Building beauty beneath Colorado sky

Making a university a special world - one that fits into this century but stands for the past and the future - is an art unto itself. The University of Colorado, Boulder, has been considered, architecturally, one of the loveliest in the nation, but now the University of Denver is beginning to rival its near neighbor.

Buildings are going up across campus that are state of the art technically, but also works of art. And the transformation into red-brick, Indiana limestone, Hansen sandstone from Utah, and copper is all part of Chancellor Dan Ritchie's long-term vision for the school.

The new buildings are meant to last hundreds of years, to reflect the surrounding natural beauties of Colorado including canyon lands, mountains, and plains, while at the same time making an institutional statement - higher education as a noble endeavor.

The crowning glory of DU's revitalization effort is the Daniel L. Ritchie Center for Sports and Wellness - a magnificent copper, sandstone, and limestone structure that resembles an Italian hill town, as one critic points out. The grand 440,000-square-feet complex is a sports arena, practice courts, and fitness center. Its Magness Arena seats 6,200 for hockey, 7,200 for basketball, and can be used as a concert arena. An Olympic-size swimming pool, basketball and volley-ball courts, a fitness center, training facilities, offices, locker rooms, lounges, and multi-use facilities are available for students and community members.

It's immense.

Glowing visibly for miles around is Ritchie's 220-foot bell tower with its golden cap, housing a carillon equipped with 65 bronze bells from a venerable Dutch company. The Royal Ejbouts family business has been casting bells for 125 years, and the sound is worthy of a great church. The beauty of the structure, with its wealth of details and its easy modern interior flowing from one function to another, raises the spirits. It's a palace for student sports, a center for the community, a marvelous landmark amid all the steel and glass boxes everywhere else in the city. But its grandeur retains a human scale.

"If you let function show itself, it enhances the thing," says architect Cabell Childress. It's rich and varied - a pleasure for the eye to wander over the planes and curves, all lit by the marvelous warmth of the stones and copper colors.

Here in the dry air of the Mile-High City, copper never turns green. Instead, it acquires a lovely blue-gray patina, someday to turn dark gray.

And right now, the new-penny sheen still glitters behind the blue glaze or shines bright on the Ritchie Center (and on the other new buildings designed by Mr. Childress on campus). That blue patina reflects the Rocky Mountains in the distance, just as the pink-tan stones reflect local natural treasures of Colorado's Red Rocks Park and the deep canyons of Mesa Verde. Inside the Ritchie building, the walls are left largely exposed, the structure visible. But warm wood trim and sturdy, graceful wood furniture designed by local artist Daniel Strawn warm up the vast open spaces.

"As you understand the West, you know it's sort of rough, that's where we are," Childress says. "So we're not doing the fine kind of work that you find in the East. We're doing rough kind of work that you find in the West."

For Childress, the building materials were key. "The chancellor made the comment that every good building he's seen in his lifetime has been built from stone." And it's true - skinning buildings with poured concrete is not the way to build for future generations, he says. Stone lasts for generations upon generations - and so is less expensive in the long run.

Childress came to the West in 1957. Architecture was booming in Boston, the South was still colonial, but Chicago and Middle America were just all the same, he says. Colorado caught his eye. Cattle were everywhere, skiing was becoming a staple of the recreation economy, and, there was oil. The high plains of the American West have a lot of light.

In Colorado, it's bright sun most of the year - and the light is a white light. One can see for miles and miles, Childress points out. Yet a ferocious cold can take hold in the deep winter.

"It appeared that there would be an opportunity for architecture to emerge out here," Childress says. "I know of five other architects who came out for the same reason. So I came from the East Coast to settle in and see if we could find something.

"It took me about 15 years to understand that the problem here was not a new and extraordinary architecture, it was making something fit because we had so much chaos. And so I shifted and I began to say, how do you heal things?

"How do you make things work together? That's probably more important than being stylish. My mentor taught me that in 1949. He said, learn architecture, not style, so you can do the right thing at the right time."

Childress, who worked on the University of Colorado campus, too, closed his private practice in 1994 and came to Denver University to work on unifying the sprawling urban campus.

"The idea was that this campus wasn't lost," he says. "It had enough open space, it had enough good things that I felt there was a way to bond it together. There are a lot of places where I couldn't do that.... There was an opportunity here."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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