Update on the Fan Fair building
Ah, signs of economic recovery. Decreasing unemployment, growing GDP and demolishing old buildings. I wrote about Aurora’s Fan Fair building a few years ago in the midst of the economic recession, and how the terrible economy was, in a sense, historic preservation for this building. Cash-strapped developers and cities couldn’t afford to tear down this quirky mid-century gem. However, in a sure sign that the economy is improving, the Fan Fair building met its demise. The building was demolished over the past several weeks and the site will be swept clean of the coolest post-apocalyptic rolling skate rink ever.
Unsurprisingly, the locals cheered. “Unfortunately for Aurora’s least-favorite architectural oddity, the crowd wasn’t there to celebrate Fan Fare, or even to gawk at its weird bulbous roof or it’s quirky mural. They were there to see it razed,” noted one local writer. Another writer thoughtfully chimed in, “Quite frankly, the only thing keeping the building alive for years has been the floor-to-ceiling asbestos — apparently that was a good idea, once. Nevermind, let’s toast to the fall of Aurora’s landmark skidmark.” Alrighty then.
A shift to from “urban renewal” to “suburban renewal.”
I’m an outsider on this situation, and I could see how living by the building day-by-day would be depressing. But what I would find depressing is not the funkiness of the building, but the neglect. There are plenty of funky buildings out there that survive and thrive in the right environment. People hate on the Fan Fair building itself, but I think they’re missing the mark. The neglect, and the people and groups that allowed that neglect to happen, are more disturbing to me.
At the time the Fan Fair building was constructed in the early 1960s, the United States was on a tear with urban renewal. Sweeping through downtowns and “slums” was a clear-and-build attitude. Now the tables are turned. Buildings of the atomic age are being threatened by suburban renewal as communities once on the fringe of development now become part of the “inner city” for metropolitan areas. This building is a perfect example of that change as the Aurora Urban Renewal Authority (AURA) agreed about a year ago to purchase the Fan Fair property for $4 million following site clean-up and demolition. And despite the destruction of this building, there isn’t a developer in the wings—at least not yet from what is available publicly. The city’s plan is to sell the property to a developer later this year who will put something that the city likes on the site.
I’ve talked with many folks who have worked with the building over the years, and there were several plans that fell through as the community did not rally behind them. So the building sat and sat, and sat. More than a decade ago, there was a movement to designate the building a historic landmark (which it would have qualified for its innovative structure and the fact that building represented a specific period of American architecture (more on that below)) and repurpose it. This designation would have opened the building up for funding and grants that could have restored and repurposed it.
From what I understand from anonymous sources is that an historic landmark application was pulled together and individuals within the city put it down. So, again, there it sat. It seems like people were just intent on destroying the building, and they let the surrounding community suffer through many more years of neglect than it probably needed.
For the love of lime green carpet
Despite its odd appearance, I had honestly grown to love this building. It was quirky, it was atomic—and it had an interesting story. Although people will angrily disagree with me today, and this sounds dumb, one day folks will miss structures like Fan Fair when they’re gone. (If you don’t understand why, please refer to my article about how folks will miss lime green carpet some day). Buildings like Fan Fair are connections to our past, and show what are interesting patterns in the development of modern U.S. communities. Below is some of what I found about Fan Fair and how it revolutionized shopping in Denver. I guess you can consider it an obituary of sorts.
The 1961 construction was an amazing example of Formalist style. William C. Muchow, a prominent Denver architect, designed the building and worked with the Denver engineering firm of Ketchum, Konkel & Hastings. It was the only structure in the area that featured multiple hyperbolic paraboloids and unique flying buttresses, and it was one of the first discount shopping centers in Denver area that essentially straddled the transition from downtown department store to suburban malls.
Fan Fair Discount City, as it was originally known, was conceived in 1960 by prominent Denver developer Saul Davidson and developer/general contractor Alvin Cohen—both of whom were involved in the development of Vail. One of the company’s partners, a Belgian-born retailer by the name of Jacques Adler noted that “Fan Fair has class. It’s five years ahead of its time. In it we blend the feeling of the specialty shop and the department store.” Adler ordered the extreme modernistic design to reflect the idea that Fan Fair was five years ahead of its competitors.
Milton Tuttle—one of three sgraffito artists in world at the time—did the sgraffito murals that could be seen on the inside and outside of the building. The murals depicted essentially a swirling medieval parade of characters such as drummers, trumpeters, riders on horseback. The scene is reminiscent of vibrant medieval gathering, but the feel was in this crazy 1960s atomic motif. Quite a combination.
The original store featured and optical shop, snack bar, garden store, pet shop, barber shop, liquor store, pharmacy, women’s fashion shop, ski shop, automotive supply store, men’s and children’s shops, furniture store, jewelry store, luggage shop, paint store, hardware store, major appliances store, insurance office, gift shop, school supply shop—just to name a few. Oh, and it had a 20,000 square-foot supermarket, a post office, and an auto service shop.
At the time of its opening, folks said that Denver just experienced the largest commercial opening since Cherry Creek shopping center opened in the mid-1950s. C.P. Kline, an official with Fan Fair, called this new-fangled approach to shopping an “inside shopping center.” A Denver Post writer at the time of the opening helpfully explained to readers that “the building will house under a single roof a complete shopping center.”
And on a last note about the interesting weirdness of this place, it was one of the first places in the Denver area to be open on Sundays. This break in tradition offended—and threatened—Aurora business owners and churches so much that they pushed for the enactment of a local and state Sunday closing law in 1962, which was known as the Save our Sundays (SOS) movement.
Despite the cool history, and the movements to repurpose it, Fan Fair is gone. It will be interesting to see what replaces Fan Fair, and how those new structures will stand the test of time. Let’s just hope that cultured stone isn’t involved. (I need to write an article about fake stone and my dislike of it.) I’m guessing that someday, like asbestos, it will be a hazard to everyone’s health.