Remembering Zeckendorf Plaza

—by Gary Landeck

Every time I pass by what used to be Zeckendorf Plaza, I am heartbroken all over again.

Spanning the block between Court and Tremont on 15th Street, the plaza was once a remarkable example of modernist architecture. Designed by I.M. Pei and completed in 1960, Zeckendorf Plaza was a four-piece composition consisting of an ice rink, a low-rise department store, a high-rise hotel, and retail showroom with a “hyperbolic paraboloid” rooftop.

My parents took me to Zeckendorf one Christmas sometime in the early ’70s. Though I was completely unaware of it at the time, the design of the complex left a lasting impression on me. There was both a coziness and an immensity about the place – shoppers streamed in and out of the May D&F department store, skaters laughed as they circled around the ice rink, the low profile and unusual shape of the showroom drew one’s eye toward the downtown skyline, and the hotel towered above and pulled it all together.

Unfortunately, a developer puchased the property sometime in the mid-’90s and dismantled Zeckendorf Plaza. Though the hotel was left largely untouched, the department store was reclad in some faceless way, and the skating rink and hyperbolic paraboloid were demolished altogether. An utterly forgettable building called “The Elegant Box” now stands where Pei’s two beautiful structures once stood.

Too many of Denver’s important modernist buildings have been irrevocably altered or destroyed (Pei’s Mile High Center and James Sudler’s Daly Insurance Building and Columbine Building come immediately to mind). But thanks to the people like those who created and contribute to buckfifty, I think our community is warming up to its remaining post-WWII treasures. That another of the area’s historic hyperbolic structures, Hangar 61 at Stapleton, is undergoing restoration is promising news.

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8 Responses to Remembering Zeckendorf Plaza

  1. I wrote a piece on Zeckendorf plaza, the ugly Adam’s Mark era, and the hotel’s future in the Oct. 2008 issue of 5280 Magazine. Download a PDF of the story: here. — Andy

  2. hadley says:

    This is what we got instead, complete with those awful dancers:

    I’m glad that david Walter is getting credit for all his efforts to save Hangar 61, from the rmn’s link above:

    The fight to save Hangar 61 began in 2004, when artist David Walter, a co-founder of Ironton Studios and Gallery, saw the building and fell in love with its lines – cracks and all. He began a campaign to designate it a landmark, stressing its architectural heritage and place in state history.

  3. Mary Maybee says:

    I used to work for May D& F in the Zeckendorf Plaza days in the hyperbolic paraboloid, although at the time I was not aware of the name of the odd shaped building. It certainly was more fun with the skating rink there than the way it is now with nothing to do there to draw a crowd except an abandoned restaurant with a huge sign that says “Your Name Here” on it to attract people. Seems it was better in a time gone by along with the interesting structure attached to the dept. store that was a wonderful place to shop and work.
    I am glad to see this posting. I have been interested in a photo of my old workplace for a long time.

  4. Darth Hermione says:

    I remember skating there!! We also performed excerpts from DPS high school summer theater shows there. Good memories….

  5. Frank McBride says:

    I was positively livid when the greasy little weasels wanted the paraboloid destroyed.

    Silly ass committees filled with talking heads spewing their crafted talking points ruined what was truly a must attraction on the otherwise strip of vagrancy known as the 16th street urinal.

    When I was a kid not only was the plaza a cool thing to look at but so where the numerous historical buildings that were also razed. In every case the “villein” was a building. And the methods used to brainwash the public were the same as they are today although much less polished. In the case of the old buildings the government’s used their favorite go to rationale: “Public Safety”. In the case of the paraboloid it was “revitalization, excessive costs, and lastly because it supposedly leaked at an alarming rate: ‘for public safety’.

    I will leave you with this…just remember that unlike you, me or many responsible companies–Government lives in the now! The rhetoric they spew about anything long term is a load of crap. Have you ever heard a politician or worse yet–some salary bloated employee ever say anything about how they “maintained the status qua” or fought to preserve anything legacy based concept?

    That’s right….never.

    They are neither a friend to you, history, the environment or any thing other than aligning themselves with more money.

  6. Ben Dugan says:

    I remember buying cub scout uniforms at the old May D&F (that was the only place in the region that you could get them back in the day). Later, when I worked downtown and recall walking by the old skating rink that had long seen it’s glory days pass by. All of the tables were chained and stored to the side. The odd shaped store was empty for years. The scene in Ice Castles was filmed at the skating rink in 1977 for a 1978 film release. The ballroom was above the street and looked down over the skating rink. I have not seen that movie in over 30 years. Then that Adams Mark nonsense ruined the whole thing. I stopped going there. It was quite unique and is a long-time cherished memory.

  7. Michael Archer says:

    The old May D & F was such a beautiful building. What a concept – touch the roof as you entered.

    Downtown Denver has lost its charm. My Dad used to take me downtown a couple weeks before Christmas and we’d go to the toy departments of all the stores – May D & F, Denver, SS Kresge, WT Grants, FW Woolworth, Downtown Toys & Hobbies…

  8. Ralph Albi says:

    Ice Castles partly was filmed at the ice arena at the Broadmoor Hotel. I am quite certain that the rink at Zeckendorf would have been too small the arena at the Broadmoor prominently was featured in the film. My wife and I used the incredible theme at our wedding, , the Marvin Hamlisch composed “Through the Eyes of Love” made famous by Melissa Manchester.

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