By Ron Abo, The Abo Group
In 1968, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) initiated the Skyline Urban Renewal District to redevelop a 26 block area of lower downtown Denver including the block the Denver Buddhist Temple occupied.
All existing businesses, residents, and the temple would have to relocate out of the district. In order to remain in the district, DURA required that the temple change the exterior of the building to meet the design guidelines established for the district.
The leadership of the Denver Buddhist Temple proposed that the block bounded by 19th, 20th, Lawrence and Larimer Streets be redeveloped as a Japanese commercial and cultural center with the Denver Buddhist Temple remaining in its original location.
The proposal was accepted in 1969 and the project was dubbed “Sakura Square”. In 1970, the architectural firm, Bertram A. Bruton and Associates developed a design for a 204 unit high‐rise apartment building and 29,000 square feet of commercial space. Tri‐State Buddhists Apartments, Inc., a non‐profit corporation was formed to manage the project and the financing was underwritten by FHA.
In addition to renovating the exterior of the temple, it was time to address the long term needs of the Sanga. Two young Sansei architects; Akira Kawanabe, a member of the temple, and Ron Abo volunteered to develop architectural space needs.
Abo later became one of the design architects and is currently the head sensei of Denver Buddhist Temple Aikido. Kawanabe and Abo met extensively with the temple’s board and all of the temple organizations to determine their needs for space.
The ABR Partnership, Architects, a prominent local architectural firm where Kawanabe and Abo were employed at the time, was engaged to design the expansion and renovation of the temple. When Kawanabe moved back to Alamosa where he grew up to start his own architectural practice, Abo became the design architect for the project.
The original brick Hondo building was designed in 1947 by famous Denver architect Temple Buell. It was designed in the art deco style of the period. There were two prominent entry projections on the Lawrence Street façade. The projection on the north was the main entry to the building. The auditorium was added in the 1950’s.
In order to accommodate a large addition of a multi‐purpose room/gymnasium, the temple secured “air‐rights” over the parking at the corner of 20th and Lawrence. A two-story addition connected the multi‐purpose room to the existing Hondo and auditorium. The connector created a lobby space, restrooms, stairs to the lower level classrooms, a large commercial kitchen, locker rooms and upper level offices, library and Issei lounge.
The northern entry projection to the Hondo was removed and the seating capacity of the Hondo was increased. The southern entry projection was increased to contain a “Nokotsudo” and a choir alcove. The removal of the northern entry projection allowed for a space for the statue of Saint Shinran and an offset “Path to Buddha” common to Buddhist Temples in Japan.
The Path to Buddha requires one to be contemplative as they enter the temple through a gate or wall, encounter icons or statues, walk along meandering paths through gardens, onto an exterior porch or veranda, and into a lobby or ante‐room before encountering the sacred space of the Hondo.
This Path to Buddha was the guiding design principle and was the rationale for keeping the larger building forms simple white stucco with wood trim and the Path to Buddha as more traditionally designed in the Japanese style.
The existing space under the auditorium was converted to classroom space and the areas under the Hondo were incorporated into the design of the Tsunoda Chapel, designed by Ron Abo and Virginia DuBrucq.
The Denver Buddhist Temple renovation and addition project was completed in 1974 for a total construction cost of $250,000. In 2002, the Denver Buddhist Temple merged with the Tri‐State Buddhist Temple with the new title of Tri‐State/Denver Buddhist Temple (TSDBT).
Over the years, Abo designed modifications to the temple such as incorporating folding partitions between the Hondo and Auditorium for overflow seating and providing a wheelchair accessible ramp in the garden.
In 2010, the TSDBT Apartments began a strategic planning process to determine the disposition of Tamai Tower and Sakura Square once the H.U.D. loan was paid off in 2014. The TSDBT Board considered relocating to a new site or demolishing the existing buildings and build a new structure altogether. It was decided to stay in the same location and renovate and expand the existing temple facilities. With the help of Ron Abo, Kevin K. Yoshida, and Kelly Yamisaki, at this time, the planning is in the very early stages.