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Civic Center: Denver’s Civic and Cultural Heart 

One Denver neighborhood offers a tour of both Colorado’s civic history and the evolution of contemporary architecture

By Mary Voelz Chandler


Civic Center

The Colorado State Capitol was designed by E.E. Myers of Detroit and Frank E. Edbrooke of Denver. Image courtesy of Alan Golin Gass, FAIA.

Civic Center

Denver City and County Building was designed by Allied Architects Association and Robert K. Fuller in 1932. Image courtesy of the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress.

Civic Center

Denver’s Greek Theater and Colonnade of Civic Benefactors, designed by Marean & Norton, 1919. Image courtesy of Alan Golin Gass, FAIA.

Civic Center

The LEED-Gold Denver Police Crime Lab building by SmithGroup, with Durant.  Image courtesy of Alan Golin Gass, FAIA.

Civic Center

The Postmodernist Denver Central Library, designed by Michael Graves. Image courtesy of VISIT DENVER.

Civic Center

Graves’ library is meant to approximate an Italian hill town.  Image courtesy of Alan Golin Gass, FAIA.

Civic Center

At left, the Frederic C. Hamilton wing of the Denver Art Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, AIA. To the right in the background, Michael Graves’ Denver Central Library.  Image courtesy of Alan Golin Gass, FAIA.

Civic Center

Libeskind’s art museum addition reflects the dramatic and jagged landforms of the nearby Rocky Mountains. Image courtesy of Jeff Wells and VISIT DENVER.

Civic Center

Allied Works Architecture’s Clyfford Still Museum. Image courtesy of VISIT DENVER.

Civic Center

Tryba Architects’ History Colorado Center.

Civic Center

Denver’s Civic Center. Image courtesy of Jim Rae and VISIT DENVER.

Denver’s Civic Center, anchored by the Colorado State Capitol and the Denver City and County Building, is the core of Denver’s civic and cultural life. Around the park, government buildings are set on an east-west axis that stretches toward busy Speer Boulevard. Civic Center’s north-south axis forms a link between downtown Denver and a cultural complex of museums, and Denver’s central library.

Last year, the U.S. Interior Department named Civic Center the city’s first National Historic Landmark, but this key area is still growing today, extending the scope of a neighborhood dedicated to Denver’s civic and public life. In the first decade of the 21st century, Civic Center witnessed an enormous amount of development, making it a place where visitors to the 2013 AIA National Convention will witness an evolution of architectural history that is easy to track. 

What is old remains strikingly new. Over the years, the prevailing design ethos shifted from Neo-Classicism to Neo-Modernism and related styles, providing an exhaustive crash course in contemporary architectural history. The late 20th century brought the addition of color in an expanded central library. A decade later, the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building introduced a gleaming titanium skin, and the Clyfford Still Museum presented a rough, but gentle, concrete exterior.

This civic heart grew from a desire by citizens and Robert W. Speer, the Denver mayor from 1904–1912 who was enamored with the City Beautiful movement inspired by the Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. Even before Denver hired Edward H. Bennett of Chicago in 1916 to develop a new plan, homes in the area were razed and plantings begun. By 1919, the Beaux-Arts format of the park was established, with axes and lawns in place. 

“The Civic Center landscape itself is a template of how generations of Denver’s citizens have believed their city should be embellished and what their city should look like—with shade trees, lush lawns, a fountain, and sophisticated gardens—all in defiance of naysayers and an arid climate,” says Don Etter, an award-winning parks historian and former co-manager of Denver Parks and Recreation. “Over the last two decades, the importance of this legacy has been repeatedly underscored by the successful efforts of citizens to stop government-backed development plans that would have overwhelmed and irreparably harmed Denver’s Civic Center.” 

The park area is bookended by the Voorhies Memorial (designed by W.E. and A.A. Fisher in 1922, fountain designed by Robert Garrison) and the Greek Theater and Colonnade of Civic Benefactors (by Marean & Norton, 1919). Nearby is the stately 1910 Pioneer Monument by sculptor Frederick MacMonnies. Prevailing sentiment of the day led to a central figure of mythical Wild West frontiersman Kit Carson rather than the artist’s choice: an American Indian.

East-West Axis: Civic Buildings

To the East: The most imposing state building is the Colorado State Capitol (East 14th Avenue at Lincoln Street, designed by E.E. Myers of Detroit and Frank E. Edbrooke of Denver, 1908). The Federal Revival gray granite structure features four symmetrical facades and porticos, and a Greek-cross floor plan. The gold-covered dome, which stands 272 feet above ground, is in the process of being repaired and restored.

The most recent addition to Civic Center’s edge is the LEED Gold-certified Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center (2 E. 14th Ave., designed by Fentress Architects, 2013). This massive complex reads as two buildings, designed in a retro-Neo-Classical style that has pitched design evolution in Civic Center back in time.

To the West: The Denver City and County Building (1437 Bannock St., designed by Allied Architects Association and Robert K. Fuller, 1932).  Voters chose this site for Denver’s city government building as a response to the Colorado State Capitol. The building’s design includes a convex curved facade of engaged Doric columns, a large central Corinthian portico, and clock tower. 

Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building and Annex (201 W. Colfax Ave., designed by Tryba Architects and RNL Design, 2002). The Webb Building, which looks like an elliptical building interlocked with a rectangular wing, consolidated numerous agencies on a prime Civic Center location. It was linked to and, in effect, subsumed the highly regarded International Style City and County Annex 1, designed by Dudley Smith, Casper Hegner and Thomas Moore, with G. Meredith Musick, in 1949.

Denver Newspaper Agency/Denver Post (101 W. Colfax Ave., designed by Newman Cavender & Doane, 2006). The last open space at Civic Center—at the time—was filled by a building that lights the neighborhood up with a bright white facade and a segmented form marking a key downtown intersection.

McNichols Civic Center Building (144 W. Colfax Ave., designed by Albert Randolph Ross, 1910; renovation for adaptive reuse by Humphries Poli Architects, 2012). Built as the city’s library headquarters before there was an actual Civic Center, this Greek Revival style structure features Corinthian columns in a strict Classical style. After the library moved to new quarters, the historic interior was virtually destroyed to accommodate city offices. Turning the building into an events center led to improvements that have brightened the interior.

Denver Mint (320 W. Colfax Ave., designed by James Knox Taylor, 1906). The Mint’s Renaissance Revival style is said to be inspired by the 15th-century Florentine palazzi Riccardi and Strozzi. The building sports a symmetrical structure with arches, medallions, and a creamy pink stone facade. 

Denver Police Crime Laboratory (1371 Cherokee St., designed by SmithGroup with Durrant, 2012). This LEED Gold state-of-the-art crime lab brings diverse, complex glass and metal facades and clean lines to the Civic Center design vocabulary.

Denver Justice Center Complex (bounded by West 14th and West Colfax avenues between Delaware and Fox streets, designed by studioINSITE). This massive project began in 2005 to provide more secure conditions for the city’s judicial system, relieve overcrowding at the existing detention facilities, and create an extension of Civic Center designed by the internationally acclaimed architect Steven Holl, FAIA. The first two goals were met, but courthouse architect Holl and the city parted ways. The decision to split the stylistic pie—a neo-traditional jail with a contemporary courthouse—resulted in a design disconnect. 

The complex’s two components are: 

    Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center (490 W. Colfax Ave., designed by Hartman-Cox Architects in association with RicciGreene Associates and OZ Architecture, 2010). Slightly overbearing, the detention center sports Neo-Classical elements and decorative touches usually found in a typical American courthouse.

    Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse (520 W. Colfax Ave., designed by klipp Architecture with RicciGreene Associates and Harold Massop Associates Architects, 2010). Once Holl departed, local architect klipp picked up the pieces. It was quite a save: The focal point of the building is a technically demanding folded glass facade that not only opens up the building to the outside, but lets the world see in. 

North-South Axis: Cultural Buildings

Denver Central Library
(10 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, designed by Michael Graves, FAIA, and Klipp Colussy Jenks Dubois Architects, 1995). The original modified International Style building (by Burnham Hoyt) relied on a graceful rotunda and crisp, well-defined fenestration. AIA Gold Medalist Graves saved the rotunda, making it part of the new library, whose geometric forms read as a sort of Postmodern Italian hill town and bring color to Civic Center. 

Denver Art Museum (100 W. 14th Ave. Pkwy., designed by Gio Ponti and James Sudler, 1971; Frederic C. Hamilton Building by Studio Daniel Libeskind and Davis Partnership, 2006). With strong vertical lines, a crenelated roof line, and scattered slit windows, Gio Ponti’s museum shimmers in the light. Reinforced concrete support walls and gray faceted glass tile skin lend contemporary sophistication. Calls for expansion brought a separate building that appears as a titanium-clad explosion of shards, with a massive prow that stretches across West 13th Avenue toward the Ponti castle. The metal panels and their coloration relate to the Ponti building’s rectangular glass tiles, and the scale is complementary. 

Clyfford Still Museum (1250 Bannock St., designed by Allied Works Architecture, 2011). The debate over the relationship of container and contents in museum design found harmony in a building devoted to the work of the Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still. This quiet, ribbed, cast-in-place concrete building invites light inside to showcase the work.

History Colorado Center (1200 Broadway, designed by Tryba Architects, 2012). Displaced by construction of the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, the Colorado Historical Society sought a new home: a beautiful Neo-Modern stone and glass structure driven by architectural innovation.

Denver resident Mary Voelz Chandler has written about architecture, preservation, art, and design for more than 20 years. She is the author of the Guide to Denver Architecture, and was formerly the architecture writer at the Rocky Mountain News. She was also a writer at Fentress Architects, where she completed two books on the firm’s work, and is currently a business development communications specialist at GH Phipps Construction Companies. Chandler received the AIA Colorado 2005 award for Contribution to the Built Environment by a Non-Architect, and was honored by the Denver Art Museum in 2012 with the DAM Contemporaries DAMKey Award.

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