In response to the many thoughtful comments posted to my January 9th blog on Mid-Century Malaise, here is my perspective on the balance needed in historic preservation. I left this same entry on the comments section on that blog but have decided to post it here too. Thanks for your comments and interest in this topic!
Historic preservation in its own right has only served to make our communities stronger since our brutal experience with mass urban renewal during the mid-20th century. However, comments herein do illustrate its ongoing controversial and arbitrary aspects. In Denver’s case, the city has only benefited from visionaries such as Dana Crawford who fought to save one block of Larimer Street from the wrecking ball, facing tremendous scorn for doing so at the time. Likewise, Denver City Council was vilified as “taking” away property rights when establishing the Lower Downtown Denver Historic District in 1988. In hindsight, they did the right thing, as the city and region have benefited. But results of these endeavors could have easily gone the other way. It is lucky for Denver that in these cases, preservation won out. Our clean skyscrapers and new CBD were the result of going the non-preservation route. This has made Denver what it is today. Was this all bad, tearing out the old for the new? As with anything, balance is the key. A static LoDo, wherein only the old could remain, with nothing new able to be built, would be too extreme. The same could be said about the Skyline Urban Renewal Project. In hindsight, DURA should have been more selective on what stayed and what was demolished. But it’s all moot now and there were many other factors occuring during the 1960s that led to the whole-scale demolition of our most historic core. We now have only pictures and the D&F Clocktower. Oh, and we have that Federal Reserve Branch Bank, which used to be located on 17th Street in another beautiful building that came down during the Skyline Project. The fact that this government building was allowed to relocate on the proposed 16th Street Mall (a known retail area) gives credence to the argument that you can’t always “trust” government decisions. Those planners of the time meant well, but made a poor decision. Does that mean the current building shouldn’t be preserved as a monument to mid-century modernist architecture? Were it located on a different street–perhaps. Were its architect Temple Buell or Frank Lloyd Wright–perhaps. This very arbitrary quality of whether a building is worthy of being saved or not also typifies why historic preservation has a bad reputation at times as well. But the fact is in its current location, it does more harm than good in the overall urban cohesiveness of that block. It’s a big deadzone on the mall and everyone knows it. Perhaps the answer is to move the Federal Reserve out of the building and incorporate this modernist “wonder” into a new mixed-use mega-project that would incorporate the building’s best elements into a neo-modern uber building of the 21st century. This adaptive reuse/historic preservation partnership would ensure that future generations couldn’t accuse us of demolishing the 20th century’s shining example of modernist architecture. Sometimes, buildings are only appreciated after they are gone, even ones so vilified by the present public. The Tabor Grand had no Dana Crawford or City Council to save it. It was seen as old and outdated by those with power. It was only lamented once it was gone. But I will agree that it is hard at this point to believe that any future population will condemn us for not saving the Federal Reserve Building for posterity.
As far as the topic that got all of this started–the demolition of the mid-century modern house in Belcaro–I would argue that if it were the last of its kind, it should be saved. I would also argue that were its architect someone like Frank Edbrooke, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Lang, Temple Buell, etc., that there would be a much bigger fight to save it from a bigger and more interested audience. This illustrates once more the arbitrariness at times of preservation efforts when the saving of a building might more have to do with egos than with any particular intrinsic value of said building. I.M. Pei’s name on the hyberbolic parabaloid (May D & F) was not enough to save it and Denver is unfortunate to have lost that one. I am imagining the last house in downtown Denver at 1439 Court Place (the Curry-Chucovich-Gerash House) as all that’s left from the once grand residential area of lower 14th Street. Can you imagine if all of those buildings had been left in place with nothing ever changing there? It is a thought that excites preservationists like me but also points out the fact that in order for cities to thrive, they have to change with the times. If the 20th century taught us anything in the world of planning, it has shown us a need to balance out all interests for the best possible outcome. Extremes in any direction are not beneficial to anyone, whether that be a non-homeowner being able to stop the demolition of someone else’s house at the last minute or whether that be a city sitting at the sidelines as buildings are demolished to make way for parking lot after parking lot. We must find the balance.