More Than A Garden
The vibrant spirit of Denver is in full bloom at Denver Botanic Gardens, a place where a palatable sense of rejuvenation is evident around every corner. From the Mordecai Children’s Garden climbing the hill to the York Street parking structure, through the Bonfils-Stanton Visitor Center and Gift Shop to Hive Bistro and the Science Pyramid’s scale-like skin, seemingly every angle of the property has been reinvigorated over the last decade. As members and regular garden visitors will attest, despite a steady drumbeat of change and near-constant construction since 2009, the process, though systematic, has felt organic and largely unobtrusive.
“Denver Botanic Gardens has thoughtfully invested $113 million on about 60 different projects in the last decade,” says Brian Vogt, CEO. As measured by visitation, the investment is paying off. Today the Gardens welcomes 1.3 million people a year, making it a close second to Longwood Gardens outside of Philadelphia for the most visited Garden in America.
Denver Botanic Gardens’ history, which Vogt shares succinctly, stretches back to 1940 and includes a stop in City Park before settling on what was then Denver’s oldest cemetery along the eastern edge of Cheeseman Park in 1959. Since then a campus of exceptional architecture has emerged. Based largely on mid-century modernist principles, the designs integrate built and natural spaces and promote open-span spatial proportions through post and beam structures.
Having previously served as president of the South Metro Chamber of Commerce for 14 years, Vogt was a key figure in the founding of the city of Centennial in 2000 and understands the importance of big-picture thinking. When he took the reins of Denver Botanic Gardens as CEO in 2006 he immediately set about applying his experience corralling people and resources to achieve a grand vision through common objectives.
“We undertook a strategic master plan; launched a massive capital campaign; added several new pieces of architecture; and revitalized the existing buildings in this amazing collection,” continues Vogt. Ranging from minor to major, visible to unseen, the improvements made on Vogt’s watch have all been folded into the Gardens experience with as little disruption to visitors or services as possible. “The Freyer-Newman Center for Science, Art, and Education will be the grand finale of a tremendous community commitment to the Gardens’ sustainability for the next 50 to 100 years.”
Anticipated as a public-facing gem enticing passersby from the corner of 11th and York, the new 50,000 square-foot building will be the only space in the Gardens’ portfolio that doesn’t require a ticket to enter. The two-story, prairie style influenced design posits the building as the backdrop for the Gardens landscape, giving the natural order the reverence it deserves. Stout tulip-tree structural columns straddle the entrance behind the landscaped entry plaza, which will greet visitors with a handsome handshake and calm confidence.
The building seems to defy a simple programmatic descriptor, its contents a collection of functions. It will house a combination of research, laboratory, office, educational, gallery, exhibit, and public gathering spaces all connected by a common core. It is designed to showcase the many varied activities of the science of botany and horticulture. Due to the sensitivity of laboratory and research components of the herbarium where plant samples are tested, studied, dried, and stored, ironically, it’s the only building on the campus that won’t have any living plants in it.
“Programmatically, this project was like putting together a puzzle with all of the pieces upside down,” says Patrick Lee, the design team’s project manager and an associate with Davis Partnership Architects. Lee, who has been a Denver Botanic Garden member for more than 15 years, shares that he really didn’t understand all of the things the campus had to offer before starting the project because so much of it was hidden away. From the Gardens’ rare book library, classrooms, conference rooms, botanic illustration instruction and collections, galleries, and a 270-seat auditorium, the Davis team was tasked with packaging a multi-dimensional building program within a framework of intuitive navigation and high, public visibility.
“The circulation and adjacencies are organized around the large, central atrium, a day-lit space dappled in shadow created by wooden slats latticing the skylight overhead,” continues Lee. “The user experience and sequencing are bound together through transparency and biophilia.”
Like those outside, the tulip-tree structural columns within the atrium mimic the Gardens’ original tulip tree lights and, along with the 50’ x 90’ skylight, respond to the innate human tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. In imparting this sense of spatial accessibility and the power of biodiversity, Davis was able to draw on abundant inspiration from the Gardens’ varied tapestry of landscapes, the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory, and many other campus assets.
The connections within the design extend beyond the building, figuratively and literally, with the new facility establishing an axial relationship through the Boettcher building and south on a direct line to the Waring House at 9th and York. The second floor incorporates a pedestrian walkway passage from the Boettcher building, which concludes with the ellipse gallery. The oval viewing room will pantomime the ellipse found in the Waring House courtyard at the southern terminus, which prominently displays a prized sculpture by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly.
“The building is stitched into the site, integrated yet distinctly independent in public accessibility,” says Daniel. “We are continuing the Gardens’ legacy of referencing the campus’ wonderful preceding architectural accomplishments.”
Delivering the established design intent on the ultra-high-profile project within budget and on schedule is a task that fell with honor to GH Phipps Construction in a Construction Manager/ General Contractor role. GH Phipps delivered the original Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory in 1966 and has been a mainstay in the Gardens’ construction over a long, sustained relationship.
“GH Phipps is extremely proud of our 50+ year history with Denver Botanic Gardens,” shared project manager, Adam Tormohlen. “I started my first project here in 2008 and have been engaged in one project after another ever since. I live in the neighborhood and walk here with my children. The opportunity to intertwine all of Gardens’ programmatic and architectural diversity into a single facility is incredible.”
Tormohlen and GH Phipps teamed closely with Denver Botanic Gardens and Davis Partnership through 18 months of preconstruction services. The team invested in three rounds of constructability and value-engineering reviews to give the owner what they wanted without sacrificing design intent. A key change occurred in the size of the skylight, which was originally designed to be approximately 30 feet longer. The reduced volume was strategically subsumed without diminishing the volume of light reaching the ground level from above by reducing coverage over second-floor overhangs.
As construction begins to go vertical, Tormohlen and the GH Phipps team are looking forward to many more exciting months of building. Exacting detail in site logistics and subcontractor sequencing are essential with limited laydown room and a steady stream of concerts, events, deliveries, and public passage taking place just steps from the site. Construction must also, of course, account for to sustained protection of every single tree on the site, each a cherished asset in the museum’s living collection.
“Denver Botanic Gardens is working in every county in the state of Colorado, and globally, connecting people with plants, especially those native to the Rocky Mountain region for the delight of all,” says Vogt with well-earned enthusiasm. “There are important messages about the natural order and the world that we need to convey to as many people as possible. This building will be the centerpiece of our core function of changing the world.”
About the Author:
Sean O’Keefe writes architecture and construction stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 303.668.0717
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