History Colorado's "Building Denver" tells the city's story — The Know
History Colorado’s “Building Denver” is a landmark exhibition with high ambition: It aims to tell the definitive story of the growth and development of the state’s most important city.
The sprawling display of artifacts, photos, documents, videos and more is boldly conclusive and, in its way, unique.
History exhibitions tend to tackle cultural topics, such as social systems, politics, art and the unfolding of major events, like wars and human migrations. This one is about architecture, urban planning, the design of streets and neighborhoods.
While that may sound static to some, “Building Denver” makes a compelling argument that the built environment is more crucial to a city’s overall identity than its lived stories. People come and go, but high-rises and highways stay around for generations. They offer concrete evidence of how a place regards itself and how it understands its role in the larger world.
If you go
“Building Denver: Visions of the Capital City” continues through Aug. 31, 2022, at History Colorado Center, 1200 Broadway. Info at 303-447-8679 or historycolorado.org.
And so, with a quick nod to the fact that Indian tribes occupied this land before settlers from a fledgling United States of America pushed their way westward, the show dives into a century and a half of expansion, offering up a whopping 366 items that push the narrative briskly forward.
As the state’s official repository of artifacts, History Colorado has both the objects and the interpretive expertise to lay out a compelling tale, starting with a showpiece, the partial reconstruction of an 1859 wooden plank house that once stood on 10th Street between Larimer and Lawrence streets. It’s the city’s oldest surviving structure, and it sets the tone for the entire exhibition. It was constructed with fortitude and ingenuity, and it was built to last.
Such moments of optimism and belief in Denver’s future guide this show, which organizers have divided into four sections they position as essential movements.
The first, necessarily, covers the establishment of permanent encampments and the escalating urbanity around the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. Titled “A New City, 1860-1900,” this section outlines a straightforward start by employing simple objects, such as surveyors’ tools and cottonwood timbers used to build cabins.
But from there, the exhibition takes a stands on what, and who, mattered in creating the city we know today. Its kingmaker moves elevate two men — mayors Robert Speer and Federico Peña — as the key figures in Denver’s development.
Speer’s contributions are covered in the exhibition’s second section, titled “A Beautiful City, 1900-1940,” which outlines his stewardship of the central plaza that includes Civic Center, the City and County Building, Voorhies Memorial and Greek Theater, which, arguably, combine to make Denver’s most aesthetically pleasing moment — at least from an architecture and planning perspective.
And it is good to see the architects and planners get their share of credit through the presentation of drawings and schemes created back in the day by such entities as the Allied Architects Association and individual designers, such as Edward H. Bennett. Like so many of the paper objects presented in “Building Denver,” these items are engaging as much for the hopes and dreams they proposed as they are for the skills it took to create them before computer programs came along to make the job of rendering plans so much easier.
Peña gets his accolades in the section titled “A Great City, 1980-2020,” which credits his back-in-the-day boosterism for much of the growth and advancement that began during his administration and stretches through to today. Would we have Highway 70 improvements, a world-class airport and redeveloped projects, such as Union Station, if not for the spark lit by Peña’s certainty in Denver’s national and global importance? This exhibit suggests a larger role for him than many people might expect.
The fourth section, which is actually placed in the middle of the previous two mentioned above, is titled, “A Contested City, 1940-1980,” and it is less glamorized. It covers golden moments of progress, such as the development of the architectural paradise that is Denver Botanic Gardens, but also eras of civic shame.
Here is where visitors may shed a tear over the destruction of icons like architect I.M. Pei’s much-missed paraboloid structure at the top of the 16th Street Mall and Lawrence Halprin’s Skyline Park, as well as entire swaths of downtown that were wiped out in the name of urban redevelopment. These were tragic moments that devastated entire communities, and the documents that enabled them, presented in cases at this exhibition, warrant special attention from museum-goers.
“Building Denver” has other good attributes. There are interactive elements throughout, including an option to hear bits of poetry commissioned specifically for the exhibit. The goal is to make people feel involved, and to encourage them to see their place as agents of change. At the end, visitors can use tools that help them understand the planning choices we face as a community today. There’s also a new, kid-friendly “maker space” on the museum’s first floor where young visitors can have their way with actual construction tools.
People can participate in those immersive opportunities or not. It’s not really necessary because the exhibition’s strength isn’t in the add-ons. it’s in the multitude of objects that hang on the walls and the deftly edited text that accompanies them. They are endless and fascinating and sometimes delightfully random, and the depth and breadth of this show is a gift to anyone who cares deeply about the city and wants to understand it better.
It also recognizes that big stories are made from small moments and personal details. It’s fascinating to see Redwood “Woodie” Fisher’s 1865 marriage licenses in a case next to the equipment he used as one of the city’s earliest surveyors and to read that he and his wife, Louisa, were the first couple to be issued that document in Denver. It’s compelling to learn that Mayor Speer never got to see his “beautiful” city; the plan wasn’t completed until 13 years after his death.
Those particulars personalize the show and give viewers ownership of their own history. They encourage people to see the value of progress and to support it, to back leaders with grand ideas for the future, to preserve the good and to take responsibility for the bad.
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