David Owen Tryba (1955–) is a prominent and prolific Denver architect known for designing the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building, the Union Station renovation, and the History Colorado Center as well as the Google campus in Boulder. He has handled the preservation and updating of many landmark buildings as well as contemporary designs for residences, retail, and civic buildings. By restoring old, endangered buildings and creating distinctive new ones, he has added architectural diversity to the cityscape.
David Owen Tryba was born on July 22, 1955, in Colorado Springs. He received a BA in environmental design at the University of Colorado–Boulder in 1977 and an MA in architecture at the University of Colorado–Denver in 1980. After receiving his graduate degree, Tryba worked in the Denver office of Gensler and Associates, a global interdisciplinary design firm, before moving to New York City, where he was a design architect with Beyer Blinder Belle Architects from 1983 to 1988. There he was engaged in civic, cultural, retail, and residential projects combining historic preservation and new design. In New York, Tryba worked with James Marston Fitch, the father of the American preservation movement and founder of the first program for historic preservation at Columbia University in 1964. From Fitch, Tryba learned to listen to the community and the history of place before acting and that the top priority in balancing new architecture with preservation should be to do no harm.
Founding Tryba Architects
Returning to Colorado, Tryba founded Tryba Architects in Denver in 1988. In 1991 he married Stephanie Taylor, who has provided leadership and support to multiple preservation organizations. She has also worked in the Tryba offices in two Denver landmarks, first in Daniels & Fisher Tower and then in Fisher Mansion (1600 Logan Street), which the Trybas restored as their home and expanded with a four-story architectural studio in 1997. The integration of the historic mansion with the adjacent modern studio illustrates Tryba’s skill at blending old and new in his designs. The complex also makes landscaping integral, with gardens, courtyards, tree lawns, and terraces to connect the workplace and residence with nature.
Other early examples of Tryba’s blending of history and the built environment include his restoration of four Denver branch libraries: Decker in Platt Park (1993), Smiley in Berkeley (1993), Woodbury in Highland (1993), and Park Hill (1994). In 1998 his firm completed the adaptive reuse of the landmark eight-story Tramway Building as the four-star Hotel Teatro. These and other prizewinning projects established a preservation practice, enabling Tryba’s firm to grow even as hard economic times limited new projects.
Tryba’s work in adaptive reuse of historic structures grew in scale with Mercantile Square (1996), at Sixteenth and Wynkoop Streets, where his firm transformed six adjacent historic warehouses on a single block in Denver’s Lower Downtown to house the Tattered Cover Book Store and ninety-eight units of affordable housing. This helped spark the revitalization of a previously neglected area as the Lower Downtown Historic District, a thriving neighborhood of lofts, retail, and entertainment. Even as the area’s rents have skyrocketed, Mercantile Square continues to offer below-market rates to people making substantially less than the area median income.
Growth and Exploration
During the early 2000s, Tryba ventured into large-scale civic work when his firm won the competition for Denver’s Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building (2002), a twelve-story modern structure at 201 West Colfax Avenue. Tryba’s design skillfully incorporated an existing International Style landmark from 1949 into a full-block site that became home to forty-five city agencies. A decade later, he modernized the César E. Chávez Memorial Federal Office Building and Parking Complex (2012) on Speer Boulevard, repositioning an outdated building to accommodate seven federal agencies.
Central to the firm’s work is the reinvention of landmark structures, exemplified by the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (2007), where Tryba complemented the original John Gaw Meem design with a major expansion and restoration. The Denver Botanic Gardens Master Development Plan (2009) addressed every element of the campus while respecting the integrity of the historic Boettcher Conservatory. Tryba’s plan included a visitor center and a 1.2-acre green-roof garage topped by a children’s garden. The upgrade helped make Denver Botanic Gardens the most-visited public garden in the United States as of 2018.
Tryba defined his work in 2020 as “modern urbanism.” It grows out of three primary influences: urbanism, or the rediscovery of the fundamental values that underlie American urban form; preservation, or the effort to recover a civic sense of place by enriching public understanding of social, cultural, and architectural history; and modernism, or the deliberate departure from tradition to live fully in the present.
For the contemporary-style History Colorado Center (2012) in Denver, for example, Tryba used Limestone to complement other Civic Center buildings but put it in a sleek design that wrapped offices, exhibits, an auditorium, a café, a gift shop, and classrooms around a four-story, skylit atrium. His work at Denver Union Station, including the Crawford Hotel (2014), restored and reinvigorated the building while respecting its historic context and role as the region’s transit hub. The building’s revamped lobby became known as Denver’s “Living Room.” The Denver Art Museum North Building Master Plan (2015) responded to the museum’s need to expand and to reinvigorate the iconic 1971 North Building designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti.
As with its Denver Botanic Gardens and Denver Art Museum projects, Tryba’s firm is increasingly involved in large-scale campus planning. One of Tryba’s first projects, Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora (1990), already expressed the firm’s interest in planning. Town centers at Lowry (2000) and Englewood (2002) focused on pedestrian living around a distinctive urban hub, an idea also evident in Clayton Lane (2004) in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood, which reintroduced the street grid to transform about ten acres of surface parking into a live-work-play neighborhood. The firm recently completed or is planning several other neighborhoods and campuses, including the DEN 50-Year Vision, a framework for growth at Denver International Airport; Denargo Market, a thirteen-acre development along the South Platte River; the Fitzsimons Innovation Community, a 125-acre life-sciences hub on the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus; and Fox Park, a forty-one-acre mixed-use development near the 41st & Fox light-rail station.
Tryba Architects has grown into a national practice, with projects in Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas in addition to Colorado. In 2007 it was honored as Firm of the Year for the American Institute of Architects’ Western Mountain Region. In 2004 Tryba was elevated to the AIA’s College of Fellows, and a year later he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado. Stephanie and David Tryba received the Dana Crawford Award for Lifetime Achievement in Historic Preservation in 2012, and David Tryba was named Architect of the Year by AIA Colorado in 2013.
Tryba’s work has changed Denver by helping to make preservation a key development principle and by replacing parking lots and underused older buildings with higher-density modern designs, typically using glass and stone as well as prominent public art and generous plazas. Some dislike his emphasis on greater density, but his work generally draws praise for feeling fresh while remaining sensitive to history and context.