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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The Barnes Dance

Henry A. Barnes, Denver’s First Traffic Engineer
—Compiled and Illustrated by Matt Holman*

B50 note: Henry Barnes implemented Denver’s system to allow pedestrians to co-exist with vehicles; first introduced in Denver in the late 40’s, it is still in use today.

Red Light! Green Light!

“You can’t be a nice guy and solve traffic.”
-Henry A. Barnes

Henry Barnes, illustration by Matt Holman
Henry Barnes, illustration by Matt Holman

In 1947, Denver Mayor Quigg Newton hired the city’s first professional traffic engineer, Henry A. Barnes. Or so it seemed.

Barnes had been working in Flint, Michigan when Newton hired him over the phone and confirmed his appointment by telegram. Barnes flew to Denver, leaving his family behind while he found housing and awaited his first month’s pay. When he landed, no one met him at the airport.

Perplexed, he made his way to the Mayor’s office. He was temporarily relieved when he received a hearty greeting from Mayor Newton. Eager to start his new job, Barnes assured Newton that he would do his best for Denver. “Now, if you’ll tell me where my office is,” he said. There was just one problem, the Mayor explained.

The mayor had been hiring experts from around the Country to help Denver grow to be a major city. “Things went pretty well for a while,” Newton told Barnes, “but now the City Council is beginning to get its back up. They claim I’m putting too many ‘foreigners’ on the payroll.”

Barnes was told he couldn’t “exist officially“ until the Mayor had smoothed the ruffled feathers. Barnes, without money and a job, announced his plan to return to Michigan. That, coupled with an imminent Denver Post story about how badly the city had treated him, encouraged the Mayor, who welcomed Barnes in and was officially introduced as Denver’s first Traffic Engineer.

The Barnes Dance

Barnes is best known for the “Barnes Dance”, a simple idea where traffic is stopped in all directions at an intersection so pedestrians can cross. Continue reading “The Barnes Dance”

Building the Big Blue Bear

The “Big Blue Bear”, installed on 14th street in front of the Colorado Convention Center, has become a fixture in downtown Denver. Officially titled “I See What You Mean”, Lawrence Argent’s work offers a playful perspective on public art. This video shows the installation of the work.

Video produced by Just Media and provided courtesy of the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs.