Mid-century masterpiece – Arapahoe Acres

It is rare that really good mid-century modern architecture finds itself not confined to the design of an isolated building.  So much of the ethos of that period of Modernism was committed to making unique, site- and client-specific buildings, that it is unusual to see a cluster of homes that all reflect the design ambitions of Modernism.  Arapahoe Acres in Englewood, Colorado is one of the shining exceptions.

Arapahoe Acres is a small, planned residential development bounded by more conventional developments and houses in suburban Englewood, just south of Denver.  There are 124 houses, ranging from 850 to 2,500 square feet and all with flat or slightly pitched roofs and clearly unmistakable Modernist intentions.  These are not all unique designs for individual clients, but rather a series of types, with significant variations, laid out on a curvilinear street pattern with knot-like semi cul-de-sacs.  Most of the homes were designed between 1949 and 1957 by the developer and self-taught architect Edward Hawkins.

Arapahoe Acres recently held their annual home tour featuring the interior and exteriors of about 8 homes.  What is most striking is that these relatively little houses were so thoughtfully planned and finished that few significant additions or harmful renovations have been executed.  As the neighborhood is on the National Register as a Historic District, this would limit maybe the worst abuses, but I think the reason for the lack of alterations is more due to the open planning, careful spatial layering and utility that pervades these houses.  So while many of them are quite small, the extensive use of natural materials, including some really nice masonry, and clear and simple expressive structural framing lends a quietude and richness that has argued well for many decades for retaining them as originally designed.

If you have a chance, take a drive around the neighborhood and you will see how really interesting it is.  It is certainly suburban and houses all the difficulties that also plague most post-war car-centered developments.  But the theme and variation, simple massing and consistent aesthetic makes for a very pleasing little oasis within the larger undifferentiated suburban sprawl of south Denver.  And of course it is worth noting that this forward-looking development of well-designed and built homes, though now “historic”, is still light-years ahead of most current developments with cheesy fake-Victorian model homes, wood composite siding and faux stone chateaus.  Arapahoe Acres embodies the positive, can-do attitude of post-war America where the future was eagerly anticipated and the best was yet to come.

(Much of the history of Arapahoe Acres info above was gathered from the AA tour guide as assembled by Diane Wray Tomasso, resident and neighborhood historian)

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Winks Lodge

A number of months ago I wrote a post about the historic Lincoln Hills neighborhood in rural Gilpin County, Colorado, about 20 miles southwest of Boulder.  In the 1920’s when many of Colorado’s mayors and governors were KKK members, this African-American resort community thrived as the only one of its kind west of the Mississippi.  At the heart of Lincoln Hills was The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA camp for girls, Camp Nizhoni,  and Winks Lodge.

Built in 1925 by Naomi and Obrey “Winks” Hamlet, the lodge consisted of 6 bedrooms, some common rooms and a large wrap around porch.  The list of visiting luminaries is impressive by anyone’s standard: Billy Eckstein, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston.  Although much of Lincoln Hills has disappeared, the lodge remains and is on the National Register of Historic Places.  With a grant from the Colorado State Historical Fund, the Beckwourth Outdoors Club purchased the lodge and has begun a partial renovation.

The lodge is not a remarkable piece of architecture, but its historical significance is immense.  In a state not known for its racial diversity, preservation and encouragement of this community and this building is rare and welcome.  Although the lodge is not open to the public, I would encourage folks to go up to Lincoln Hills and take a look at what remains of this once vibrant, thriving community, an artistic and intellectual salon that has faded with the years.  Like Chicago’s Bronzeville, Lincoln Hills owed some of its existence to institutionalized and legalized racism.  Around that kind of malevolent exterior pressure grew some amazingly fertile and rich intellectual and artistic communities, with the Harlem Renaissance as maybe the shining example.  The loss of these places is a good sign – they existed because of repression and lack of opportunity.  But it is a bittersweet loss nevertheless.

time and architecture

Having spent the last twenty years or so trying to figure out how a building works in space, I have been spending a lot of time over the last few years increasingly interested in how a building works in time.  The young-architect years spent working out cutting-edge, avant garde work has given way to a more subtle deliberation over the span of life of a building.  This has embodied itself in many different forms:

a growing concern and interest in life cycle costs of materials and sustainability

Issues of sustainability have been on the front-burner for most architects for quite a few years now.  In Colorado, the environment, both political and natural, has pushed many of these issues further, faster than many other places.  The standard practices of architects here are in general, far in front of our colleagues from other areas of the country.

maybe we should keep those old wood windows?

This isn’t necessarily due to the fore-thought of the architects, but increasingly demanded by our clients and aggressive local energy codes. Of particular interest here is the sticky issue of embodied energy in buildings.  This is extremely hard to calculate and assign value.  As a result, most local energy codes and LEED do not give due credit for the energy saved in retaining a building instead of demolition.  Most people think they should tear down and old, energy-inefficient building, but the cost in lost embodied energy takes some 40 years of savings to equal.  And with notion of the most sustainable building is the one already there, that has lead me to…

a renewed interest in historic preservation and membership on the City of Boulder’s Landmarks Board

As more and more of my projects involved careful, surgical interventions in older buildings, my interest in the fabric of these buildings has dramatically increased.  This is never more true than when some initial deconstruction has revealed old lath and plaster, exposed roof rafters and old double-hung window counterweights.  These “technologies” were the latest and greatest of their day and are endlessly fascinating for a building geek like myself.

Of course there is also the realization that the buildings that were shiny and new when I was a kid are beginning to reach that critical 50-year mark that makes them eligible for preservation.  In fact, many municipalities are cutting this time down to 20 years – the past is catching up with us.  The notion of what and how to protect buildings, for their architectural or historical value or maybe just embodied energy, is quickly changing, establishing the building arts as an ongoing process, not one that is so reliant on notions of “completeness” or “originality”.

a increased fascination with the history of architectural problems, the recurring issues that architect’s have had to deal with over centuries of practice

As so many projects the past couple of years have been smaller and with tighter budgets, the architectural issues have in a sense become more distilled.  Along with the occasional dog-house design, I have done a number of porch additions, often on older homes.  What seems like at first a pretty simple project leads to a historically/architecturally rich conundrum.  As a series of posts or columns are proposed, what happens when you take that porch around to the wall of the house?  Do you put a pilaster or half-column on the wall to “receive” the porch?  You don’t need this structurally, but it seems like it should be there to complete the post-and-lintel rhythm of the porch.  How about an inside corner when the “column” is really buried inside the corner of two walls?

WWMD - What Would Michelangelo Do - or maybe Mies?

A simple problem, but one that architects have struggled with for centuries – Alberti, Palladio, Vitruvius, Michelangelo all wrestled with the same notion of architectural expression vs. structural “truth”.  It certainly makes a simple porch addition into something richer and more interesting (are my client’s aware of this…sometimes, yes, sometimes, not)

ideology has been supplanted by historiography

Having never really been much of a formalist (much to the dismay of some of my former bosses), the supplanting of ideology by a more complex narrative, was not so much a shift as part of a long, slow slide over twenty years.  Frankly, for most architects, ideology is greatly devolved into questions of merely architectural language – modern vs. traditional.  To be anything other than a committed modernist was, and still is in some circles, seen as a moral failure of severest kind.  Of course, Modernism itself has long been bleed of any moral values and to most Americans represents “corporate” style rather than its original utopian vision.

the promise and the reality

That architects haven’t and can’t seem to catch up with this is tragic.  Some of the basic aesthetic notions embedded in modernism still resonant with me – simplicity, spatial richness, clarity – but to continue to cloak the preference for these qualities in an insistence on the use of an architectural language based on a style of architecture from 1920’s Europe… The time of a building has not replaced the space of a building in my interest or daily work.  Rather it has become another layer of richness and potential meaning that seems too valuable to waste.

or maybe all this increased interest in time is all a part of the same mechanism, as one’s mortality becomes more apparent, time becomes more precious.

main street vs. walmart

In small rural towns all over the United States, there are a lot of empty storefronts. These great little main streets have a wealth of simple, pedestrian-scaled buildings that, if not already empty, are small, locally-owned family businesses barely hanging on. Where has the hardware store gone? How about the pharmacy, little dry-goods store, bank, optician, deli, coffee shop, gun shop, and green grocer?

If they are at all like Farmville, Virginia, and in my experience many of them are, they are located in one, massive building, about the same size and length, out by the bypass – Walmart. There’s plenty of parking, the prices are cheap, and it’s air-conditioned. And it may be the death of small town America.

In a recent week spent in Farmville, I went up and down Main Street, into the fine Walker’s Diner and some local shops and also out to the Walmart (the only place to left to buy a fishing rod). The interactions between customers and owner/employees at the local shops was significantly more meaningful and humane than anything I witnessed at the big box store. I know I am beating a dead horse, and that almost everyone decries this loss of the local, small-scale businesses, but it is quite a different thing to see and feel it on the ground than to read it in the news or hear about it anecdotally.

I have spent a fair amount of time in my career as an architect, working within, writing and administering building guidelines meant to bolster and restore once vibrant small retail downtowns. Committees, boards, architects, owners, and citizens fret over the size of storefront windows and sign bands whenever a new addition to a cherished old-timey Main Street is proposed. My advice to myself and to the rest: just look at the storefronts of Farmville, almost perfect in the scale and variety, warmth and details. And almost all in jeopardy.

new construction in historic contexts

City of Boulder, along with most other municipalities, has embedded within its Historic Preservation guidelines, a complex philosophical conundrum.  According to the guidelines, sections 4.2 and 6.1, new construction and additions to historic structures should be not mimic the style of the neighborhood or building, but rather “be of its own time.”  The guidelines then go on for many other sections describing how the new work should be compatible with the old in materials, colors, form, mass, scale and proportion.  Now this is not just Boulder’s rules, but it comes directly from the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.

ignoring the problem (and just plain stupid)

As you can imagine, there is great variety of interpretation here.  Every board has a different approach to this delicate balancing act, ranging from approving almost complete mimicry to outright stylistic opposition.  The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has addressed this problem directly in their guidelines and outlined four strategies for understanding this problem (see Part One).

Libeskind, in Toronto - radical bad-boy chic (really??!!)

It often comes as a shock to homeowners that they should not, and may not be allowed, to exactly copy portions of their existing house for an addition.  It comes as a surprise to architects as well, many of whom tend to sit on either distant end of this spectrum, from the accurate historicists to the radical confrontationalistas.

a new Victorian, fakery and lots of trim (oh my)

Exactly reproducing a older house or its parts blurs the distinction between old and new and begs the question of why not tear down all old buildings and rebuild them with new construction, energy efficiency, and modern systems as long as they look exactly like the old houses. This is not historic preservation, but stylistic prejudice parading as such.  On the other hand, creating additions or new buildings in historic districts that are in outright opposition to the historic fabric puts into question the very reason for establishing historic districts.  It is the messy ground in between these poles that real work ought to take place.  This is not easy and asks a lot of architects, homeowners and contractors.

the very painstakingly fake, circa 1990's not 1790's ("where's my carriage!")

In the end what is usually required is the arduous task of creating a new style or language for a building that incorporates elements of the existing building or neighborhood but re-contextualizes them in a form for the present.  This isn’t then the relatively easy task of duplicating a style – a chore that any architect with chops can easily execute. But rather it is invention in the best sense – by balance and judgement and experience and necessity.

Boulder's Historic Districts – 16th Street

Tucked against the north side of Baseline along 16th Street is a tiny historic district often overlooked.  Comprised of only 5 properties, it consists of a group of small masonry cottages surrounded by dense trees.

For the most part the houses are made of fairly traditional red brick masonry.  A few also have rustic, red clay tile roofs which, along with the brick, lend an overall dense and solid expression, strongly rooting the houses to their sites.   Like all the north-south streets in this area, the predominant slope makes the houses on the west side of the street sit up from the street.  As in the University Place district (to be profiled in a future post), a variety of terraced gardens and retaining walls resolve this grade difference between the sidewalk and house.  This slope also means that the small profile of the houses on the east side of the street contrast with the 2- or 1 1/2 story exposed at the eastern alley side.

As a whole, the little  district is a great laboratory of masonry techniques from the 1920’s.  Although in general most of the masonry is typical stretcher bond, there are some smaller examples of Flemish and English bonds.  And, in one house, a brickwork combined with stone that defies any category or style that I know of:

This is not some mason gone mad, but rather part of that strange, Romantic neo-medieval aesthetic movement of the 19th century championed by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.  (Morris is credited with founding the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, later to become the UK’s National Trust, an early forerunner of all historic preservation societies and efforts.)

I am not sure if these are actual clinker bricks, kiln rejects because of odd shapes or twists, but the coursing, or lack of, is certainly part of that tradition of using clinker bricks in often strange and fanciful patterns.  This randomness takes a lot of skill and time of a mason, increasingly rare around Colorado where laying brick is priced on a bricks/hour basis.

The 16th Street district is maybe a bit small to be rightly called a “district”, but as a collection of well-made, strongly interior and distinct houses, it is a great example of houses whose interior-exterior interface is clearly defined.  Only a few decades later, the continuity of interior and exterior spaces exercised in Usonian houses and all their ranch bastardizations made these small masonry houses seem more akin to their medieval ancestors.  These are like little castles, staunchly defended, with even that occasional turret thrown in for good measure.

Boulder’s Historic Districts – 16th Street

Tucked against the north side of Baseline along 16th Street is a tiny historic district often overlooked.  Comprised of only 5 properties, it consists of a group of small masonry cottages surrounded by dense trees.

For the most part the houses are made of fairly traditional red brick masonry.  A few also have rustic, red clay tile roofs which, along with the brick, lend an overall dense and solid expression, strongly rooting the houses to their sites.   Like all the north-south streets in this area, the predominant slope makes the houses on the west side of the street sit up from the street.  As in the University Place district (to be profiled in a future post), a variety of terraced gardens and retaining walls resolve this grade difference between the sidewalk and house.  This slope also means that the small profile of the houses on the east side of the street contrast with the 2- or 1 1/2 story exposed at the eastern alley side.

As a whole, the little  district is a great laboratory of masonry techniques from the 1920’s.  Although in general most of the masonry is typical stretcher bond, there are some smaller examples of Flemish and English bonds.  And, in one house, a brickwork combined with stone that defies any category or style that I know of:

This is not some mason gone mad, but rather part of that strange, Romantic neo-medieval aesthetic movement of the 19th century championed by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.  (Morris is credited with founding the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, later to become the UK’s National Trust, an early forerunner of all historic preservation societies and efforts.)

I am not sure if these are actual clinker bricks, kiln rejects because of odd shapes or twists, but the coursing, or lack of, is certainly part of that tradition of using clinker bricks in often strange and fanciful patterns.  This randomness takes a lot of skill and time of a mason, increasingly rare around Colorado where laying brick is priced on a bricks/hour basis.

The 16th Street district is maybe a bit small to be rightly called a “district”, but as a collection of well-made, strongly interior and distinct houses, it is a great example of houses whose interior-exterior interface is clearly defined.  Only a few decades later, the continuity of interior and exterior spaces exercised in Usonian houses and all their ranch bastardizations made these small masonry houses seem more akin to their medieval ancestors.  These are like little castles, staunchly defended, with even that occasional turret thrown in for good measure.