With the AIA convention in Denver, a look at ten architectural gems

Thousands of professionals in the fields of architecture, planning, design and related occupations, along with many vendors, are meeting in Denver June 20-22 for the American Institute of Architects' annual convention, this year titled "Building Leaders."

In honor of the event, I've given my column over to a walk through Denver's treasure chest — the greater Civic Center area. But there are many other fantastic buildings elsewhere downtown. With that in mind, here is a list of ten that I think are captivating.

Brown Palace Hotel
321 17th Street


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Frank Edbrooke, the premier Denver architect of the late 19th century, moved here in 1879 from Chicago, where he was part of a dynastic family of architects. Soon after arriving, he established his own firm, with the 1892 Brown Palace Hotel being his early masterpiece. This magnificent example of the Richardsonian-Romanesque style has a triangular footprint because it follows the shape of its site, which is bounded by 17th Street, Tremont Place and Broadway. The steel-framed building, with a pinkish granite podium below a reddish sandstone-clad shaft, was as up-to-date as anything in Chicago or New York at the time. Directly across Tremont is the Navarre, a delightful Italianate folly that Edbrooke completed in 1880. A comparison of the two reveals how, in the span of a dozen years, this frontier town had transformed itself into the biggest city in the mountain West.

Rockmount Ranch Wear Building
1626 Wazee Street

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Lower Downtown is renowned for its nightlife, brewpubs and restaurants, but it's also the place to find a number of early modernist buildings. For whatever reason, very few Prairie residences were built in Denver, but equally puzzling is the fact that quite a few Prairie-style commercial buildings were, with most of them in this neighborhood. Among my favorites is the 1909 Rockmount Ranch Wear Building, by William Ellsworth Fisher and Arthur Addison Fisher — and not just because the westernwear emporium inside is signature Denver. This is a very advanced building for its date, with geometric drops falling from flat pilasters and a checkerboard motif of glazed headers. While you're on Wazee Street, check out the 1912 Sugar Building Annex, at 1554 Wazee, by Aaron Gove and Thomas Walsh. It is even more Wrightian than the Rockmount, and is definitely its peer as a work of architecture.

Denver Gas and Electric Light Company Building
910 15th Street

As with the Brown and the Rockmount, the source of inspiration for the Denver Gas and Electric Light Company Building lies in Chicago. Designed by Harry Edbrooke — Frank's nephew — the beautifully proportioned building has been called a tour de force in terra cotta because it's covered in bright-white tiles. Though there are neoclassical details, the overall appearance is one of modernity, with the windows organized vertically and horizontally and the building divided into three volumes, one on top of the other, until the shaft terminates in a dramatically coved cornice. The richly detailed structure, with its cut-outs for integral electric lights (to show off, by proxy, the company's product), is the city's finest Sullivanesque work. The lighting scheme appears as dark squares in the daytime, but at night, when the lights are working, it's out of this world.

Paramount Theatre
1621 Glenarm Place

Denver was a center for the production of architectural ceramics in the early part of the last century — a natural, given all the clay around here — and the Paramount Theatre, from 1929, is covered in light-colored terra-cotta tile. The theater was designed by Temple Buell, one of Denver's most successful architects of the 20th century. For this facade, Buell cleverly reassembled rococo and baroque ornamental fragments upside down or sideways in order to turn the tired old shapes into something new — in this case, the stepped details of the art-deco style. Face the building's front door and look left and then right: you'll see a block-long art-history course in front of you. To the left is Morris Stuckert's Kittredge Building, from 1890, in the Richardsonian-Romanesque style; to the right is the Miesian Denver Club Building, from 1954, by Raymond Harry Ervin. The wonderful art-deco Paramount is in between.

Denver Club Building
518 17th Street

The International style came to Denver in the '30s with the completion of several houses that made national architectural news. But it wasn't until the 1950s that the Mile High City would see a new crop of related high-rises. Homegrown modernist Raymond Harry Ervin, who had designed some of those early residences, gained several large, high-status commissions after World War II; with his eye for form and detail, as evidenced in the Denver Club Building, from 1954, that's not surprising. Though the less-is-more, form-follows-function ideology that ruled the day can definitely be seen, Ervin put a lot more than that into the design. The aluminum trim juxtaposed with the icy-green aggregate panels, the asymmetrically balanced conception of the building's volumes and the wrap-around handling of the penthouse all come together to give the building a genuine swankiness. It's Mies meets Mad Men — and as sleek as those chrome-plated Cadillacs and Lincolns that the club's original members drove to get there.

U.S. Courthouse and Byron G. Rogers Federal Building
1929-1961 Stout Street

Among the responses to the severity of the functionalist ethos was the sumptuousness of formalism with its European roots. The marvelous 1965 U.S. Courthouse and Byron G. Rogers Federal Building, which comprises a low-rise pavilion and a high-rise tower, with a gorgeous (if currently under construction) plaza connecting the two, is one of Denver's best examples of formalism. The buildings, designed by James Sudler, have been luxuriously appointed, with notable features including the William Joseph eagle relief, the freestanding stile by Edgar Britton, and the sun-breaker screen by Alan Gass. No Denver architect of the '60s and '70s was as familiar with European architecture as Sudler. For example, the tower definitely shows the influence of Gio Ponti. Oddly enough, Sudler hadn't met Ponti at the time, though only a few years later, he would collaborate with the Italian master on the design of the 1971 Denver Art Museum.

Auraria Library
1100 Lawrence Street

The Auraria campus, southwest of Speer Boulevard and Colfax Avenue, was once among the oldest neighborhoods in the city, until it was all but cleared to provide a common campus for three institutions. Thankfully, a street of little houses — the Ninth Street Historic Park — some churches, and the old Tivoli Brewery were saved from the carnage. Interspersed among them are buildings constructed over the past forty years, most carried out in red brick. The exception is the stunningly white 1976 Auraria Library. This elegant pavilion is covered in horizontal strips of glass and anodized aluminum panels, making it stand out like a jewel among its quieter neighbors. It was designed by a young Helmut Jahn, working for C. F. Murphy. In the 1970s, postmodernism was gaining a foothold, but Jahn was going the other way, toward a refinement known as late modern. For the library, he resurrected elements that had long been dispensed with, such as louvered sunscreens and radial corners, and in this way, pointed toward the neo-modern future.

Wells Fargo Building
1700 Lincoln Street

Denver's fortunes are tied to the commodity exchanges, because the nearby mountains are full of materials that generate wealth. But those exchanges go up and down — boom and bust. The mother of all booms hit Denver in the late '70s and early '80s as oil prices rose. This led to a generation of the biggest, tallest, finest, most expensive and most luxuriously appointed structures ever erected here. Many were designed by the most prominent firms in the world, including SOM, Kohn Pedersen Fox and Johnson/Burgee, Philip Johnson's firm. The latter was the only large outfit to adopt postmodernism early on, and Johnson used it for the 1984 Wells Fargo Building, nicknamed the "Cash Register." In it, Johnson combined vaguely neoclassical fenestration with streamlined modernism turned sideways. The only negative is the way it needlessly overwhelms the Mile High Tower by I. M. Pei. By the time the "Cash Register" was completed, the bust was well on its way, ending forever this era of architectural riches.

Hyatt Regency Denver Colorado Convention Center Hotel
650 15th Street

There have only been a handful of tall buildings constructed downtown since the 1980s oil crash, and only a couple of them can stand up to the great buildings of the preceding era. Among them is the 2005 Hyatt Regency Denver Colorado Convention Center Hotel (the headquarters for AIA conventioneers). The Hyatt's beautiful formal complexity and thoughtful detailing are both signatures of Keat Tan, head designer for klipp (now part of gkkworks). Comprising a pair of shockingly thin towers that overlap one another, the building looks as though it might start to float away. Also notable in this public/private partnership is a collection of integral art, most of it by Colorado artists. Tan is also responsible for another great building, the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse, at 520 West Colfax Avenue.

MCA Denver
1485 Delgany Street

Over the past decade or so, Denver has been erecting, expanding and founding museums as quickly as a drunken sailor spends money. Among the new museums is the smart little MCA Denver, by African-born British architect David Adjaye. Completed in 2007, it was his first public building in America. Though the black-glass pavilion looks like a cube, it's not, as the walls don't run parallel to one another, and there's a secondary geometric form slotted in behind the exterior, as revealed by the off-center cantilevered penthouse that emerges at the roofline. Adjaye wasn't the starchitect that he is today when former MCA director Cydney Payton tapped him to design a home for an institution then occupying an old fish market (no, really). Don't miss the severe Richard Serra-esque townhouse next door, also by Adjaye, built for Mark Falcone, the developer and museum board chair who donated the land for the museum.

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