By Taisto H. Mäkelä, University of Colorado Denver
Patricia W. Swan (1924–2012), as an associate partner at the Denver office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), was responsible for many of Denver’s most prominent tall buildings in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Early Life and Education
Swan was born on April 21, 1924, in Malden, Massachusetts, to Mary (née Flett) and G. Dewey Swan. Her father was an architect and a friend of Louis Skidmore, which may have influenced Swan’s later choice of employment. She grew up in Bronxville, New York, and at age thirteen, she moved with her family to Greenwich, Connecticut. After high school, she attended Antioch College in Ohio for one year and then volunteered and served in the Women’s Army Corps from 1944 to 1946, serving as a wartime military meteorologist.11Women in Design, Denver, “In Celebration of Pat Swan.” http://www.widdenver.org/share/news/in-celebration-of-pat-swan/ After her military service, Patricia Swan attended Columbia University in New York City, where she received her B.Arch. degree in 1951.
Swan spent her whole architectural career at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, starting work in 1951 in the New York office, where she became a participating associate in 1956 (one of two women) and an associate partner in 1970. She moved to SOM Denver in 1978, where she served as an associate partner and then senior associate partner until her retirement in 1986. While in the Denver office, she was promoted to senior associate partner, but, despite her significant accomplishments, never became a partner. After Swan’s death, one of her colleagues at the Denver office, Peggy Kinsey, was quoted by TheDenver Post as saying, “She went as high as she could under that glass ceiling,” working “30-plus years at SOM in key leadership roles but never really could step into the partnership.”22Kristen Leigh Painter, “Influential Denver Architect Patricia Swan Dies at 87,” The Denver Post, March 5, 2012. http://www.denverpost.com/obituaries/ci_20102452#ixzz2YVyNwWbW. (The first woman to be made a partner at SOM was Diane Legge Lohan, in 1982. Even by 1987, there were only three women partners in the firm nationwide.)
Swan was known for her generous mentoring of young designers and architects, for which she is warmly remembered by many colleagues. Kinsey also suggested that the glass ceiling for Swan “didn’t matter because more and more women were coming into the company, and she was a great mentor to them.”33Ibid. Swan’s support of young architects, however, was not limited to women, as corroborated at a meeting on October 16, 2013, between the author and Ken Wiseman, president of Cannon Design in Chicago. Wiseman enthusiastically explained that at the start of his career, he worked at the Denver office of SOM and that Swan had been an important mentor and a strong influence on him.
The opening of SOM’s Denver office in 1978 was related to Denver’s massive growth in the 1970s, due in large part to the energy sector. The Denver office by 1980 had some one hundred employees, and Swan played a central role in the firm’s growth.44SOM was not new to Colorado, having designed the United States Air Force Academy complex in Colorado Springs between 1954 and 1962. At that time, she was an associate partner and senior designer, titles she shared with William P. Scott in the office. During this period of rapid growth, SOM regional offices were noted for their independent approaches to design. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill closed its Denver office in 1987.
A movement to revitalize Denver’s downtown began in the 1950s. As was the case in American cities in general at the time, during the work week, commuting office workers filled downtowns, but after working hours and during weekends when the workers vacated the city for the suburbs, street life and a sense of urban identity were absent. City officials hoped to revitalize and animate urban centers through the use of zoning and financial incentives. The Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA),55DURA’s mission appears as follows on its website: “The Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) was established by the City and County of Denver in 1958 to assist in the redevelopment of blighted property and to help foster the sound growth and development of the city. Working with the City, Denver residents, businesses, civic leaders, area developers, and financing institutions, DURA provides financial assistance to support redevelopment and rehabilitation activities throughout the city. These include single-family home rehabilitation, emergency home repair, historic preservation, brownfield redevelopment, infill development, and neighborhood revitalization, among others. The goal of DURA’s urban renewal efforts is to create and maintain safe, prosperous, and healthy Denver neighborhoods.” http://www.renewdenver.org/about-dura.html. For more information on DURA and its work in Denver, see its Fiftieth Anniversary Report (2008), “50 Years of Revitalizing Denver”: http://www.renewdenver.org/assets/files/50thAnniversaryReport.pdf established in 1958, followed then-current methods of urban renewal that involved demolishing dilapidated and outmoded urban areas. With a few notable exceptions, including Larimer Square and the May D&F Tower, eventually twenty-seven blocks, or some 113 acres of lower downtown Denver, were leveled. A master development plan was created, with new construction to be done in partnership with developers and corporations needing new headquarters.
Swan was responsible for four of the most important buildings in Denver related to the city’s ambitious renewal efforts.66It should be noted, however, that these four buildings are not listed in publications on the work of SOM, such as Albert Bush-Brown, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: Architecture and Urbanism 1973–1983 (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983), and Nicholas Adams, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: SOM since 1936 (Milan: Electa Architecture, 2007). Given the approximately ten-thousand buildings designed by SOM, it would be difficult to choose among them. In addition, the Denver office was relatively short-lived, only functioning from 1977 to 1987, and was not a major office comparable to those in Chicago, New York, or San Francisco. The Anaconda Tower (1979), at forty floors, was at the time of its completion the tallest building in Denver, with a distinguishing dark blue glass curtain wall. Great West Plaza (1980), subsequently renamed the Denver World Trade Center, consisted of two towers, twenty-eight and twenty-nine stories high, and a public plaza connecting it to Broadway and Court Place. The National Denver Bank Building (1981), subsequently renamed the Bank One Tower,77Skyline Park has 3.2 acres along Arapahoe Street between 15th and 18th Streets and was part of DURA’s Skyline Urban Renewal Project that appeared in master plans of the late 1960s. The section between 15th and 16th Streets was completed first in 1973, with the third section between 17th and 18th Streets completed in 1976. Skyline Park is bisected by the 16th Street Mall, which opened in 1983. rises to twenty-five stories and is wrapped in horizontal strips of aluminum and dark glass with distinct, rounded corners;88Compare the rounded corners and curtain wall of horizontal strips of dark glass and aluminum panels to those of 444 Market Street, San Francisco (1980), and the Irving Trust Operations Center New York City (1983). its elevated garden plaza is accessible from Skyline Park.99For an appreciation of the role of Skyline Park in the urban renewal of Denver, see Ann Komara, Lawrence Halprin’s Skyline Park (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Finally, Republic Plaza (1983), at fifty-six floors and a total of 1.2 million square feet of office space, remains Denver’s tallest building. A concrete structure, it is clad in carefully detailed light gray granite. These four constructions, among the earliest glass and steel high-rise buildings in Denver, dramatically changed the city’s skyline and contributed significantly to the eventual thriving mixed-use downtown that can be seen today.1010While in the Denver SOM office, Swan was also responsible for another significant building, the Town Square complex in Saint Paul, Minnesota (1980).
Swan was committed to producing “more people places.” She explained, “We’re attempting to create exciting spaces for day and evening.”1111Quoted in Max Price, “Successful Architectural Firm Stays Small While Being Large,” Denver Post, June 8, 1980, 12. This approach is evident in the buildings she designed, with their glazed, multistory lobbies, plazas, and other public spaces inside and out. Most notable is the fact that all four constructions have generous public plazas at ground level. They provide easily accessible spaces with cafés, seating areas, and other amenities, creating a lively street life, particularly along the 16th Street Mall that opened in 1982. Denver’s SOM buildings did not use innovative expressions of structural systems (like that of the John Hancock Center in Chicago, 1965–1970), as was often the case with SOM buildings. Instead, the emphasis was on combining office space and retail amenities while also providing public spaces and pedestrian circulation.
After her retirement in 1986, Swan moved to Block Island, Rhode Island, living with family and friends in an American Legion Hall that her family purchased in 1962 and that she renovated for family living. Her sister Sandy Swan reflected, “Not only professionally was she amazing, she was a true humanitarian . . . always caring about people and causes.”1212Quoted in Painter. http://www.denverpost.com/obituaries/ci_20102452#ixzz2YVyNwWbW. Patricia W. Swan died on January 23, 2012, in Mystic, Connecticut.
The author would like to thank Karen Widi, Manager of Library, Records & Information Services at SOM Chicago, for research support.