Columns » Outsider


Standing tall


What makes a city? I know what the PC answer is: A city is defined by the people who live in it, and they should be peaceful, diverse, law-abiding and community-minded. They ought to support their schools, the arts, parks and open space, and their churches. And they ought to elect honest, thoughtful, civic-minded individuals to public office who will strive to make their city ever better.

That's fine, but there's something a lot simpler and more obvious that defines a city: its buildings.

Big Ben. The Empire State Building. The Parthenon. The Eiffel Tower. The Kremlin. Townhouses on Boston's Beacon Hill. The skyline of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Buildings are the city, because they symbolize past and future, aspiration and reality.

A century ago, the leaders of this community understood this basic truth. The buildings they helped erect embodied their pride in the city and their belief in its future. Look at those that still endure: the old County Courthouse (now the Pioneers Museum), the City Auditorium, the Carnegie libraries.

They were built to endure not for decades, but for centuries. And although each was built for a practical purpose, they were intended to be, and are, beautiful buildings that lift the hearts of those who enter. (Well, maybe not all those who entered the old courthouse. )

Jump to 2006. Take a look at the dismal Terry R. Harris County Courthouse. Like all its neighboring county buildings, it's a travesty, a miserable, lifeless pile of crap that sucks the vitality out of an entire square block. Graceless and awkward, it might as well have been designed by Martians and plopped down in the middle of the city, so little does it relate to its location.

Its only saving grace is its name. As a Palmer graduate (just a couple of years before Terry), I'm always glad to see my homies honored. Good on ya, kid -- go Terrors!

But maybe, just maybe, another fellow Terror is about to reverse our half-century of civic vandalism.

When I first learned that the Fine Arts Center was planning a major expansion, I was apprehensive. That building, designed 70 years ago by John Gaw Meem, is one of the masterpieces of American architecture. It seemed highly unlikely -- make that impossible -- that the stolid trustees of the FAC would choose an architect who would both respect the past and honor the future.

And when I learned that they'd chosen a Springs native and Palmer graduate for the job, I wasn't hopeful. Who was David Owen Tryba, anyway? Probably just another cloddish schlockmeister who'd embrace our late-20th-century tradition of Really Bad Architecture.

Praise be to the Lord (and to Buck Blessing, Kathy Loo, Mike DeMarsche and the rest of the FAC power people), Tryba has done a magnificent job. It's not just a workmanlike expansion. It's inspired, even transcendent.

Tryba's plan calls for getting rid of the Carlisle Guy-designed 1970s eastern expansion -- a hack job if ever there was one -- and replacing it with airy, light-filled galleries. It's appropriate, sensitive and infinitely better than we had any right to expect.

But the overall plan has one glaring flaw (which, we should note, Tryba had nothing to do with). At some point in the future, the FAC plans to tear down a stately Victorian mansion that sits next to the Bemis School of Art on Cache La Poudre Street. And why tear down what could, with a small investment, be a useful and beautiful structure? For parking! Yup, so the FAC staff can have its own little parking lot. That's how we lost the Burns Opera House, the Trail Theater and the Burns Building, and how we almost lost the Cheyenne Building.

Let's consider what would happen if the FAC renovated the Victorian. That square block then would contain an early modernist building with a contemporary addition (the FAC), a late modernist building with a contemporary addition (Packard Hall), an early contemporary structure (the Money Museum) and a Victorian residence. The best of the built history of our city would be contained in a single, delightful urban setting.


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