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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