The fate of an ugly Denver building is hardly the main topic on the radar these days, but a dispute over the old KMGH Denver7 building on Speer Boulevard reveals long-standing weaknesses in the city’s historic preservation rules.
The main weakness is a resilient definition of landmark designations that attracts unwilling property owners with no public consensus. It is one thing that a building of marginal or questionable historical and architectural importance should be declared a Historic Landmark when the owners adopt the status. You have to deal with consequences such as reduced sales and renovation value. More strength for them.
A landmark label about the owner’s objections, however, is a different matter. The case should be crystal clear and have broad public support. We should respond with astonishment that the owner would dare to demolish the structure, rather than with questioning surprise that our citizens insist on saving it.
That brings us to the huge, uninviting eyesore that is the 51-year-old Denver7 building in Speer and Lincoln. A historical landmark? Well what do you know
Scripps Media, who owns the building, wants to sell it for renovation and applied for a certificate of non-historic status last year. Not so fast. Initially, the Denver Community Planning and Development (CPD) office declared the building a candidate for landmark status. On time, three Denver residents filed a notice applying for that status on the building, which sparked a lawsuit that put the question before the Landmark Preservation Commission last month. This committee voted 6: 1 for the nomination.
The entire city council accepts the proposal on May 10th.
To be fair, the building is probably an example of “brutalist” architecture – never before has a name been so fitting – which the CPD describes as follows: “In the 1950s, the terms“ brutalist ”or“ new brutalism ”were used. was used to describe a style that celebrated raw materials, eschewed decoration, and presented honest architectural expression by making the structural and mechanical components of a building visible. “The style faded after the 1970s.
Other examples of brutalism in Denver include the Federal Reserve Building on 16th Street Mall and Police Headquarters – and yes, they’re cold, imposing, and gross. In fact, most of the examples of brutalist buildings in the US and UK that I have found on the internet seem equally sterile.
But of course brutalism was a real phenomenon, and however we welcome its decline, we shouldn’t want to erase every example of it from the landscape. So is the Denver7 structure a striking example of the shape or an inferior tee? And does it meet other criteria that are required for a historic landmark listing?
This is where we encounter Denver’s limp standards for hostile labels. I’m not going to presume to talk about the quality of the brutalist style of this building, but if you are interested in arguments for and against, the CPD website can be found on the CPD website. Scripps Media’s analysis by Heritage Consulting Group, “a national monument preservation company,” said the building is a second-rate mix of styles and “was designed and built by high volume companies that prioritized speed and cost efficiency. Both the local aggregate and the use of prefabricated panels were not chosen as a design feature, but to speed up construction and minimize costs. “Ouch.
The seminal commission obviously disagrees.
What is annoying, however, is the convenient flexibility of other criteria that city officials claim have been met. I will only quote two.
For example, does the building have “a direct association? . . with the historical development of the city ”? Of course: of which 50-year-old building, in which the same commercial unit was located, couldn’t that be said?
And is it “an established and well-known feature of the neighborhood, the community or the present-day city due to its outstanding location or its physical properties”? Again, the answer can easily be affirmed in the affirmative for almost any old structure, regardless of whether it is worth saving or not.
Two years ago, Councilor Kendra Black proposed an amendment to Denver’s landmark ordinance that would have required a majority on the city council to approve a historic designation that the owner had rejected. It was unsuccessful, but is still needed. A national company like Scripps Media may not be the most likable target of a hostile landmark designation, but local property owners with far fewer resources have been targeted before and will be again.
If we are to restrict property rights in order to preserve structures of true importance – a goal I support, though I doubt the building qualifies in Speer and Lincoln – it shouldn’t be particularly difficult to reach a greater consensus than one to achieve simple majority voting.
Contact Vincent Carroll at [email protected]
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