Is it worth saving?
This is a question Anne Wattenberg, AIA must constantly consider in her role as an architect representative on the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission.
Joined by other architects, landscape architects, city planners, contractors, lawyers and historians, each with a wealth of knowledge and experience, the Landmark Preservation Commission helps the city to designate, preserve, enhance, and perpetuate structures or districts that have architectural, historical, or geographical significance within the city of Denver.
So, what is a self-proclaimed modernist, like Wattenberg, doing on a preservation commission?
“I am not a preservationist. I got into preservation sideways,” Wattenberg quipped. She received her master’s in architecture from Harvard University in the 1980s, at a time when modernism was strongly emphasized in the school. After graduating, Wattenberg worked with and learned from two of the 20th century modern masters: Edward Larrabee Barnes and Renzo Piano.
But in 2008, Wattenberg was asked to lead the technical team for the Carnegie Hall Studio Towers Renovation in New York. She was chosen because of her extensive technical experience with large institutional projects, which helped develop her “portfolio” career.
The exterior of Carnegie Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places while the interior is not; this is actually typical of many buildings in Denver, as Wattenberg described.
Opened in 1891, Carnegie Hall was a good example of late 19th Century value engineering, in addition to which it had been “altered pretty heavily in every terrible way for over 100 years. Very little on the interior was worth saving,” explained Wattenberg.
Yet, many people knew the iconic building, and had strong opinions for how Carnegie Hall should look. It was very challenging to figure out how to create an entirely new interior that was compatible with the historic and deeply beloved exterior but remained true to Wattenberg’s modernist values. The project won a 2017 National AIA Award.
The experience of restoring Carnegie Hall informed Wattenberg’s perspective on preservation, and it still influences her decisions on the commission today.
“Just because its old doesn’t mean it’s good. There are a lot of judgment calls in preservation. Once you’ve destroyed historic material, you can never get it back, but in addition to age, there are many other criteria to consider in order decide if a structure is truly of value to a community” she said.
Balancing these divergent perspectives is what makes her work on the commission both interesting and challenging. Approximately 80% of the preservation applications to the City are resolved by the talented and very hardworking Landmark Preservation staff, but the ones that are considered special circumstances are sent to the commission.
“We decide things based on the Denver Landmark Preservation’s guidelines. But these are nonetheless people’s homes, businesses and neighborhoods and it can be a very emotional situation,” said Wattenberg. “The commissioners really have a good understanding of how to balance the competing interests. All I can say is that I feel very honored and I think the city should feel fortunate about the quality of my fellow commissioners.”
At home, Wattenberg’s modernist and preservationist sides collide, as she and her husband live in and restore William Muchow’s, FAIA, famous mid-century moderNight detail | Copyright Frank Oomsn home —a house in which he and his family lived.
In 1957 the house was selected as an Architectural Record House but during the 30 years after the Muchow family moved out, some pretty dreadful changes were made. Following Wattenberg’s restoration, it won a 2017 Mayor’s Design Award. But for her, it’s not about the accolades.
“I have to say of all the places we’ve ever lived, this is the first one where I felt like I was living my passion. I love it. I wake up every day and feel so lucky to live in a piece of architectural history,” she said.
Wattenberg has worked in the profession for more than thirty years, but rather than feel burnt out, she is more energized than ever.
“For me one of the most fascinating sides of architecture is that it is a team sport. There are some really talented architects, consultants, builders, historians and owners and that’s the great part of architecture—you never know who will be the next amazing collaborator.”