Mind Over Matter

The University of Denver salutes architect emeritus Cab Childress.

Though it's a block or so to the south, there's no missing the University of Denver campus while driving along I-25. For that matter, you can't miss it from South University Boulevard or Evans Avenue, either. It's all those recently built, eye-popping post-modern buildings.

This architectural prominence wasn't always true for DU. Just ten years ago, the school wasn't really there -- not the way it is now, anyway. It had none of the architectural coherence of the University of Colorado at Boulder or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. It was just a bunch of unrelated buildings -- some of them, admittedly, very good ones -- and it always reminded me of an architectural version of a Luigi Pirandello play: six styles in search of a master plan.

And then along came Cab Childress. From 1994 to 1999, Childress served as campus architect, and he went a long way in fixing what was wrong with DU by conceiving of a group of defining structures, most of them huge in size. Amazingly, they relate to both the historic revival-style buildings on the campus and the many fine modern ones.

"Sky Point," Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Englewood; Newman Center for the Performing Arts, University of Denver campus, both by Cabell Childress.
"Sky Point," Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Englewood; Newman Center for the Performing Arts, University of Denver campus, both by Cabell Childress.

The exhibit Poetry and Stone: Cab Childress Architect, which is nearing the end of its run at DU's Victoria H. Myhren Gallery, surveys Childress's entire career, culminating with the remarkable cycle of buildings he conceptualized for the school. It's very unusual to have a solo show devoted to a living Colorado architect, and I can't recall another one having been done in the last decade.

The show was put together by Sally Perisho, a respected local curator who is doing a freelance guest stint at the Myhren. She distilled Childress's career into its key phases and installed the show chronologically, allowing viewers to make sense of his stylistic development. Childress, who not unexpectedly says, "I couldn't be more pleased with the show that Sally did," points out that Perisho created what he calls a "human" show as opposed to an "architect's" show. I know exactly what he means.

To create Poetry and Stone, Perisho assembled a huge amount of material -- fine art photos, conceptual drawings, models, collages, books, collectibles, poems, memorabilia and souvenirs -- either done by or collected by Childress. She even included a showcase with Childress's signature straw hat, which is draped with his silver medal from the American Institute of Architects. It's a neat approach, and it effectively conveys the idea that Childress's work is inseparable from his personality.

Childress was born in Bristol, Virginia, in 1932. The show doesn't start there, but it does pick up soon after with a photo of Childress as a young child paired with his drawing of a house from the same time. After graduating from high school, Childress went to Georgia Tech, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in architectural engineering in 1954. He then became a midshipman in the U.S. Navy, working as an engineer from 1954 to 1957. A junior officer suggested that Childress go to the University of Colorado's landscape architecture school, so when he got out of the Navy, he followed his colleague's advice -- only to discover that there was no landscape architecture school at CU! But the Rubicon was crossed, so he stayed, earning a bachelor's in architecture in 1958. "There were only three architects to consider when I was in school," Childress says. "Le Corbusier, Wright and Mies, and everyone went one way or another."

After leaving CU, Childress interned at a couple of architectural firms before being hired in 1961 by the prominent Denver firm of W. C. Muchow. Interestingly, Bill Muchow, the head of his namesake firm, had been Childress's thesis critic at CU. At the time, Muchow was designing CU's remarkable School of Engineering complex on the east end of the main campus, and Childress became the project architect for the design phase. "I spent a year finding out what a large building was all about, and it was a tremendous opportunity to study the nature of large buildings," he says. This lesson would not be put to use until more than thirty years later, when Childress embarked on his impressive DU cycle.

He began moonlighting in 1962, informally creating his own firm, Cabell Childress Architect. He formally opened shop in 1966, which is when Poetry and Stone gets under way. First up is a series of fine-art photos taken by Childress of the buildings that clearly mark the first phase of his solo career. One of the earliest is the elegant Foothills Gateway Rehabilitation Center, from 1968-1970, which is in Fort Collins. The sleek and abstract building is depicted in the photo "In Silo Country."

What could be considered his first masterpiece is the Samuel Gary Oil Producer's headquarters building in Inverness Business Park, from 1972-1973, depicted in a photo titled "To Make a Window, Inverness." This building was among the first generation of Colorado structures to be designed with an eye toward energy efficiency. Solar was out of the question for an oil company, but Childress did it by making it part of the building subterranean and giving it a sod roof.

Finally, there is the George T. O'Malley Visitor Center at Roxborough State Park, from 1975-1986, captured in the photo "Colorado Pinks." (These artful photos are marvelous, but I do wish there were also some straightforward architectural shots so that viewers could see the buildings more clearly.)

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