Denver's Civic Center named a national landmark

Categories: wakeup call

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Civic Center Park.
It wasn't long ago that Denver planners had the crackpot idea of putting a new Colorado history museum underground in Civic Center Park, right by the McNichols building, once a Carnegie library. Cooler heads put the kibosh on that. And now Denver's Civic Center has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar made the announcement of the country's 27 new national landmarks yesterday -- and three in Colorado, which Salazar once represented as a U.S. Senator, made the cut: Denver's Civic Center, the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad and Big Spring Creek.

"Each of these landmarks represents another thread in the great tapestry of our national park system that tells the story of our beautiful land, our diverse culture and our nation's rich heritage," Salazar said in announcing the list. "By designating these sites as national landmarks, we help meet the goals of President Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative to establish a conservation ethic for the 21st century and reconnect people, especially young people, to our nation's historic, cultural and natural heritage."

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The new History Colorado building.
Denver's Civic Center was created by Mayor Robert Speer, who was elected in 1904 and was a big proponent of the City Beautiful movement. A century later, though, Civic Center faced one of its biggest threats: a proposal by starchitect Daniel Libeskind to improve the place that was wisely dumped. Instead, the much-lauded History Colorado building was created two blocks away, while a resurrected McNichols will be celebrated next Wednesday.

And now Denver's Civic Center is one of only two civic centers to make the landmarks list; the other is in San Francisco.

"As one of the premier civic and cultural gathering places in the Rocky Mountain region, the Denver Civic Center is more than worthy of this designation. It has played host to historic and momentous events, served as a gathering place in times of collective sorrow and provides a home to annual celebrations," said Senator Michael Bennet, who took Salazar's seat in Congress and whose support of the designation included a letter to National Park System Advisory Board Landmarks Committee. "Today's designation would not have been possible without strong support and extraordinary efforts from the local community."

The NHLP designation extends from the State Capitol on the east side of Broadway to the Denver City and County Building on the west side of Bannock; included in this area is the State Capitol, the former Colorado State Museum that's now used for state offices, Lincoln Park and Veterans Park, Civic Center Park, the McNichols Building, the Greek Amphitheater, Voorhies Memorial, the Pioneer Monument and the City and County Building.

Colorado's other new landmarks, as described in the announcement:

Big Spring Creek in Saguache County, Colo, as a national natural landmark. This feature is unique in the region as a spring-fed, gaining stream formed by groundwater discharging from an unconfined aquifer. Emergent wetlands along the creek support a diversity of rare species and plant communities in an otherwise arid landscape.

Denver & Rio Grande Railroad San Juan Extension (Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad) in Conejos and Archuleta Counties (the NHL also extends to Rio Arriba County, N.M.): The extension is the country's longest and most complete representation of late 19th- and early 20th-century railroading, and the best surviving example of the American railroad at its peak of national influence, roughly 1870 to 1930. The D&RG was exceptional as the country's most impressive narrow gauge system, yet it is also an outstanding representation of general American railroad practices during the first quarter of the 20th century. The existing resource is one of only two functioning segments of the original 1,000-mile Denver & Rio Grande Railroad network, which was America's largest, most ambitious, and most successful narrow gauge railroad.

The National Historic Landmarks Program was established in 1935; it's administered by the National Park Service for the Secretary of the Interior. There are currently about 2,500 designated national historic landmarks and 592 national natural landmark sites across the country on the list.

Back in 2007, Westword's art and architecture critics ounded the alarm about a crackpot idea to put the new Colorado history museum underground in Civic Center. Read more in Michael Paglia's "Going Under."


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