The Denver Art Museum’s Renovation Project Is Way Bigger Than You Think

The largest donation in DAM’s history launched the organization’s ambitious North Building Revitalization, a $150 million project that’s expected to transform not just Gio Ponti’s landmark structure, but the surrounding neighborhood, too.

Even if you didn’t know it by name, you’d probably recognize the Denver Art Museum’s North Building as the seven-story modernist structure located between 13th and 14th streets, across from the Central Library. And if it’s been a while since you visited, it’s time to take one last gander before the North Building closes for a five-year renovation — disbursing the museum’s 50,000-object collection throughout the neighborhood.

“We’ve already started the move out process,” says Andrea Fulton, the museum’s deputy director. Construction is slated to begin in late 2017, though some of the building’s art won’t travel far — just across the street, to DAM’s 146,000-square-foot Hamilton Building, which will be open during construction.

The North Building today. Construction will close it for five years, but the museum will remian open. Photos provided by the Denver Art Museum.
Keeping other pieces in public view will require creativity, Fulton says, pointing to Backstory: Western American Art in Context – on display through February 2018 at the History Colorado Center down the street. The exhibition pairs nearly 50 pieces from DAM’s Western American Art collection with artifacts from the state’s history museum.

DAM’s largest standalone financial gift – a $25 million pledge from Board Chairman J. Landis Martin and his wife, Sharon – set the North Building Revitalization into motion in December. But plans to revamp the decades-old structure had been brewing for years.

In 2012, museum staff began crafting a master plan for the museum that was inked in 2015. DAM has been actively fundraising for the project “for a while,” Fulton adds, and the Martin’s gift is supplemented with other key donations, including  $4 million from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

The Building Itself Is Art

The North Building Revitalization project also draws on $3 million in funds from the city of Denver, which were originally raised as part of the 2007 Better Denver Bond issuance, but reallocated to cultural organizations (including DAM) in 2013. The bulk of the project, though, will be privately funded, mirroring the origins of the North Building.

The North Building under construction. It opened in 1971.

When the Denver Artists Club was founded in 1893, there was no permanent home or collection, explained Darrin Alfred,  the museum’s curator of architecture, design, and graphics. The organization toggled between various storefronts until renaming itself the Denver Art Association in 1917, and, two years later, opening its first gallery in the City and County Building. After inheriting a mansion – the Chappell House – in the 1920s, the organization renamed itself the Denver Art Museum.  

By midcentury DAM needed more space. Its South Wing, designed by Denver architect Burnham Hoyt, was erected in 1954 to house the Samuel H. Kress collection. The building’s construction was mandated by a Kress Foundation requirement that its gift of “Old Master” artworks be housed in a climate-controlled space. DAM purchased a building on the south side of Civic Center Park, at Acoma and 14th Avenue, and when taxpayers vetoed a resolution to pay for it, DAM became the first regional museum to do a fundraising campaign for private dollars.

Landis and Sharon Martin contributed $25 million to the renovation.

The history of DAM’s North Building is laid out in THEN, NOW, NEXT: Evolution of an Architectural Icon, which opened this February and will remain on view for one year. The exhibition features historical photos, original architectural sketches, building models, and project renderings that tell the story of the North Building’s evolution.Denver-based architect James Sudler was selected to design the building. “The Denver Art Museum wanted a consultant architect to work with James, one with an international reputation,” Alfred says. Gio Ponti was hired.

The Italian modernist – DAM’s third choice for the job – was enthusiastic about both the possibility of producing his first architectural project in the United States. “Ponti wanted to give Denver a building like none other it had seen before,” says Alfred.

Mission accomplished. The North Building was one of the first high-rise art museums. “Traditional art museums were long structures with endless hallways,” Alfred said. Visiting one was kind of like going to Ikea on a Saturday afternoon. “Long, flat museums can cause what we call museum fatigue.”

Given the museum lot’s limited size, Ponti was inspired to build vertical, drafting plans for two, interlocking parallel towers. The radical concept resulted in a more user-friendly art viewing experience. “A visitor could enter the museum, take an elevator to the floor of their choice, see the collection they were interested in in 45 minutes, and leave,” said Alfred.

The idea was interesting, but the design – two large concrete reinforced structures – wasn’t. To conceal his towers and create lightness, Ponti added 28 angles to the side of the North Building and covered it with a million reflective glass tiles, creating a renowned piece of architecture.

Modernizing a Modernist Gem

“This is a well-built building that has stood the test of time,” said Fulton. “But,” she added, “The environment we have to maintain to keep art in our space is complicated.

The plan calls for opening up rooftop space.

The North Building Revitalization will involve overhauling key systems in the 45-year-old, 210,000-square-foot structure. Mechanical system will be updated for better temperature and humidity control, which is vital for the preservation of art. Also undergoing significant changes are the electrical system and building envelope, which will feature a vapor barrier. Vertical transportation – stairs, elevators – and safety systems such as fire detection and suppression will be brought up to current standards, too.

But it isn’t all behind-the-scenes work. The project will allow DAM to expand its gallery spaces. Alfred, for one, is enthusiastic about a forthcoming Architecture, Design, and Graphics Gallery, an 8,000-square-foot space that will be devoted entirely to the museum’s design collection and will feature a number of Ponti-designed items, including flatware, ceramic plates, sketches, and drawings.

Massachusetts-based Machado Silvetti will team up with Denver’s own Fentress Architects to design and install larger elements – access to a 7th floor mezzanine level and a new welcome center – and improve the building’s exterior.

Ponti’s original blueprint included a rooftop lounge that was open to the public – but only briefly – when the North Building opened in 1971. “The space was closed off, and that stunning real estate has been un-utilized for 40-some years,” Fulton says.

The North Building will allow DAM's education programs more room.

A gift from the Johnson Foundation – one of the organization’s last major legacy grants before shuttering in 2016 – will support a rooftop addition that will position DAM’s Western galleries aside majestic views of the Rocky Mountain skyline. “There’s a place within the new construction that serves as a vestibule for the outdoor spaces,” Fulton says, adding, “We’re trying to make the space as flexible as possible so we can grow into it. We envision a coffee shop during the day, and a small reception area at night.”

Ponti also lobbied for “a freestanding oval-shaped theater structure just outside of the museum,” Alfred says. That structure was never built, but that vision will materialize in a new elliptical entrance and welcome center constructed on the plot that currently accommodates a single-story structure housing Palettes restaurant.  

“It’s essentially a brand-new 50,000-square-foot building,” Fulton says. The space will include a basement level for art storage, a conservation lab, and a contemporary education space, which will serve as a creative hub for DAM’s all-ages programming. Plus, Fulton adds, “It will completely change the way the museum interacts with the surrounding neighborhood.”

Beyond the Museum

A component of the North Building Revitalization project involves overhauling the site around the building, for better pedestrian connections and better connection to Civic Center park. That’s good news for the neighborhood.

The renovation is expected to increase activity in and around Civic Center park.

“Strong, healthy parks have strong, vibrant edges,” says Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, executive director for the Civic Center Conservancy, the organization that oversees Denver’s historic green space. “While the park will never have the retail, commercial, and residential density at its edges that newer parks around the country will have, we are surrounded by iconic cultural institutions,” she said.

As institutions such as DAM evolve to better meet their individual missions, one side effect is enhanced activity, which benefits nearby public spaces. “One of the great things about an investment like this,” Fulton says, “It can be a spark to inspire additional investment. The hope is that these investments don’t just serve our mission, but the City’s, too.”


Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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