a tour of Boulder’s Historic Districts – Hillside

Perched on the steep slope between Boulder Creek and the university sits the tiny Hillside Historic District.  Comprised of only thirteen houses, this little street spans east-west across 17th Street and slopes down from the CU Behavioral Science building (under construction) to the creek.

The district on the east side of 17th is composed of a single, small gravel lane descending past a half dozen cottage-like houses.  The houses on both sides of this road are quite close and with the tree canopy, make a coherent, almost enclosed architectural space.  The district’s west portion, on the other side of 17th, has similarly cottage-like houses lining a small gravel road.  However, where east Hillside is sheltered, west Hillside rises up to a steep slope that overlooks Boulder High and has a panoramic view to the foothills (however marred by electrical service lines).  As you progress up west Hillside what detracts from this view is the looming presence of the steel frame of the new Behavioral Sciences building under construction to the immediate south.

The house styles vary from Tudor revival to Craftsman and were built between 1909 and 1938.  Many of the houses, and especially the necessary retaining walls, are made from large creek boulders, possibly pulled from the creek below.  What almost all of the houses have in common beside their proximity to the road, is the additive collection of gabled roofs that make up each individual building.  Though differing in materials and color, the houses all use these gabled forms, like theme-and-variation, to step down the sloping sites, allowing the additive nature of the volumes to negotiate the changing topography.

Designated a historic district in 2001, the  process for its selection and the controversy surrounding it makes for a thick historical file.  Hundreds of pages of the publicly-available file for this district’s creation are devoted to the rancor associated with including a then-undeveloped lot within the district.  The owners of the empty lot protested vigorously its inclusion and the file bears witness to the often painful conflicts that come with building on a lot long held empty.  The lot owners feared the increased scrutiny and prolonged process with getting new construction approved in a historic district and the neighbors, used to the space and wildlife allowed by the empty lot, feared both the loss of this habitat as well as the unknown prospects of a new house in the small neighborhood.

In the end, the lot was included in the new district as it was clearly part of the entire composition of the lane and aligned dwellings.  Years later, under different owners, the lot was transformed into a new house, largely respecting the scale, materials and proportions of the houses along the road.  The amount of time, effort, heartbreak and money expended during the process was considerable.  The result: the lot is no longer available for the use of the neighborhood, the new house is smaller and more compatible than originally designed.  Probably not terribly satisfying for everyone, but Hillside does feel like a coherent architectural whole.  Let’s hope the neighborhood does as well.

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