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Denver-based Fentress Architects is one of the country's standout firms when it comes to convention center design.

The company has had its hand in more than 15 million feet of convention space, and is currently working on center expansions in Miami Beach and San Diego.

But Fentress' work in Denver remains a showpiece for the firm. Partner Mike Winters designed both phases of the Colorado Convention Center.

"What makes the Colorado Convention Center unique is that it was one of the first convention centers that was designed by meeting planners, for meeting planners."

Richard W. Scharf, VISIT DENVER

Architecturally speaking, the Colorado Convention Center has proven an industry trendsetter for the last quarter-century. “Probably the most unique thing about the 1990 design was the elevation of the exhibit hall,” says Winters, noting that the initial impetus was pragmatic. “When you tried to put all of it on one floor, it just didn't fit.”

In 1990, the 300,000-square-foot exhibit space on the second floor bucked trends – and started one of its own. Centers from San Francisco to Philadelphia have followed suit in the last 25 years. “It really opened the door to change the industry,” says Winters.

It also represented the first design-build project for the City & County of Denver, he adds. “That helps the city guarantee a price and a schedule.” The first phase was more than 1 million square feet for $88 per square foot, says Winters, “which was unheard of in 1990.”

The 2005 expansion added another 1.5 million square feet for today's total of 2.5 million, and Winters designed it to integrate with the 1990 structure. “We kept Currigan Hall in place for the first phase,” says Winters of the modular approach. Currigan was demolished to make room for the expansion. “The master plan was to double the size of it plus accommodate a light rail through the building. We originally envisioned a tunnel through the convention center and, after a lot of input from meeting planners, we ultimately re-routed Stout Street with an open-air train station nicknamed ‘the big bend,’” he says. “This change allowed the center to be one of the most functional facilities in the country.”

For today's downtown convention centers, “You want to make a positive addition architecturally to the urban environment,” notes Winters.

Mission accomplished: With a contemporary facade, cantilevered roof and a “four-sided” design that hides 54 truck docks and a 1,000-car parking garage, the Colorado Convention Center provides an aesthetic element in the foreground of Denver's skyline. “It becomes somewhat of an icon,” says Winters.

"My favorite element of the CCC is the iconic Blue Bear peeking in the convention center windows – an incredible sight for our attendees to behold when our annual conference begins!"

April DeBaker,
American Water Works Association

But its form is matched by function, and Winters gives plenty of credit to the meeting planners selected by VISIT DENVER who helped them troubleshoot the design.
“What makes the Colorado Convention Center unique is that it was one of the first convention centers that was designed by meeting planners, for meeting planners,” explains Richard W. Scharf, president and CEO of VISIT DENVER, who also ran the Bureau’s convention sales efforts from 1993 - 2003. “The architectural team at Fentress met with more than 100 meeting planners to get their input on how to design a practical and user-friendly facility.  One of the consistent things we hear from meeting planners today is how great the layout of the building is, and how easy it is to move delegates around it.”

Experient's Gary Schirmacher is one such planner. He participated in focus groups with Fentress to help the firm craft a workable design for the expansion. The key was making it easy for one convention to set up while another one is in progress. “You're able to have more consistent business,” he says, citing the Bellco Theatre as another feature pushed by planners.

Fentress' Winters didn't design the convention center with just one expansion in mind. It's structurally primed to grow upward, with such tantalizing possibilities as third-floor meeting rooms with sweeping mountain views and an outdoor rooftop event space that doubles as a community park.

“You don't have to pay for additional land,” Winters says of a vertical expansion. “That's an asset the city has in its pocket that will probably be realized.”