejection. As commissioner Ed Shalkey noted, "It is up to city council to bring in all the other pieces." Pieces like how much Denver wants to see that parcel developed — and how, in the future, developers might want to work with the landmark commission before cutting any deals.

The landmark application could wind up before council just two weeks from now. The CU project lies in the district of city council president Jeanne Robb, who sat quietly through the hearing. Then, as she headed home, she said she wanted to take another look at that daycare center.

That's all we can ask.

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