Back to the future in the Rocky Mountain West

I have an abiding interest in the work of Charles Haertling, Boulder’s most well-known architect from the 1960’s and 70’s.  His organic designs have been extremely influential and are much more finely resolved than the better known works of other organic architects like Bruce Goff.

One of his most interesting buildings appears briefly in Woody Allen’s film Sleeper from 1973.  It is really only an establishing shot and I am pretty sure none of the interiors from the film are of the actual house.

Sleeper is an odd, slapstick Allen movie set in 2173 starring Allen and Diane Keaton.  To depict a future society, Allen used a number of buildings in the Denver/Boulder area, most notably the house in Genesse often referred to as the Sleeper House.  Not yet completed at the time of filming the building sat unfinished and deteriorating for many years until recently a new owner completed it and added a large and fairly sympathetic addition.

Also prominently featured in the film is the Mesa Lab of NCAR in Boulder.  Allen, captured and brainwashed here, eventually escapes and returns to sabotage the place.  There are a few establishing shots and a couple of Allen rappelling down one of the towers.

There are a couple of other local buildings in the movie.  Briefly seen in the very beginning is the main building of the Denver Botanic Gardens.

And as a humorous sight-gag, the Mile Hi church in Denver is rendered as a McDonalds.

What may be of note here is that Allen’s future is a city-less one filled with modern, space-age buildings and for that he left his precious NYC to film in Colorado.  The houses depicted in the movie, the Sleeper house and the Brenton house, are displayed as modern and although a bit alienating, not entirely evil.  NCAR on the other hand is the embodiment of the tyrannical, hero-worship technological society.  Maybe both of those portraits are appropriate for the programs of the buildings and maybe as well for the architectural background of I.M. Pei, NCAR’s architect.  Schooled in the heady days of unabashed hero-worship, the building has all the hallmarks of the Mies/Gropius/Rudolph scaleless, dehumanized placelessness.  By contrast, the houses by Haertling and Deaton were self-conscious antipodes to harsh geometries and materials of late Modernism and attempted to incorporate new spatial concepts while still holding on to Modernism’s liberating ideologies.  Does this difference represent a slightly different generation of architect, is it reflective of the radical shift in attitudes of the 1960’s, or is it a reflection of two architects born and educated west of the Mississippi (Deaton and Haertling) as opposed to the Modernist orthodoxy of the East Coast (Pei)?

(all images from the movie Sleeper, by Woody Allen)

Individual Landmarks – preservation one at a time

In Boulder, like many other cities, there are a number of historic districts designed to save the architecture of individual buildings but also the overall look and feel of a neighborhood.  In addition to this kind of district-based preservation, there are programs to save individual buildings where the immediate neighborhood may not justify a district designation or there is just too much homeowner resistance to the idea.  In Boulder, the program to preserve single buildings is called Individual Landmark Designation and the criteria are in line with many other such programs across the nation.

Volsky house, by Charles Haertling, in LIFE magazine

What is abundantly clear as espoused in almost every public meeting, is why in the world would anyone want to have their building designated in that way and held to the close scrutiny for any changes in the future.  I would like to describe some of the benefits of this kind of individual landmark designation:

  1. Tax Credits.  There are state tax credits available for approved renovations to designated properties.  These credits can be applied for work to rehab the exterior siding, roofing, windows, and other exterior details.  Maybe most applicable however, is that these credits can be gained for upgrading interior systems as well – electrical, heating, cooling, etc.
  2. Commercial tax credits.  These are similar as those described above, but are federal tax credits and are only available for commercial properties.  However, residential rental properties are eligible.  As Boulder moves forward with its SmartRegs ordinance requiring the upgrading of energy systems for residential rental units, these kinds of tax credits may apply and greatly offset some of the costs of complying.
  3. Sales Tax Credits.  Local sales taxes for building materials can be waived if the materials represent at least 30% of the value of the materials are for the building’s exterior.
  4. State Grants.  If sponsored by a local municipality, some renovation costs may be paid for from a grant fund from the Colorado State Historical fund.  The Boulder Landmarks Board reviews and often approves this type of request as a benefit to building owners as an incentive for preservation.
  5. Regulatory relief.  As Boulder has layered more restrictive requirements on the development of properties in the city, the potential of this aspect of preservation has become more important.  Anyone owning an individually landmarked building can petition the Landmarks Board to approve their proposed changes even though some of the new work may be in violation of the Solar Shadow ordinance, zoning requirements, the new Compatible Development regulations like bulk planes, and even some aspects of the International Building Code.
Brenton house, aka Mushroom house, by Charles Haertling

And the negatives of individual landmark designation:

  1. Alterations.  If your building is individually landmarked, then any changes you might like to make to the building will have to be reviewed by either the Historic Preservation staff or the Landmarks Board.  This is not as painful or fear-inducing as it might appear at first.  Most all changes can be reviewed and approved with a simple sit down meeting with staff and the Design Review Committee of the Landmarks Board.  These are casual meetings held every Wednesday where the homeowner, staff and committee members talk over the project, discuss the merits and make suggestions, and often approve the changes right away.  Major changes, like partial demolitions and major additions, take longer to work through and the committee and staff can usually provide advice to make the project better while still preserving the building and meeting the desires of the homeowner.
  2. Demolition.  An individually landmarked building can not be demolished unless proven unsafe for use and/or habitation.  This may limit some future speculator’s designs on your property, but did you really want your legacy in the neighborhood to be new McMansion down the street.
  3. Costs.  Unlike so many taxes and fees, the costs for applying for individual landmark designation is crazy cheap – $25 bucks.
Dammann house, by Charles Haertling

So, if you love your house, if you don’t plan on demolishing it, it might be eligible for designation.  And this is not a program for only those grand old Victorian houses, but for anything that has some architectural or historical significance, including mid-century modernist buildings and the odd, quirky structures that give Boulder its architectural character.  What is missing from Boulder’s list of individually designated buildings are those wonderful, sometimes odd, buildings and houses designed in the 1950’s and 60’s when Boulder came into its own as a place of scientific excellence, environmental consciousness and progressive ideals.  Those buildings, designed by Charles Haertling, James Hunter, Hobie Wagner, Jacques Hampton and others reflect not so much a specific style copped from the East Coast, but the individual desires of their clients and the liberating topography of the West.  These buildings, beyond their architectural brillance, represent the best of what Boulder is and still strives to be.  And we should honor these buildings and their spirit by preserving their essence and ensuring that our kids will come to know Boulder by these buildings and not the newly minted McMansions of generic neighborhoods.

Boulder Eye Clinic, by Charles Haertling

Preserving Modernism

That title may seem like an oxymoron to some folks but the reality is that Modernism as a philosophy and style of architecture is about 100 years old.  The national standard for the consideration of historic and architectural significance is 50 years old or greater.  More importantly, with the passage of time we have seen that mid-century modern homes and other buildings, once the objects of scorn, are now eagerly sought after and enthusiastically restored.  Arapahoe Acres in Denver is the best local example of mid-century residential development but there are so many individual buildings not recognized or protected.

Arapahoe Acres houses

There are three major reasons why these buildings, often beautifully designed and extremely well-built, are so frequently on the roles of demolitions.  The first is simple house size.  The average size house has doubled since the 1950s and of course so have buyer’s expectations.  Most folks are no longer willing to share a single bathroom or live with 8′ x 10′ bedrooms.  And these mid-century modern homes certainly do not have the swelling show kitchens of newer builder homes.

kitchen and family space in Arapahoe Acres house

The second reason is familiarity.  Most folks in the United States now recognize the need and desire for preserving some portions of our architectural past.  The frankly fetishistic preservation of every Victorian shack knows no bounds.  However, so many of us find it hard to believe that the small, cramped houses that we grew up in can have any lasting architectural value that the temptation is to demolish these buildings blinded as we are by our own myopic histories.  Not many of us were raised in the grand Victorian houses that represent so much of historic districts across the country.  They seem like sentinels of a better time and place – large, spacious rooms, fine craftsmanship, broad lawns.  However, all the crappy, drafty junky shed-like houses and tenements where the vast majority of people lived have been torn down (or fell down on their own).  The preserved fine homes of yesteryear are only a very small and select portion of the housing stock of that era.  My thoughts would extend as well to the mid-century houses in a similar fashion – save the very best, not all the rest.

window/masonry detail, mid-century modern house

The third reason is a phantom – the bogey man of energy efficiency.  I am not going to argue that these houses are easy and cost-effective to heat or cool, they are not.  But neither are their Victorian cousins with the huge interior volumes and equal lack of insulation.  The thin, non-thermally-broken aluminum windows of the 1950s-70s are truly dreadful in both R-value and air infiltration, but the vast majority of a house’s energy loss is through the wall envelope and the windows usually represent no more than 10% of the building’s energy losses.  Blowing in insulation in wall cavities, adding it in ceiling/roofs, does far better than replacing windows and is the same need and process for a Modernist house as it for any other style and era of architecture.

As a local example, the City of Boulder has hundreds of individually landmarked buildings in addition to the 10 historic districts (which are largely made up of traditional, non-Modern buildings).  Of these hundreds of buildings, there are only about 5 that are Modernist in design and sensibility.  Two of them, a house and a multi-family residence, are designed by noted local architect Glen Huntington:

Huntington Arms

Thornton House

Only one of works of Charles Haertling, Boulder’s finest Modernist architect, is individually landmarked.  Few of the houses of James Hunter, Jacques Hampton and many other notable architects are protected although many of these buildings are at least as architecturally significant as so many other protected works.   I am not advocating a battle between saving yet another generic Victorian house versus a really fine mid-century masterpiece like the Willard House.  Preservation is not a mutually-exclusive game.  I am advocating looking at our recent past, to buildings and houses of the 1950’s- 1970’s and carefully assessing their value and meaning and providing some protections for the really great works among them.

Willard House, by Charles Haertling

Octagonal houses and their 'opposite'

You may have noticed in your town a strange, older octagonal house sitting in your neighborhood.  In Boulder, there is one on Lincoln up on the Hill.  These are not the one-off strange concoctions that they may appear to be, but rather the result of an intriguing housing fad from the 1850s.

Lincoln house

The proponent of such odd designs was amateur architect and phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler.  In 1848 Fowler published The Octagon House: A Home for All and in its wake thousands of these curious houses were built all over the country.  Emphasizing their utility and efficiency of construction, the book included few examples but rather outlined some general principles along with some practical alternatives such as rainwater-collecting flat roofs and central heating.  His own house, dubbed Fowler’s Folly, was built out of a kind of concrete using lime instead of the usual Portland cement and without reinforcing limiting the material to walls only.

In making the book more general than the typical pattern books of the time resulted in a wide variety of execution with some 2,000 or so homes still existing from Key West to San Francisco.

Lincoln house, with porch

The example here in Boulder has seen a front porch come and go over the years and is predominantly brick with typical low-pitched roof common to most of these houses.  Built in 1907, it must have been an arresting sight sitting amongst its smaller cottage and Victorian neighbors.  It does not have the audacious majesty of the three-story, full veranda Watertown house in Watertown, Wisconsin, but it is a fine, if not quirky, contributor to the architectural variety and history of Boulder.

Watertown octagon house, Watertown, WI

What I find interesting in these buildings is both their form – heavy, massive objects rooted to the earth – and their origins in the “science” of advanced living – how a general building form has been proposed to improve the lives of its inhabitants and the evangelical zeal of its supporters.  Over the last one hundred years or so we have seen plenty of these “inventions” in housing that were intended to liberate the homeowners.  Even such luminaries as Wright, with his Usonian ideas, and Bucky Fuller, with his domes, believed that a study into building form could improve the lives of people that they never met.  This of course is also akin to all the great advertisements of generic builder-home suburbs of the 1950’s and 60’s.

There certainly are plenty of things that buildings can provide.  They can bring light and hygiene, eliminating the dreadful tenements of the late 19th century.  They can, and usually do, reflect changes, positive or not, in the working lives of families – to dual working couples and the increasingly central role of the kitchen in the life of the house. But these are forms that reflect only generic families, the reductivist quest for a “solution” to modern living.  They do not speak much about who we are as individuals or how we relate to each other, our neighbors, the larger world.  These ambitions are not a part of the project – to bring attractive, affordable housing to as many people as possible.  To do something else, to synthesize the specific world of real people, real individuals and families, not their prescriptive models, is the quest of those of us architects that work in residential design.  The octagon is probably not the ideal building form for all families.

Charles Haertling designed Menkick House, in Knollwood Estates

(photo from DenMod)

For a prime example of singularly unique homes that reflect the character of their owners you can look to the work of Wright or Aalto or any other of the masters of twentieth century architecture.  But, here in Boulder, is not only a excellent set of such houses, but I believe work that stands along and even above, the very best houses of the known architectural heroes.  The work of Boulder’s own Charles Haertling.  I have a number of upcoming posts on his work and his career and I would encourage everyone to take a closer look at the work of this local master.  No two buildings alike, no two homeowners alike, no two sites identical.  And no octagons, “the most heinous shape in all of architecture” (J. Verlinden, Director of Design at Crate and Barrel).

Octagonal houses and their ‘opposite’

You may have noticed in your town a strange, older octagonal house sitting in your neighborhood.  In Boulder, there is one on Lincoln up on the Hill.  These are not the one-off strange concoctions that they may appear to be, but rather the result of an intriguing housing fad from the 1850s.

Lincoln house

The proponent of such odd designs was amateur architect and phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler.  In 1848 Fowler published The Octagon House: A Home for All and in its wake thousands of these curious houses were built all over the country.  Emphasizing their utility and efficiency of construction, the book included few examples but rather outlined some general principles along with some practical alternatives such as rainwater-collecting flat roofs and central heating.  His own house, dubbed Fowler’s Folly, was built out of a kind of concrete using lime instead of the usual Portland cement and without reinforcing limiting the material to walls only.

In making the book more general than the typical pattern books of the time resulted in a wide variety of execution with some 2,000 or so homes still existing from Key West to San Francisco.

Lincoln house, with porch

The example here in Boulder has seen a front porch come and go over the years and is predominantly brick with typical low-pitched roof common to most of these houses.  Built in 1907, it must have been an arresting sight sitting amongst its smaller cottage and Victorian neighbors.  It does not have the audacious majesty of the three-story, full veranda Watertown house in Watertown, Wisconsin, but it is a fine, if not quirky, contributor to the architectural variety and history of Boulder.

Watertown octagon house, Watertown, WI

What I find interesting in these buildings is both their form – heavy, massive objects rooted to the earth – and their origins in the “science” of advanced living – how a general building form has been proposed to improve the lives of its inhabitants and the evangelical zeal of its supporters.  Over the last one hundred years or so we have seen plenty of these “inventions” in housing that were intended to liberate the homeowners.  Even such luminaries as Wright, with his Usonian ideas, and Bucky Fuller, with his domes, believed that a study into building form could improve the lives of people that they never met.  This of course is also akin to all the great advertisements of generic builder-home suburbs of the 1950’s and 60’s.

There certainly are plenty of things that buildings can provide.  They can bring light and hygiene, eliminating the dreadful tenements of the late 19th century.  They can, and usually do, reflect changes, positive or not, in the working lives of families – to dual working couples and the increasingly central role of the kitchen in the life of the house. But these are forms that reflect only generic families, the reductivist quest for a “solution” to modern living.  They do not speak much about who we are as individuals or how we relate to each other, our neighbors, the larger world.  These ambitions are not a part of the project – to bring attractive, affordable housing to as many people as possible.  To do something else, to synthesize the specific world of real people, real individuals and families, not their prescriptive models, is the quest of those of us architects that work in residential design.  The octagon is probably not the ideal building form for all families.

Charles Haertling designed Menkick House, in Knollwood Estates

(photo from DenMod)

For a prime example of singularly unique homes that reflect the character of their owners you can look to the work of Wright or Aalto or any other of the masters of twentieth century architecture.  But, here in Boulder, is not only a excellent set of such houses, but I believe work that stands along and even above, the very best houses of the known architectural heroes.  The work of Boulder’s own Charles Haertling.  I have a number of upcoming posts on his work and his career and I would encourage everyone to take a closer look at the work of this local master.  No two buildings alike, no two homeowners alike, no two sites identical.  And no octagons, “the most heinous shape in all of architecture” (J. Verlinden, Director of Design at Crate and Barrel).

a new office, architecture of Charles Haertling

after a few hectic weeks, we have finally moved into our new offices at 2401 North Broadway in Boulder.

The former Boulder Eye Clinic, designed by Boulder’s Charles Haertling, now houses arts professional offices and is an excellent example of organic architecture for a commercial client.  The four prominent east-facing windows now look out on Broadway, but when the project was first constructed, they were long tapers housing not windows, but the eye charts at a fixed distance from the interior of the room.  Designed in 1968 the building has gone through a number of changes, most sympathetic, and a large addition on the lower level on the east side (also designed by Haertling).

Haertling’s original plan was based on the shape of the eye with the entry naturally at the cornea and suites of offices and exam rooms along each side.  Our offices are in the northeast corner, more or less the optic nerve.

For more info on Charles Haertling and his work:

http://www.atomix.com/haertling/haertling.html

Please feel free to give me a call and take a look at this unique, amazing building.