The Denver Performing Arts Complex (DPAC) is a four-block, twelve-acre site that features nearly 10,600 seats across the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre, Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Boettcher Concert Hall, Garner Galleria Theatre, and several smaller facilities. It is one of the top three performing arts complexes in the United States in terms of seats, patronage, and ticket sales, along with Lincoln Center in New York City and Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The brainchild of Donald Seawell, the complex was built around Denver’s historic Municipal Auditorium, with the first new venues opening in 1978. Managed by the City of Denver’s Arts & Venues division, DPAC is home to four resident companies: Colorado Ballet, Colorado Symphony, Opera Colorado, and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA), which presents and produces live theater.
Donald Seawell loved to tell the story of DPAC’s conception. After lunch at the Café Promenade in Larimer Square one day in July 1972, he walked back along Fourteenth Street to the offices of The Denver Post, where he was publisher. He stopped at the corner of Curtis Street, where the 1908 Municipal Auditorium stood, then in poor shape and surrounded by cheap residences and bars. Seawell, formerly a New York lawyer and theatrical producer, was struck with an idea and sketched on an envelope an ambitious plan for a new performing arts campus to rival the nation’s best.
Design and Venues
Seawell filed plans with the city that same day and got to work. He recruited Denver mayor William H. McNichols Jr., who was known to burst into bits of opera, to help pave the way. First came funding. Seawell sold The Denver Post, which he controlled after Helen Bonfils’s death in 1972, to the Times Mirror Company for $95 million. Most of the proceeds went into the Helen G. Bonfils Foundation. Seawell then pumped money from the foundation into the construction of the arts complex. He maintained that he was carrying out Helen’s dying wish, but critics claimed he drained the Post dry to build his own dream.
Seawell hired one of the world’s leading architectural firms, Roche, Dinkeloo & Associates, LLC, of Camden, Connecticut, to furnish the masterplan. Roche’s centerpiece was a glass cornucopia-shaped galleria providing a pedestrian extension of Curtis Street. An evocation of the great galleria in Milan, it connected and sheltered the complex’s various venues and restaurants with a covered pedestrian arcade under a barrel vault seventy-six feet high and sixty feet wide.
The cornerstone of the complex is the Denver Municipal Auditorium, which originally sparked Seawell’s vision. Built in 1908 to host Colorado’s first national presidential convention, the space became Denver’s only Broadway roadhouse until the Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre was created within the adjacent Auditorium Arena in 1991. That arena had been added to the auditorium in the early 1940s, expanding the structure to fill the whole block bounded by Curtis, Champa, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Streets. The ornate neoclassical exterior of the auditorium was restored in 2003 and renamed to honor former Denver mayor Quigg Newton. Two years later, the auditorium interior was gutted to build the state-of-the-art Ellie Caulkins Opera House and intimate Studio Loft.
The first new pieces of the complex to open were the galleria, an eight-story parking garage, and Boettcher Concert Hall. They were financed by a $6 million Denver bond issue, $7 million from private sources, $3 million from the Helen G. Bonfils Foundation, and $2 million from the Boettcher Foundation. Architects George Hoover and Karl Berg of Denver’s Muchow Associates helped design the garage and the galleria. On the ground floor of the garage is Garner Galleria Theatre, named for Denver’s longtime theater impresario Robert Garner, as well as other retail and dining spaces. Boettcher Concert Hall, named for Denver philanthropist Claude K. Boettcher, opened in 1978 as the nation’s first symphony hall in the round, with 80 percent of the seats within sixty-five feet of the stage. The hall was a major upgrade for the Denver Symphony Orchestra (now the Colorado Symphony), which previously played at the inadequate Auditorium Arena, a venue originally intended for sports, not music. At the southwest corner of the site, Seawell built the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex. Completed in 1979, it is home to the DCPA’s professional Theatre Company. The building contains four distinctive theaters, on top of which the Seawell Ballroom was added in 1998.
At its far west end, the complex includes the grassy Sculpture Park (1978), which is used for large outdoor concerts, festivals, and private receptions. Sculpture Park is best known for its sixty-foot-high sculpture, “The Dancers” by Jonathan Borofsky, a twirling couple prominent to travelers along Speer Boulevard.
The Denver Performing Arts Complex helped transform a declining downtown Denver neighborhood. Fourteenth Street started out in the 1870s as Denver’s first millionaires’ row before becoming blighted a century later. DPAC started a revival. It inspired the reincarnation of the former Denver Tramway Company headquarters next door, which now has a dual use: the upscale Hotel Teatro and the administrative offices and production facility for DCPA’s plays and theater-education programs. Across Fourteenth Street from Hotel Teatro, construction of the forty-five-story Four Seasons Hotel and Residences (2009) inspired other new high-rise hotels and residences along Fourteenth, making the street once again a center of luxury real estate.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, all DPAC venues closed. Live indoor performances resumed in September 2021, with the Colorado Symphony performing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, followed by major performances by DPAC’s other resident companies throughout the fall. Other productions reawakened the complex’s many venues with hopes to return to an average year, when, collectively, the resident companies offer more than 2,700 different performances, attract more than 1.3 million guests, and generate some $300 million in economic activity.