Republic Plaza

I think Republic Plaza is one of the most handsome buildings on the Denver skyline.  A simple geometric form, Republic Plaza was designed by Donald Smith of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, also known as SOM, and was built between 1983 and 1984.  Not only is it Denver’s tallest building, but it is reported to be the tallest building in the Rocky Mountain region.

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Republic Plaza has very little ornament and almost no surface texture.  Signage is applied above the triple-height first-floor level, and there are two short mechanical floors horizontally dividing the building into thirds.  Each façade is also divided into vertical thirds by thin metal-framed expansion joints that run from the ground to the roof.

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Many people think Republic Plaza is a boring white box, but I think its simplicity results in an understated, elegant building.  It was built using Sardinian granite veneer panels surrounding square windows, which in turn have pale gray frames.  The polished granite panels are pale cream speckled with light gray and some black grains.

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When seen from afar, the granite reads as an even, cream-colored façade, while the windows reflect the sun, the clouds, and even adjacent buildings depending on where you are standing and the angle of the sun.  As a result, the building’s appearance changes over the course of each day.  It is this reflectivity that makes Republic Plaza so spectacular to me, especially when you catch it reflecting a crimson sunset.  And because it is the tallest building in the area, downtown Denver’s skyscrapers can be in shadow while Republic Plaza still glows with the last glimpses of the day’s light.

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Due to its height, Republic Plaza can be seen from all over the city.  It was built on the diagonal street grid of downtown Denver, while the rest of the city is set on a grid matching the cardinal directions.  This lets you see two sides of the building reflecting different features.

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Not only is the exterior simple and elegant, but the interior lobby also reflects the exterior’s understated elegance.  The lobby has no interior partitions other than the Vermont verde marble-clad elevator banks.  This elegant design brings to mind the mid-century designs of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, such as the glass, jewel-box Manufacturers Hanover Trust Building designed in the 1950s by Gordon Bunshaft.

My admiration of Republic Plaza will likely be derided by many preservationists who fought hard to stop the 1981 demolition of the original Republic Building.  Although I appreciate the design of Republic Plaza, the demolition of the Republic Building is a real shame.  This earlier building was a beautiful buff-brick and terra-cotta clad office building designed by G. Meredith Musick, a master of Art Deco design in Denver.  Historic photographs of the building can be found on the Denver Public Library’s Western History Collection website.  My favorites are this detail of the entrance and this overall photo of the building.

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The Mausoleums of Fairmount Cemetery

It’s Halloween week so I thought it only fitting to explore one of Denver’s great architectural treasures: Fairmount Cemetery.  Founded in 1890, Fairmount Cemetery was the third major cemetery to be developed in Denver.

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The first, Mount Prospect Cemetery, was founded in 1859 by William Larimer, Jr. and was intended to be a beautiful burial ground to the east of Denver City.  Unfortunately it was located in an arid place far from water and its first inhabitant was Jack O’Neil, a man killed in a gunfight.  The non-denominational cemetery soon earned an unsavory reputation and was seen as a blight on the city.  In 1873, its ownership was transferred to the city and it became known as City Cemetery*.  (At that time, the two religious sections of Mount Prospect Cemetery were transferred to religious institutions: Mount Calvary Cemetery was transferred to the Catholic Church and the Jewish Burial and Prayer Ground was transferred to a Jewish congregation.)

In 1876, a group of prominent Denver businessmen formed Riverside Cemetery.  Located on the banks of the South Platte River just northeast of the city, Riverside Cemetery was planned as a ‘rural cemetery’ in a garden-like setting, similar to Mt. Auburn Cemetery outside of Boston.  It took several years for the owners to develop Riverside Cemetery into a lush oasis with tree-lined allées and beautiful plantings.  During that time, development began encroaching on Riverside, with railroad tracks and factories lining its perimeter.  So in 1890, a second group of prominent business men formed Fairmount Cemetery and rapidly transformed it into a beautifully laid out and landscaped cemetery to rival society cemeteries like Green-Wood in Brooklyn and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia.  Riverside and Fairmount cemeteries merged in 1900.

* In 1893, City Cemetery was closed and the remains disinterred to Riverside Cemetery.  The land later became Cheesman Park, a lush urban oasis in the heart of Denver.  The Jewish Burial and Prayer Ground, closed in 1923, became part of Congress Park, and Mount Calvary Cemetery, closed in 1908, later became the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Our first look at Fairmount will be the impressive mausoleums.  (On Wednesday we will look at unique monuments and carvings.)  Most of the mausoleums at Fairmount are centered around the Ivy Chapel near the northwest corner of the cemetery, not too far from the original street car turn around.

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(more…)

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The Crest House

Who doesn’t love a good story of ambition, adventure, love, and ultimately destruction?  Welcome to the Crest House atop Mt. Evans, what was once the highest building in the United States.

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This incredible organic, yet futuristic, building was erected between 1939 and 1941 and was the dream of German immigrant Gus Roehling.  Roehling cooked up the idea to build the Crest House for his girlfriend, later wife, after a visit to the top of Mt. Evans.  It took him a decade to secure private funding and permission from the Forest Service to develop a tourist center at the top of the mountain, but construction eventually began in the summer of 1939.  The building was designed by architect Edwin Francis, and upon completion in 1941 it housed a restaurant, a gift shop, restrooms and an observation deck overlooking the Front Range.  The restaurant was originally located in a semi-circular bay of faceted windows facing north, as seen in this excellent collection of historic photographs from the Denver Post.  The observation deck was atop the structure.

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At 14,120 feet above sea level, the building site was one of the most rugged in the country.  Although it was accessible by the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway, completed in 1927, Roehling and his builders camped at the top of Mt. Evans during the summer construction seasons.  They did not have to look far for building materials, though; they took advantage of the natural light-gray and pink granite littering the summit of Mt. Evans for the building’s primary west façade with its four arches.  Both the exterior (first photo) and the interior (seen above) were built with local granite.  Here is a detail of some of the gray and pink granite found near the Crest House.

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The rest of the structure was erected using poured-in-place concrete.  The concrete is gray with a subtle pinkish hue, which was probably pigmented with crushed pink granite found near the building site.

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In 1979, a gas leak and explosion caused the building to burn.  If you look closely, you can still see bits of charred wood embedded in the concrete in the photo above.  In the early 1990s, the Crest House was stabilized but the roof and windows were never rebuilt.  Today, visitors can walk through the ruin to admire the architecture, as well as the views from the former restaurant.

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