There’s a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Phoenix that’s at risk of being demolished in a couple of months. Here’s the New York Times article about it. After Mike Brady, Frank Lloyd Wright is the most famous American architect ever,1 so how is this happening? How is it possible that cool buildings designed by famous architects can get knocked down? The answer is that sometimes the people who want to save them just get there too late.
But this post isn’t about “The Brady Bunch,” Frank Lloyd Wright, or mid-century modern homes. It’s about Denver and its heritage. Right here in Denver, buildings by less famous architects, buildings that are integral parts of their neighborhoods, buildings that are important parts of the city’s history, are at risk.
Once in a while, a century-old masonry building, that, with careful maintenance, would still be around for another 100 years, gets razed to make way for new construction. Most of the new construction in Denver is unlikely to last as long as 50 years. This type of replacement is not sustainable, this is not green, this is not good for Denver’s urban fabric and its urban dwellers. People need to become aware of these buildings early, before they become at risk of destruction. Sure, there are property rights issues that arise sometimes, but if we start talking about rights, we cannot ignore the property rights of the surrounding property owners, and the rights of the citizens to these parts of their heritage.
On to the cool pictures of the old buildings – or the links to them, anyway…
Two really special buildings that I’ve been in recently, the Croke-Patterson-Campbell Mansion and the Wilbur S. Raymond House, have been preserved and restored, and are currently the homes to a couple of bed and breakfasts.
Here’s a great old photo of Denver’s Croke-Patterson-Campbell Mansion, taken in 1892. It looks almost too fantastic to be real. The building has since lost some of that magnificent chimney, and many of the finials, but it’s still breathtakingly beautiful – here’s a recent photo (scroll down after the page opens). The Croke-Patterson-Campbell Mansion has just started to operate as a bed and breakfast, the Patterson Inn.
Sadly, much of the original neighborhood fabric around the Croke-Patterson-Campbell Mansion has been lost. But the Wilbur S. Raymond House is very much a part of a historic Denver neighborhood, the Wyman Historic District. Here’s an old photo of the Raymond House. It’s been the Castle Marne Bed and Breakfast since 1989. This is my favorite image of the more recent images I’ve found online. Here’s a good image showing its famous roses.
The neighborhood fabric and the Wilbur S. Raymond House enhance and enrich each other. Cities aren’t made up of scattered signature buildings, and historic preservation shouldn’t be approached in that manner, either. Cities are composed of neighborhoods, which are composed of buildings of varying significance. We need to protect special buildings, but we need to go a step further and also protect the individual historic buildings that may not be as prominent, but without which, historic neighborhoods would not be complete. Obviously, important buildings are at risk (such as that Frank Lloyd Wright house in Phoenix). But neighborhood fabric buildings may be even more at risk.
Historic buildings are irreplaceable, whether they’re outstanding, or more “background” buildings. As an architect and architectural specifications writer, and the owner of an old house, I’m intimately familiar with the differences between the construction practices of today and the construction practices of a century ago. Buildings are not built the way they used to be. In other words, “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” (“They” could, but “they” don’t.) Old masonry buildings are more durable, they can take much more neglect and mistreatment, than new buildings (even new buildings with brick on the outside). It’s because of building science – a topic for another post.
Architects, engineers, and constructors cannot make up for occupant behavior in most new construction, but old buildings, with plaster finishes, hardwood floors, and multi-wythe loadbearing masonry exterior walls, can take some abuse and neglect from occupants, and will continue to be able to withstand use. Old buildings can often be adapted to new uses, whereas buildings built in the last 50 years are usually difficult to use for purposes other than their original uses. Multi-wythe masonry walls and plaster finishes are more forgiving of moisture intrusion than buildings built with newer methods of brick veneer on exterior framing, and gypsum board finishes.
People used to build with multi-wythe masonry and plaster because they didn’t have other good options. Today, we have less-expensive (and less-durable) options, which have made multi-wythe masonry and plaster much more expensive options. If you want a durable building, in the long run, it’s probably a better value to use what you already have… and preserve an old building.
I encourage people who are interested in helping to preserve our built heritage to get involved with local preservation groups. If you live in Greater Capitol Hill in Denver, as I do, your local preservation group is the CHUN (Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods) Historic Preservation Committee. (If you don’t know what your group is, but want to get involved, leave a comment on this post and I’ll help you find your group.)
- I have to thank Jules Dingle for the Mike Brady comment. Sophomore year in college, Jules said that Mike Brady is the most famous American architect. Obviously, that comment still cracks me up today.
For further reading:
- In 1967, the City of Denver, in the Landmark Preservation Ordinance in the Municipal Code, declared that “the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of structures and districts of historical, architectural or geographic significance, located within the city or its mountain parks, is a public necessity, and is required in the interest of the prosperity, civic pride and general welfare of the people.” And that “the economic, cultural and aesthetic standing of this city cannot be maintained or enhanced by disregarding the historical, architectural and geographic heritage of the city and by ignoring the destruction or defacement of such cultural assets.”
- Denver’s ordinance followed the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, in which the U.S. decided that“the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans,” and that “although the major burdens of historic preservation have been borne and major efforts initiated by private agencies and individuals, and both should continue to play a vital role, it is nevertheless necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to accelerate its historic preservation programs and activities, to give maximum encouragement to agencies and individuals undertaking preservation by private means, and to assist State and local governments and the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States to expand and accelerate their historic preservation programs and activities.”
Thank you for an interesting read and the Mike Brady comment. I guess I never thought about it that way before (a Brady Bunch reference in itself), and it made me laugh!
Sorry I was too “old” to appreciate the Brady character. I was in HS and in architecture school, far too busy for the likes of him. But we all know you’re not really famous until you’re on TV. Frank Lloyd is still my man.
To your point, buildings of the last 50 years are designed to accommodate the high probability of being altered or removed – hence the emphasis on lightweight, cheaper (less durable), and non-load bearing construction. Even when the older buildings are remodeled, you usually have to strike a compromise with the substantial construction. A good thing.