By:Emily Haggstrom Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Nature of Things
Just after the Gold Rush, which brought early miners and settlers to the base of the Rocky Mountains, the small town of Denver became known as a fast growing urban epicenter of the west for many rural dwellers looking to get rich quick. The flood of immigrants made for higher birth rates and an increased number of people inhabiting the city.
Most of all, you can see the creatively eco-friendly footprint they have left on the McNichols building alongside each layer from architects of the past.
During this time, the City Beautiful movement of the 1890’s was gaining momentum in towns and cities across the nation. It wasn’t until then that Denver Mayor Robert Speer jumped at the opportunity to turn the city of Denver into an urban sprawl of parks, civic centers and streets that would eventually make up Denver’s most historic focal points. The City Beautiful movement brought Denver many great cultural icons including the Greek Revival designed Denver Carnegie Library that was to sit at the center of the developing Civic Center Park.
The movement captured the hearts of politicians and citizens across the city. When the Beaux Arts library finally opened in 1910 it featured 3-story Corinthian style columns, grand floor-to-ceiling windows and a beautiful skylight that allowed sun onto the third floor black and white mosaic tiled atrium which displayed open book stacks, an art gallery and a place for children to play. The elegant building was the first installation of many in Speer’s dreams for a grand Civic Center. Eventually, the park functioned as a center for social gatherings and as a parkway between government buildings, with the library serving as a principle place for learning in Denver’s growing downtown. In 1955, the library eventually outgrew its space and for the first time since it opened, the lavish building sat empty.
That same year, the Denver Water Board relocated its offices to the old Carnegie Library. The space once wrought in decadence had to be toned down to accommodate office workers. What was supposed to serve as a remodel actually masked the original natural light, decorative beauty and architectural integrity of the building.
The mosaic tile that had ushered guests in to learn was covered by drab carpet. Grand archways and vaulted ceilings were replaced with drop ceilings. Windows that were created under the Carnegie motto, “Let there be light,” were soon covered up with mold and plaster. Carved crown molding and support columns were hidden with drywall, and the grand skylight was filled in with concrete. Even the majestic staircases were boarded up and closed off. It was then renamed the McNichols Building after Colorado’s 35th governor, Stephen McNichols.
Just as the library had expanded and vacated the space, so too did the Denver Water Board, once again leaving the building unoccupied. Decades passed and the building stood stoic, in time going unnoticed by residents who passed through the park or visited the City and County Building.
Finally after years of being overlooked, The Biennial of the Americas organization chose McNichols as the site for its main stage. With funding gathered by the Biennial organization it became possible to renovate a once spectacular building that over the years has become a decrepit, unused and withering landmark. The McNichols building has since been stripped of its 1950s make-under by the architectural group, Tres Birds Workshop, which turned the mold and asbestos infested structure into a well-lit usable space. Let’s be clear though, this building is by no means back to its former glory, but as its sole purpose was to house an eclectic exhibition of art from around the Americas, Tres Birds constructed a raw, rough space that in itself is a piece of art.
Design principals Mike Moore and Shawn Mather of Tres Birds tore out years of terrible architectural cover-ups. After all the demo work was completed, the original character of the building was restored. The original crown molding and brick and mortar from 1910 replaced the modern day plaster and paint. The splintered-wooden frame under the now concrete filled skylight whispers of age old elegance and beauty. In the atrium, out from under the roughed concrete floor peeks mosaic tile. The newly raw columns and beams reveal the unwavering strength of the building that has sustained years of neglect.
Moore and Mather are proud to see what the building has become and allude to the potential that its future holds. You can see their personal touches in the recycled Colorado beetle bark accents and the modern lime green media room dubbed the “Kids Patch”. Most of all, you can see the creative eco-friendly footprint they have left on the McNichols building alongside each layer from architects of the past. Whether Moore or Mather are involved in the next phase of the McNichols renovation is still to be decided, but one thing is for sure, they will leave their indelible stamp on the building and become a part of its incredible history. Controversy and civic pride will hopefully play a part in the development of this cultural iconic structure so that it does not get lost among the fray of new buildings and restorations being done around the park and the gentrifying neighborhood.
McNichols housed the Nature of Things, an exhibition that featured 24 static pieces created by artists from across the Western Hemisphere. The diverse compilation of contemporary art depicted themes of the Biennial which included innovation, sustainability and community. To promote cohesion and collaboration, Nature of Things curator, Paola Santoscoy, commissioned Mexican artist Jeronimo Hagerman to create a site-specific installation on the façade of the building that would attract visitors with its dynamic aesthetic principles. Lime Green Corinthian over Saturn Dublin, 2010, drapes pink fabric to shade the entrance of the exhibit while the Corinthian columns were transformed to represent palm trees seen throughout the Americas.
After the Biennial concludes and the static exhibits are gone, rumors of preliminary plans include possible shops, a restaurant or a museum. However, long-term plans are currently in the hands of the city’s residents, Denver’s Cultural Affairs Office, and the Civic Center Conservancy. The building, which would have been considered a historic landmark and preserved under bond money through Denver’s Historical Society, has since been removed from the list of historical buildings when it was deemed part of the museum complex that sits across the park.
Controversy and civic pride will hopefully play a part in the development of this cultural iconic structure so that it does not get lost among the fray of new buildings and restorations being done around the park and the gentrifying neighborhood. One thing is for sure, anything will be better than seeing the iconic structure sit empty for another 50 years.