Denver 7’s brutalist building: a landmark or unremarkable architecture?

The brute stands five stories tall at the intersection of Speer Boulevard and Lincoln Street in Denver, wrapped in panels of red Colorado sandstone and concrete, its grids of rectangular windows facing every direction but north.

Thousands pass by the Denver 7 building every day. For a few historic preservationists, it’s a sterling, rare example in Denver of brutalist architecture — and a prominent Washington Park West landmark. To others and its owner, it’s neither historic nor architecturally significant, a relic waiting to be destroyed.

Denver 7 General Manager Dean Littleton said the lot on which the brute resides is a “gateway for downtown” and an opportunity for the city. (The station, like the building, is owned by the Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Company.)

“And it can be so much more than this giant cement block that has this tall security fence around it,” Littleton said.

None of these people get the final say on the building’s future. That job is for the Denver City Council, which will decide by mid-May whether to allow the beast at 123 East Speer Blvd to be demolished or remain with a requested historic designation.

As it’s currently zoned, the site could hold a building up to 12 stories high, and the prospective buyers — Manhattan- and Miami-based Property Markets Group — have floated the idea of building new apartments there.

But if the building is designed as historic, city planner Kara Hahn said, Scripps will be limited in its ability to change or alter the structure. Demolition would be out of the question.

“If the building is landmarked, we certainly run the risk of losing our buyers,” said Littleton, whose station wants to sell and move into a larger building. “Then we find ourselves in a place where we’re trapped. We then could not afford to leave and build a new facility for our staff.”

Historically, the council doesn’t give a property landmark status against an owner’s wishes. In fact, it’s happened just once.

But the quest is worth the effort to Bradley Cameron, one of three people who filed for historic designation.

“There aren’t that many brutalist styles at all in Denver, only a handful, and we feel this is the best example,” Cameron said. “It’s just a fantastic example of architecture.”

He first moved to Denver 40 years ago and noticed the building when he lived on Logan Street just to its south. In particular, Cameron said he appreciates the building’s tower and use of raw material, though he’s less enthusiastic about the two-story “box” section of the building to the north.

The structure is much less impressive to Bill Moon, a principal at Tryba Architects in Denver. He wrote to Councilman Chris Hinds, whose district includes the site, asking him to oppose Cameron’s designation request.

One of the higher-profile examples of brutalism in the U.S., Moon said, is Boston’s City Hall, which to this day fosters a love-it-or-hate-it sentiment. Plus there’s little historic or cultural significance attached to the building, Moon said.

The land itself, though, is quite a valuable location.

“It’s best to spend our energy less on a piece of compromised building and more on making sure whatever the new design is, it’s extraordinary,” Moon said.

Hahn said aside from the landmark designation debate there’s the possibility of a handshake agreement with whoever buys the building to preserve parts of the tower, though reaching a compromise to that effect seems unlikely.

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