A few years ago, Bob Springer was renovating a fine old house near downtown Colorado Springs.
Springer's an interesting guy -- a Reiki Master, an artist, an extraordinarily gifted craftsman. I asked Bob how long, given reasonable care, such a beautifully built house would last before crumbling into dust. "Oh," said Bob, "there are wooden houses in Europe that were built in the 14th century, and they're still in good shape. But here -- with our dry climate, and no termites -- at least a thousand years, probably more."
Surprised, I pointed to the nearby Fine Arts Center and asked Bob how long that magnificent structure would endure. Bob knew all about the FAC -- its 16-inch thick walls of poured concrete, its extraordinary interior fittings, its massive stone foundation. "How long? It'll outlast the Pyramids, if they'll just leave it alone -- but this is Colorado Springs. They'll tear it down, or they'll screw it up."
Well, if the current caretakers of this architectural treasure get their way, it'll be irrevocably and tragically altered.
First, some background. Originally constructed in 1936, the Fine Arts Center was designed by New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem. Thanks to the generosity of the FAC's original benefactresses, Alice Bemis Taylor and Elizabeth Sage Hare, Meem was able to fully articulate a brilliantly original design.
Combining elements of the pueblo with an austere modernism, the resulting building is one of the great masterpieces of American architecture. Don't take my word for it; ask any architect or any architectural historian. They'll tell you that there are only three truly great examples of architecture in Colorado: Mesa Verde, the Air Force Academy Chapel and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
Nevertheless, for at least the last two years, the FAC's director, David Turner, and its board of trustees have been exploring the possibility of adding a new wing to the building.
Sensitively conceived, such an addition is by no means impossible. The argument for expanding the existing facility has a certain logic, and it would be perfectly possible to expand either to the east or to the north without substantially compromising the building.
But that's not what's planned. According to a preliminary rendition by Minneapolis-based Hammel, Green, Abrahamson, the new addition would be married to the historic south and west exposures of Meem's building.
It's impossible to imagine any such addition that wouldn't vandalize the existing building; it'd be like grafting 10 more floors on the Chrysler Building. And that's not all.
Because much of the proposed addition would be built on parkland that General William Jackson Palmer originally deeded to the city, the FAC may find it very difficult to acquire the land that they covet. Palmer's deed of gift contains language that explicitly prevents the city from alienating the land or from converting the land for non-park uses.
A generation ago, the city tried to get around this provision in the Palmer deed, seeking to condemn part of Palmer Park for a planned highway. The League of Women Voters successfully sued to block the transfer, and the city has since left Palmer's gifts alone.
I asked Fine Arts Center chairman Steve Gaines, an attorney with Holme, Roberts & Owen, how the FAC proposed to overcome such an obstacle. After all, a court of law had specifically enjoined the city from violating Palmer's deed.
"There are lots of weaknesses in that 1970s decision," he replied. "For example, it doesn't specifically address exchanges." According to Turner and Gaines, the FAC believes that the courts might permit the city to swap land in Monument Valley Park for FAC-owned property elsewhere.
That's debatable. In any case, City Council would presumably have to approve any such swap, at least in principle, before the courts could even rule on the issue.
I asked Turner and Gaines whether they had approached any members of City Council about the issue and, indeed, they had. Besides FAC Board member and Councilman Jim Null, they had contacted Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, and council members Richard Skorman, Bill Guman, Linda Barley and Judy Noyes.
Clearly, this is a serious, substantial and carefully planned effort. And yet there's something puzzling about the whole scenario. Why is the FAC willing to alienate literally hundreds of its core supporters -- both those who care about the integrity of the building and those who care about the integrity of the park system -- in order to proceed with this dubious scheme?
After talking to a few folks, we may have answers for you next week. Meanwhile, reflect upon Sherlock Holmes' famous epigram: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
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