Giant art piano damaged in suspected arson at Civic Center, will be removed

“We just got word of it this morning after the sun came up,” said Scott Robson.

"Tree of Transformation," the musical public artwork by Nick Geurts and Ryan Elmendorf, was vandalized with fire at Civic Center Park, July 25, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"Tree of Transformation," the musical public artwork by Nick Geurts and Ryan Elmendorf, was vandalized with fire at Civic Center Park, July 25, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

The sculpture stood in the center of Civic Center Park, a towering mess of steel limbs sprouting into the air from a wooden piano, looking like something from Dr. Seuss. If you watched for a few minutes, someone was sure to approach and play a few keys, setting off melodic steel drums and lights.

That ended early this morning in a suspected arson. The Tree of Transformation, a temporary art installation, was badly damaged by an overnight fire in the park and will now be removed.

“We just got word of it this morning after the sun came up,” said Scott Robson, executive director of the nonprofit Civic Center Conservancy. He said it was a suspected arson, though Denver Fire Department hasn’t determined the cause.

"Tree of Transformation," the musical public artwork by Nick Geurts and Ryan Elmendorf, was vandalized with fire at Civic Center Park, July 25, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"Tree of Transformation," the musical public artwork by Nick Geurts and Ryan Elmendorf, was vandalized with fire at Civic Center Park, July 25, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Tree of Transformation was installed this winter, a $20,000 project funded by the Civic Center Conservancy. It was previously displayed at the Burning Man festival, and it was supposed to stay in central Denver place until October. Vandals had already damaged the sculpture about a half-dozen times before the fire, Robson said.

The piano’s electronic innards were destroyed by the fire, and the damaged sculpture was surrounded by bags of trash. It’s at no risk of collapsing because it is secured by an underground foundation, but it will have to be removed soon, Robson said.

“The piano contained electronics that are too costly and time-consuming to repair at this point so we are planning on de-installing it in the next few days,” wrote Nick Geurts, who worked with fellow Denver artist Ryan Elmendorf to create the sculpture.

The Civic Center Conservancy funded the installation as the first piece of its new push for public art in the park. The nonprofit raises money to create long-term plans for the park, to throw events and more.

“We see public art as fantastic way to bring further interest into this public space, to bring tourists, school kids, locals. It’s one of many layers,” Robson said.

The nonprofit director believes the fire was an intentional act of arson. There is no suspect, he said, but he connected the incident to a broader trend of vandalism in the park.

“There’s some elements and individuals in that public space that unfortunately are just causing some massive damage both day and night,” Robson said. “It’s definitely grown this summer.”

The fire happened around 2:20 a.m., according to Capt. Greg Pixley of the Denver Fire Department. There also were fires in trash cans around the park, he confirmed.

The fire department isn’t ready to say whether the fire was intentional, Pixley said. “It’s just like anything else: Innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “We are working with Parks and Rec and using video to see if we can determine what the situation was around the fire.”

The department responded to the fire at about 2:20 a.m. on Wednesday, sending two engine companies in response.

This article was updated with further information from the Denver Fire Department at 12:45 p.m.

"Tree of Transformation," the musical public artwork by Nick Geurts and Ryan Elmendorf, was vandalized with fire at Civic Center Park, July 25, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"Tree of Transformation," the musical public artwork by Nick Geurts and Ryan Elmendorf, was vandalized with fire at Civic Center Park, July 25, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)