The Denver Botanic Gardens has spent more than $116 million revamping itself over the past decade. There’s a new science pyramid, gift shop and welcome center, a children’s garden, an outdoor bistro, a tea garden and a massive greenhouse complex.
Old structures (like the glass-enclosed Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory) have been refurbished, and new ones (like a green-roofed parking garage) have been built from the ground up.
But none of those projects contains the potential to transform the garden and the way Denverites use it as much as the Freyer-Newman Center, the 13th and final step of its master redevelopment plan, which opened to the public last week.
The center — a sprawling, 100,000-square-foot structure on the corner of York Street and 11th Avenue — is meant to serve a number of purposes. It has four art galleries, six classrooms, a library, a 265-seat auditorium, research labs and other amenities. But its most crucial attribute is that it is legitimate, functional indoor space in a cultural institution that many of us consider only for its outdoor pleasures, and then only when the temperature permits.
The center turns a beloved warm-weather escape into a year-round attraction. There’s suddenly a good number of reasons to head to DBG, even when it’s snowing. One example: the center’s independently operated Copper Door Coffee Roasters on the first floor, which has its own entrance, allowing customers to skip the garden’s considerable $15 admission fee and pop in for a cup of espresso. It’s already emerging as a go-to meeting spot for the neighborhood.
Of course, the garden has always been open year-round and it has long presented lectures, workshops and gallery shows in the winter. While those have been respectable, they haven’t necessarily been inviting. Classrooms were dark and cramped, art exhibitions often felt like an afterthought. The Freyer-Newman Center makes all of those offerings more appealing.
That starts with the design, produced with great care by a team from the local firm Davis Partnership Architects, which was lead by David Daniel.
It’s no small matter to add a structure to the 24-acre garden, which houses some of the city’s most-treasured buildings, created by its most-revered architects, notably Victor Hornbein and Ed White Jr. No Denver buildings are more significant than their 1960s-era Tropical Conservatory, the over-sized terrarium with its trademark diamond-patterned roof, or the Boettcher Memorial Center, probably known best for its fanciful, tulip-inspired lighting fixtures.
But Daniel understood where he was working and the level of respect that was required for the existing architecture.
The Freyer-Newman Center, for example, is next door to the Boettcher Memorial Center, and the two buildings connect physically, and so he mirrored the old building’s shape, scale, setbacks and materials. Colors and details synch up artfully between the two structures.
Still, Daniel made sure to speak in his own voice. So, while he borrowed that familiar abstract tulip design, he used it to shape the Freyer-Newman Center’s exposed structural columns, which are placed at the exterior entrance and inside in the building’s generous, two-story atrium. The tulips are still whimsical, but they’re functional as well.
Those kinds of moves are all over the new place. Another example: There’s a diamond-shaped, glass cut-out in the center’s ceiling, a nod to the adjacent conservatory’s most-famous design detail.
That’s not to say the Freyer-Newman Center is a relic. The garden supports a staff of plant researchers and the building gives them, for the first time, an abundant, light-filled laboratory to work in. There’s also an updated Herbaria where the garden will explore and store its 100,000-object preserved plant and fungal collections.
The public will have free access to the climate-controlled Helen Fowler Library, which is three times the size of DBG’s former library and archive and has two study rooms, a children’s area and the Edward P. Connors Rare Books Reading Room.
The classrooms are also bright, with windows looking out on the foliage around them. One has a full demonstration kitchen where classes on cooking with local herbs and plants will be taught and, potentially, broadcast to students near and far via the internet.
The Sturm Family Auditorium is spacious and acoustically adept and has an enormous movie screen and sound set-up.
The new art galleries, located on the second floor, are among the most generous exhibition spaces in the city, with high ceilings, freight elevators and climate control. Daniel designed them with clerestory windows, preserving wall space but allowing in just enough light to keep them from feeling claustrophobic.
DBG will use them for a lineup of rotating exhibitions by artists, both national and local, and they will serve as a showplace for the garden’s botanical illustration school, which is one of the largest in the country.
In all, the garden spent $40 million on the center, along with another $5 million on renovations to the Boettcher Memorial Center, much of that coming from a general obligation bond issued by the city in 2017. DBG is a nonprofit but it relies largely on taxpayer money to sustain its operations.
The generous budget allowed DBG to include some high-end elements to the space, such as a 40-foot wide decorative video screen in the atrium that shows footage collected around the garden and the region by its videographers. There’s also a rain garden that’s activated by runoff from precipitation on the roof, which is funneled through a series of channels placed around the exterior of the building.
Because the project is publicly funded, Denver regulations required that 1 percent of the budget go toward art. To fill that mandate, the city commissioned an outdoor sculpture from Brooklyn-based architecture firm Studio KCA that is positioned in front of the building.
The piece, made of stainless steel, is simple on the outside; it’s shaped like a leaf. But cut into its surface are the silhouettes of 251 Colorado plant species held in the Herbaria, each accompanied by its official identification number. Viewers are invited to visit a website where they can research the origins of the species.
The sculpture is on the kid-friendly side, but it gets at the building’s overall mission, which is to serve as a connector between science, art and education. In that way, it’s a symbol of something larger than the Freyer-Newman Center. It’s a celebration of a decade of effort and planning that have remade an important institution for the 21st century.
It’s now up to the garden to employ what the citizens of Denver have gifted to it with foresight and leadership — art exhibits that go beyond safe and pretty and challenge the community; film screenings that give voice to local filmmakers who have something to say; classes and workshops that do more than teach flower arranging and encourage civic responsibility during a global climate crisis; a place of solace that is more affordable to more people for more of the time.
These aren’t the things we expect necessarily from a botanic garden, but they are what it can give us. Or now, that we have enabled it, what it can give back.
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