Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.
The Channel 7 building is the newest local landmark to be demolished.
The campaign to save the building at 123 Speer Boulevard is for those of us in Mile High City who have paid special attention to – or lack of – its historic preservation here. First, wealthy, if resilient, owners are announcing plans to demolish a historic structure – in this case, EW Scripps of Cincinnati, owned by Denver7. Second, civic volunteers are rising to question the decision and trying to convince said owners to save and reuse the place. This time around, Bradley Cameron, Michael Henry, and David Lynn Wise are the civic saviors.
At this point, a nomination for a more or less objective assessment by the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission is being prepared. The analysis of the building according to DLPC guidelines led the commission to a landslide vote of six to one in favor of landmark suitability. The applicants had shown that the building exemplifies the brutalist style. It was designed by the Fulmer & Bowers company and has a high level of building craftsmanship. It was built in 1969 as a television station during the heyday of American television. The tower at the junction of Speer and Lincoln Streets acts as a guard at the southeast entrance to downtown. As a result, it has architectural, historical and geographical significance.
This is where the Denver Toothless Landmarks Ordinance comes into play. The chorus of developer shills – um, I mean the Denver city council – guesses the decisions the commission has made and pretends that their objections are based on their refined aesthetic sensibilities rather than simply because they are pocketed of rich and powerful interests lie that is literally tearing down the city to make quick money. One thing to say about Denver City Council members, while they may not know how to solve a real problem like the homelessness crisis, they can do something about fabricated problems like the scourge of rampant historical preservation. (Do I have to tell you that on May 10th the Council made the decision not to save the building – by unanimous vote?)
If Channel 7 bites the dust, the final evidence of the brutalist presence that once graced Speer Boulevard will be essentially erased. Eugene Sternberg’s Denver General Hospital around 1970 was completely obscured by haughty additions on the boulevard side and William Muchow’s 1969 Currigan Exhibition Hall to build the Colorado Convention Center.
The failed battle, however, has a bright spot. It has brought brutalism back into focus and reinvigorated interest in a refined, modernist architectural style that was the culmination of various concepts that emerged from international style, formalism and expressionism. These ideas, picked up by architectural intelligence in the 1960s and 1970s, were shaped by an interest in exploring the glamorous possibilities of modest materials such as rusting metal, raw concrete and casting aggregate. Brutalist buildings are characterized by their lively surfaces and their distinctive engineering, two properties that made construction expensive and limited their use to high-ranking commissions such as corporate headquarters, banks and museums. That of course means that they are relatively rare, especially here in Denver.
The headquarters of the Colorado Education Association, 1500 Grant Street.
There are only a handful of other brutalist buildings downtown, notably Muchow’s 1964 Colorado Education Association headquarters at 1500 Grant Street, which was originally built as a bank. Despite its gravelly setting in East Colfax, the CEA building is extremely elegant. The ground floor is sunk with a cantilevered double floor stack, and at the top the grid cassette of the roof is visible from the street on the underside. Since this roof is mounted on recessed columns, it seems to float above the fourth floor with a glass front. The most dominant features are the repeated, vertically-oriented sunshades that are installed over the windows on the second and third floors, as well as the notched rear corners of the building.
The Federal Reserve Branch Bank, 1020 16th Street.
Even more ambitious is another brutalist masterpiece by Muchow: the Federal Reserve Branch Bank at 1020 16th Street. Ignoring the dumb faux Victorian fence and planters on the mall side, the Federal Reserve increases the CEA’s elegance quotient while having similar features, such as the recessed ground floor, the rhythm of the vertical above, the notched rear corners, and another, which apparently floats above. The Federal Reserve has the light and airy quality of a huge garden pavilion, but within its porticos conveys a sense of solidity and monumentality that is appropriate to its high security function.
Several other significant buildings in the downtown area have a relationship with Brutalism, including the 1960 tower of the partially lost Teckendorf Plaza by IM Pei at Court Place, built in 1960 at the Sheraton Hotel, and the 1971 Martin Building of the Denver Art Museum by Gio Ponti on 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway In both cases, the star architects responsible have created their own distinctive variants of the style.
IM Peis National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.
However, Pei became a brutalist with his National Center for Atmospheric Research from 1961 to 1967 on Table Mesa Drive in Boulder in 1850. The complex, built from a red, on-site cast aggregate with several buildings, which is equipped with slots and cantilevered overhangs, rests against the mountains and reads like a natural ledge. NCAR, along with the Ponti, is one of the most important architectural works of the state in every style.
The main proponent of brutalism in the area was Sternberg, who produced a number of fine examples in the southern suburbs, notably the main Arapahoe Community College building at 5900 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton, which was completed in 1974. The sculptural potential of cast concrete is about to be used for hoods or used next to the windows, which are often set very low, to protect the interior from the sun, as well as for cutouts that serve as entrance canopies or simply as passages to get in. The elaborate and multi-part building suggests an old citadel with levels stacked one on top of the other. The newer addition on the north side could have been better, but it could also have been a lot worse. And don’t miss Sternberg’s closely related Miller Building on West Littleton Boulevard in 1901, also from 1974.
Arapahoe Community College, 5900 South Santa Fe Drive.
At the beginning of the 21st century, brutalism is really in the crosshairs of the Philistines – just as it was in the modern mid-century twenty years ago. People love to show and laugh at brutalism and I was wondering if the name of the style, brutalism, played a role in the inspiration of this ridicule. The term refers to Breton Brut, in French “raw concrete”. Imagine if it had been called Bretonism instead. Would that have made it less of a target for critics of the style?
Keep Westword Free … Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we want to keep it that way. We offer our readers free access to concise coverage of local news, food and culture. Produce stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands with bold reporting, stylish writing, and staff everything from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Feature Writing Award to the Casey Medal for the Deserving Journalism have won. Given that the existence of local journalism amid siege and setbacks has a greater impact on advertising revenue, it is more important than ever for us to raise support for funding our local journalism. You can help by joining our I Support membership program which allows us to continue to cover Denver without paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995. His essays on fine arts have also been published in national magazines, including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction, and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.