The Denver Hilton Hotel (now Sheraton)

I have long been fascinated by the modernist Sheraton Hotel in downtown Denver.  It was constructed as the Denver Hilton Hotel in 1960 as part of the Courthouse Square urban renewal project by I.M. Pei & Associates, and is generally regarded as a modernist masterpiece.

DenverHiltonThe hotel was one of three buildings in the Courthouse Square complex, which included a May – D&F Department Store and a hyperbolic paraboloid structure. All three were designed by I.M. Pei & Associates, with architect Araldo Cossutta the designer of the hotel, and Henry Cobb the designer of the store and plaza.  The plaza, which was also known as Zeckendorf Plaza after the developer of the site, contained a seasonal outdoor skating rink.  It was meant to be Denver’s answer to New York’s Rockefeller Center.  Historic photographs of the department store and hyperbolic paraboloid structure can be found here and here in the digital collection of the Denver Public Library.  The Denver Eye also has some great historic photos and drawings of the Court House Square complex.  Sadly, in the 1990s, the Adam’s Mark Hotel, which at the time owned the Hilton, decided to enlarge the hotel by adding a conference complex on the site of the May – D&F Department store.  The store and the hyperbolic paraboloid were demolished in 1995, much to the frustration of local preservationists.

(An interesting tidbit: Court House Square was built on the site of the old Arapahoe County Court House, which was demolished in the 1930s after Denver County became autonomous from Arapahoe County.  Historic photos of the incredible court house building can be found here.)

As I mentioned above, the Denver Hilton Hotel was designed by Araldo Cossutta, a partner at I.M. Pei & Associates.  Early in his architecture practice Cossutta studied in the atelier of Le Courbusier, whose influence is evident in the design of the hotel.  The hotel was a unique contribution to the downtown skyline, and Zeckendorf Plaza was beloved by several generations of Denverites and architecture fans.  As a result, I.M. Pei & Associates won several awards for the design of the hotel and the department store complex upon their completion.


The hotel was constructed with pre-cast panels of concrete known as cast stone.  The cast stone for the hotel was made using aggregate collected during excavation of the site, in part because Pei believed “a building should come from the earth”. [1]  The large panels were fabricated in Salt Lake City and shipped to Denver for construction on site.

Elaborate grids of cast stone give the building the illusion of greater height than its twelve stories.  The base of the building consists of recessed plate-glass windows set between concrete piers, which makes the building look as though it is floating above the street.  The second story, which houses public spaces and conference rooms, is differentiated by tall vertical slits of glass set into a projecting cast stone framework.  The windows of the next two or three stories are set behind an elaborate Mo-Sai grid, while the upper story hotel floors have larger, rectangular windows set in a vertical orientation.  The building is capped by a tall penthouse floor with tall, wide windows set behind a low, concrete railing.  All of the windows are recessed behind the cast stone grid, which provided shade to the west-facing primary façade.


In addition to providing shade, the grid pattern cleverly hides the joints of each pre-cast panel, giving the impression that the entire building is one monolithic structure. Vertical joints can be seen running up the façades, but horizontal joints are less obvious.  You can barely make them out below some horizontal elements in the photo below.


If you stroll around the building, you might notice that in some locations you can see clear through the second floor to the masonry on the opposite side of the building.


Although the department store and hyperbolic paraboloid structure on the other side of Court Street were demolished, at least we can still admire this modernist masterpiece.

Source:  [1] Paglia, Michael, Rodd L. Wheaton and Diane Wray, Denver: The Modern City. Denver: Historic Denver, Inc., 1999. p. 34

Orpheum Theater

Besides the Old Chaffee County Court House, that we looked at on Wednesday, two more buildings struck my fancy when we were in Buena Vista over the weekend: the Orpheum Theater and the former Colorado Highway Department building.

The Colorado Highway Department Building is a one-story former garage building that until this spring housed a bar, roadhouse and event center.  Based on its design, it was probably constructed in the 1930s or 40s, but I am not sure its exact construction date.


It’s a cute little brick building with the words “Colo. State Highway Department” painted in green and white on the brick fascia.  Note the corbeled cornice made of brick above the sign band.


I did not find the building all that interesting until I turned the corner.


The side wall has this striking brick that I find to be much more interesting than the red brick used on the street façades.  The side of the building was built using a mixture of buff, tan, peach, and light grayish brown brick, all with iron spots on their surface giving the brick a wonderful texture.  In addition, it is a flashed brick with dark brown, light brown and peach-colored marks on some of the stretchers. It’s such a vibrant, warm brick that reminds me of sunshine on the dry, grassy foothills.


The other building that really struck my eye was the Orpheum Theater.  This gambrel-roof building was constructed in 1910 by a gentleman known as ‘Skinny’ Pyle.  Mr. Pyle, an auto dealer, occupied most of the ground floor using different portions of the floor for his home, an auto parts dealership, and his Model T showroom.  The Orpheum Theater was located upstairs.  It hosted plays, dances, silent movies, ‘talkies’, and community events from 1910 until about the 1960s.  You can see the backstage fly loft, clad in metal, on the east end of the roof.


Eventually, the theater was sold to investors who just about gutted it to turn it into apartments before their development plans failed.  In 1994, new owners bought the empty property and have been restoring it for two decades, reopening it as a theater and community event space in 2003.

The Orpheum Theater looks like a simple, rusticated stone building, perhaps made out of sandstone or rhyolite, right?


It’s not.  It is made out of cast-concrete units, known as cast stone.  These masonry units have a rough concrete surface, and if you look closely at the photo below, it is clear that the cast-stone units were all cast using the same mold.  In addition, the units were put together using a gray mortar similar to the concrete in color, with a beaded-edge mortar joint.


The pier at the west end of the building has a hand-inscribed date ‘stone’ indicating the Orpheum Theater was built in 1910.  It also says “B V F. C” or “B V E C” below.  BV must be Buena Vista, but I’m not sure what EC or F.C refers to.


There is also a little glimpse of the past on the east side of the building.  The east façade is stuccoed, but the stucco is failing at the center revealing an old hand-painted sign.  I am so curious to know what it advertised.


Denver Central Library

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).