Boettcher Concert Hall, home of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, is barely known outside of Denver these days, but it wasn’t always so. Few remember the buzz surrounding its opening in 1978. Designed by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (with the late acoustician Christopher Jaffe) as a key component of the downtown Denver Performing Arts Complex, Boettcher was the first concert hall in the nation with “in the round” seating, a cutting-edge idea at the time. Critics loved the place.
Photo © Architectural Record
Paul Goldberger, writing in the New York Times, called Boettcher “a surprisingly warm room,” with sound that is “lush and smooth.” He loved its unconventional design, with the orchestra smack-dab in the middle of the hall, which allowed the audience “to feel as if it is sharing with the orchestra the role of participant in a joyous ceremony.” This magazine, which devoted 11 pages (and the cover) to the venue, raved, “The new hall is highly original in concept and executed with great style.”
But time has not been kind to Boettcher’s once-lofty reputation. Despite the initial high praise, audiences and orchestra members alike have complained for years about the hall’s poor acoustics. Because a lack of reflective surfaces, the sound seems to “hang” over the stage, and yet musicians have a hard time hearing each other. Moreover, with 2,679 seats, Boettcher is too big, particularly given the CSO’s dwindling audience. Like many orchestras around the country, the CSO has struggled in recent years, despite aggressive (and creative) fundraising efforts by CEO Jerome Kern and music director Andrew Litton. On many nights, the orchestra plays for a half-empty hall. Boettcher also needs repairs to its mechanical, plumbing, and heating systems.
Last spring, the CSO said it might leave Boettcher unless the city lowered the orchestra’s annual $323,000 rent (in July, the city council did just that). Meanwhile, Denver’s Arts & Venues agency announced that it was putting a $17 million renovation of Boettcher on hold while it “reimagines” the entire performing arts complex, which houses two other performance halls, several theaters, and a ballroom. Designed by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates, the performing arts center is busy most nights but largely empty during the day.
In July, the Denver Post reported that city is considering demolishing Boettcher and replacing it with an outdoor amphitheater, leaving the CSO without a permanent venue.
Now, the CSO is fighting to keep its longtime home. At a recent press conference inside Boettcher, Kern announced a “Build a Better Boettcher” campaign to save the concert venue from the wrecking ball. “A symphony needs a symphony hall,” Kern said, “and this is our hall.”
Kern has enlisted Denver firm Semple Brown Design, working pro bono, to completely redesign the concert hall’s interior. Principal Chris Wineman says the $40 million plan would correct some of Boettcher’s flaws by flattening the main floor, decreasing the overall capacity, adding sound reflectors, and incorporating a flexible seating system to allow for a number of different configurations. The latter seems directly aimed at the city’s complaint that Boettcher is too inflexible to be used for anything but the CSO. Boettcher’s two-tone brick exterior and greenhouse lobby would be left unchanged.
“We think that it’s possible to make some improvements in a meaningful way, at a reasonable cost,” Wineman says.
For now, city officials aren’t commenting on the CSO’s proposal. Brian Kitts, spokesman for Arts & Venues, says tearing down Boettcher is just one option being considered. Meanwhile, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock says he will appoint a team of “arts leaders, planning experts, and Denver residents” to determine a “comprehensive vision” for Boettcher and the rest of the complex.
Michael Paglia, art and architecture critic for the Denver alternative weekly Westword, says: Don’t even think about razing Boettcher. “It’s an architectural gem,” a period piece from what he considers Denver’s “golden age” of big-city architecture. (He includes Gio Ponti’s 1971 Denver Art Museum in the mix.) Paglia is encouraged by Semple Brown’s renovation proposal, but he’s wary of the city’s intentions. “Hopefully, this idiotic scheme is now dead in the water,” he wrote in a recent column, “but this is Denver, so you never know.”