In honor of Labor Day, we are going to look at civic architecture this week. First up is the Denver Central Library in the heart of the Civic Center.
This Post Modern structure was designed by Michael Graves & Associates in collaboration with Denver-based Klipp Colussy Jenks DuBois Architects, the architect of record. It was erected between 1994 and 1995 and has been both praised and maligned by architecture critics. I think it is a visually interesting building, and its lively design could have been just another a massive, glass box. I especially appreciate the reference to Denver’s beloved Daniels & Fisher tower at the far left in the photograph above.
But let’s look at the history of the library. The first unique structure for the Denver Public Library was the McNichols Building – originally known as the Carnegie Library – across Bannock Street from the City and County Building. (Westword has a great historic slideshow of the building and its context within the Civic Center.) The McNichols Building was constructed between 1907 and 1910, but by the 1950s it was clear that the library’s collection outgrew the building.
Between 1955 and 1956, a new Central Library building was erected on the opposite side of Civic Center Park, at Broadway and 14th Avenue. This new building was designed by Denver architect Burnham Hoyt, a celebrated modernist who studied in New York City under George B. Post and Bertram Goodhue. According to History Colorado [pdf],
“Hoyt generated the designs for his buildings with reference both to the site and to the unique functional considerations of the building type. He often juxtaposed circular volumes to rectangular ones. Typically, these buildings have flat roofs. The regularity of the facades suggest a symmetrical treatment; yet, the facades are generally handled in an asymmetrical way. These buildings feature smooth and uniform walls. These walls are eaveless, though boxed-in eaves are sometimes used by Hoyt. His interest in light is demonstrated by his attention to fenestration. Large expanses of glass are typically seen. The windows and doors of Hoyt’s buildings are stressed with trim. In the interiors, this interest in light is further stressed by clever uses of a variety of direct and indirect lighting. All of these standard features of Hoyt’s best work in the International Style are fully illustrated in the Central Library, the finest expression of Hoyt’s mature design philosophy.”
The new library building was one of his last major commissions before he succumbed to Parkinson’s disease in 1960. Hoyt was assisted in the design and construction by Arthur and Alan Fisher Architects. Most of the original Hoyt library remains, and can be seen in the photograph below (with the Graves addition looming behind it).
The Hoyt building is faced with Indiana limestone that has mechanically-eroded bedding planes, giving the facade a rippled texture to soften the sleek, modern façade, which is characterized by immense glass windows.
By 1990, the citizens of Denver approved a bond issue of nearly one-hundred million dollars to enlarge Central Library. The new building, which engulfed the Hoyt structure with exception of the rotunda, provided 540,000 square feet for stacks, reading rooms, a coffee shop, computer rooms, gallery space, offices, and the Western History collection. The building is one of the most functional, well laid-out libraries I have ever been in, and accordingly, it is quite heavily used. You will often find me in the Western History section pouring over historic volumes on – what else? – masonry.
If you ever walk by the library, especially the southeastern corner near the Art Museum, take a closer look at the masonry. It is an interesting mix of colors and textures. For example, have you ever noticed all of the fossils? The architects selected the two types of limestone used on the façades because of they are famous for their fossil inclusions. The light-colored limestone, seen below, is Solnhofen limestone that is quarried in Bavaria, Germany.
The building also has a great deal of green Anröchter limestone cladding, seen at the bottom of the photo below, which was quarried near Frankfurt, Germany. It, too, has numerous fossil inclusions. But did you notice that the green “stone” at the top of the photo below has a more even texture and is bluish-greenish-gray in hue? It is cast stone – concrete panels pigmented to look like stone. It was probably used as a cost-savings measure in lieu of the imported natural stone, and you can find it cladding various features of the building.
Reddish-orange colored cast stone was also used instead of red sandstone, which is native to the Front Range. Cast stone will not delaminate like sandstone, which was probably one of the greatest benefits of using this manufactured material on some of the upper reaches of the building. This pier, below, has a base of natural Stony Creek granite from Connecticut, topped by reddish-orange cast stone.
The mix of natural and cast stones enlivens the Denver Central Library building’s already dynamic façades. But the masonry also visually breaks the building into manageable clusters, making the building less a behemoth than a complex of interconnected structures. The use of masonry on this building is quite successful. I would expect nothing less of Michael Graves.