1999 Chestnut Place: Denver’s historic past, bright future
BUILDING DIALOGUE: Feature Story
WORDS: Sean O’Keefe
The tidal wave of change that broke behind Denver Union Station has now, seemingly, enveloped almost every developable parcel of land there was. Washing over what was not long ago a dusty no man’s land of train tracks and trash, a vigorous sea of ambition, money and effort has now created an ultra-dense, urban playground packed with possibility, a city within the city. As the newness starts to settle around Union Station, commonalities between Denver’s past, present and future begin to emerge as the city’s evolving architectural legacy continues to be revealed.
Enter 1999 Chestnut Place, a new 12-story, 233-key hotel located on the far outer edge of the redevelopment zone where Chestnut street branches off the 20th street viaduct. Easily identifiable as a neighborhood gateway from the north, 1999 Chestnut will cut a deceiving figure. Outwardly it will appear as though there are three independent forms – brick relic, glass box and plaster tower – while in reality, they are one.
The ensemble is most remarkable for the incorporation and adaptive reuse of one of Denver’s earliest firehouses, the Hose Company No. 1. Built in 1881, today the building is regarded as Denver’s oldest standing fire station and the only structure other than Union Station itself that remains from the 19th century within the redevelopment zone. Operational at a time when the neighborhood was known as the Bottoms and the residents were far less fortunate, Hose Company No. 1 remained in service for just over a decade before the ineffectually located building was abandoned by the Denver Fire Department. Subsequently over some 100-plus years of changing commercial, industrial purposes – poster and print shop/specialized boiler repair and welding shop – the building was repositioned, rehabilitated, reinforced, threatened with demolition, saved and finally designated as a Denver Landmark in 1986.
“We acquired the property in 2006 with a thoughtful eye on doing something special to capitalize on the building’s history and site’s big-picture potential,” says Josh Fine, executive vice president of Focus Property Group. Focus has been developing properties in the Denver market for some 30 years, previously repositioning local acquisitions into hold-and-manage entrepreneurial pursuits like Enterprise Coworking in both RiNo and Greenwood Village and Green Box Self Storage (four metro locations). 1999 Chestnut Place marks Focus’ first foray into hotel ownership and it specifically sought a well-established brand that would feel familiar to travelers looking for a downtown Denver experience.
“We’re proud to fly the Hilton Garden Inn flag. This is a develop and cherish situation for our company,” continues Fine. “We have been very deliberate in the choices we made here because this is truly a legacy asset for us.”
Among the early high-impact decisions Fine and the Focus team made was to develop the project as design-build. This approach contractually binds the architect to the selected builder, streamlining complexity and inherently obligating design to advance in harmony with the contractor’s cost model, schedule and construction logistics. General contractor Alliance Construction Solutions partnered with Johnson Nathan Strohe for the restoration of the Hose Company No. 1 and the hotel portion of the project and invited Boss Architecture to take the lead on interior design of the new restaurant space. Beyond a single, shared kitchen serving the two properties, the intent is for the restaurant to celebrate its firehouse heritage and feel like an independent neighborhood beacon.
“It’s really important to deliver the right architecture for the final use of the property, and this one blends old and new, historic preservation and a ground-up, high-rise on the same site,” shares Brian Weinmaster, president of Alliance Construction Solutions and principal-in-charge for 1999 Chestnut. “Johnson Nathan Strohe was a great choice for the hotel tower, and Boss’ specialty in restaurant interior design, really married well together to deliver collaborative thinking from all sides.”
Hose Company No. 1’s 138-year-old structure was built using unreinforced brick masonry just two wythes thick in some wall sections. Made of soft, sandy Denver clay, most of the original bricks hadn’t even been fired and, in places, the walls were literally crumbling. The structural solution was to build a steel frame building within the existing exoskeleton of the hose company remnants. This allowed the brick walls to be tied to the steel structure and provides reliable support the building’s new dramatic, sky-lit roof.
While Hose Company No. 1 has marked the neighborhood boundary like a sentinel of time from the Bottoms of the 1880s to today’s resurgent view from the top, designing a 12-story hotel to complement a 1,600-square-foot remnant offered a unique design challenge for the team at JNS.
“The hose house is a historic gem, that we knew we had to enhance rather than dwarf,” says Heather Vasquez Johnson, an associate at Johnson Nathan Strohe and project manager for 1999 Chestnut Place. Working to solve built environment challenges while striving for internal/external cohesion is a fundamental objective of Vasquez Johnson’s approach to design and 1999 Chestnut Place was replete with opportunity. Multiple massing iterations ultimately resulted in the nine-story glass jewel box stepping up to the taller plaster tower with the pair forming an L-shaped backdrop for the firehouse. “The glass jewel box is our own contribution to context,” continues Vasquez Johnson. “Approaching from 20th Street, it sits in a sea of shorter construction and leaves no doubt as to your arrival downtown.”
As expected on a tight, urban site, contending with adjacent construction, limited access and lots of public events presented challenges general contractors like Alliance are familiar with. Urban builders also understand that the unforeseen is potentially around every corner. On 1999 Chestnut Place, the unforeseen reared its head when excavation efforts hit the water table earlier than geotechnical reporting indicated they should. With water seeping into the site halting construction, the team had to react quickly.
“The team was able to devise a sheet pile dam,” says Weinmaster of the site containment and dewatering effort. “We found a vendor and the material and resolved it quickly, thanks, in part, to the design-build relationship.”
Construction at 1999 Chestnut Place was also noteworthy for incorporating the largest, continuous concrete pour in metro Denver history. At a rate of some 465 cubic yards-per-hour, more than 10,000 tons of concrete was delivered, pumped, poured and finished in a single 10-hour day, creating a uniform mat slab foundation for the new construction. Appreciating both the difficulty and duration of the work, Focus even had a set of bleachers set up for passing spectators to stop and enjoy the spectacle.
“We’re very happy with the thoughtful, meticulous choices we made on this development and we’re so excited to see it finished,” shares Fine, who has good reason to be eager. His daughter’s bat mitzvah will be the first event ever held at the new hotel, scheduled just a few days ahead of the public opening. “From the partners we picked, the design choices we made and the incredible teamwork, Focus is proud of celebrating the past and creating something new at the same time at 1999 Chestnut Place.”
Published in the March 2019 issue of Building Dialogue.