Denver Post

December 25, 2011

A building by any other name ...

It's not always wise to have one named after a living person

Arapahoe County Sheriff officers walk into the jail where former Arapahoe County Sheriff Patrick Sullivan was being held on Nov. 30. (RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file)

When Arapahoe County's former sheriff was recently arrested and charged with dealing methamphetamine, much was made of the fact that he was jailed, orange prisoner jumpsuit and all, in a building named in his honor.

This was not only humiliating for a man once named national Sheriff of the Year. It also posed a serious public-relations problem for the county he once served: What do you do when the Patrick J. Sullivan Jr. Detention Facility houses Patrick J. Sullivan Jr.?

You start rethinking your policy about naming public buildings after living people, that's what. And you watch other government bodies ponder doing the same, while public-affairs experts and historians weigh in on the risk of honoring folks who are subject to the same post-hosanna temptations, and possible disgrace, as the rest of us.

"I don't think there's any reason to do it," said Steve Manning, founder and CEO of Igor Inc., a San Francisco-based agency that creates business and product names. "There's no upside. When you start naming facilities after local politicians and law enforcement, I just don't understand the benefit when you think about the downside.

"If something terrible comes out about the person, the building has this eternal taint for a generation," he said.

Companies as well as individuals can become disgraced.

Minute Maid Park, home of baseball's Houston Astros, was previously Enron Field, until that corporation collapsed in financial scandal.

"You're a little bit safer in naming buildings after people are deceased, because their stories are already written," said John Olson, director of preservation programs for Historic Denver, an urban preservation group. "With the living, their endings aren't written yet."

The debate is not limited to public facilities.

Now United States postage stamps are entering the dialogue. Traditionally, you had to be dead to get your picture on a stamp, unless you were a state flower. But the government has lifted that rule — apparently the nation is running low on dead people — and has asked citizens to weigh in on living nominees.

Barack Obama, anyone? Newt Gingrich? Snooki? Discuss among yourselves.

In Denver, the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building sparked controversy when it was named for the still-acting mayor in 2002. Webb remains involved in politics as an endorser of candidates and all-around civic commentator.

Given that Webb is human, there is no guarantee he won't at least insert one of his famous tennis shoes into his mouth at some point.

Ditto for Federico Peña, the very-much-alive ex-mayor whose name is on the main drag leading to Denver International Airport.

The dead typically don't pose such problems.

"You can name things after Thomas Jefferson, and it comes out years later that he had mistresses, and people tend to write that off," said Manning, whose company has named everything from the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas to the Gogo in-flight Internet system.

But sometimes the dead bring their own difficulties. In 1944, Denver's airport was named for then-mayor Benjamin Stapleton. But the extent of Stapleton's links to the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s wasn't fully grasped and denounced until after his 1950 death.

"Just his association with the group makes some people uncomfortable," Olson said.

Ultimately, one's reputation is ones brand.

"Anytime a building, place or event is named after a living person it poses a risk," said Phillip Davis of Tungsten Branding in North Carolina. "Brands are based on owning a consistent position or promise in the consumers' mind. Since living personalities are subject to wide fluctuations in behavior, they are generally not good building blocks for long term branding purposes."

Although ex-sheriff Patrick Sullivan has yet to stand trial, Arapahoe County commissioners plan to study their naming policy come January. "Given the recent events, the commissioners owe it to our citizens to revisit past practices for naming county buildings," Commissioner Rod Bockenfeld said in the wake of the arrest.

Sports awards are risky, too.

This year's Big Ten Conference football championship was supposed to see the debut of the Stagg-Paterno trophy. It honored football pioneer Amos Alonzo Stagg and Penn State coaching legend Joe Paterno. But Paterno was fired in November in the wake of a campus sex-abuse scandal and his name stripped from the award. Now it's just the Stagg trophy.

Given that Stagg died in 1965, using his name is probably a safe bet.

Still, noted Davis: "Pick your heroes carefully and wisely."

William Porter: 303-954-1877 or