Mind Over Matter

The University of Denver salutes architect emeritus Cab Childress.

Childress is uninterested in stylistic analysis, so it's lucky that I am. His earliest buildings are late modernist and are clearly related to the work of Le Corbusier as well as to the contemporaneous designs of Louis Kahn. The buildings of this period have light-colored walls, distinctive window shapes, and an attenuated horizontal form made up of separate and discrete volumes graciously strung together.

It's hard to imagine how Childress went from this rather chaste and fairly cutting-edge aesthetic to the neo-traditional post-modernism seen at DU; thankfully, Poetry and Stone presents a handful of buildings that provide something of an explanation.

First is the drawing for the Theater and Dance Building on the Norlin Quadrangle of the CU campus, from 1981-1982. This building is connected to the University Theater and is situated between it and the Guggenheim Geography Building. Childress's Theater and Dance Building takes its design details from both of them and its mass in response to them. It's a building designed to get along with its neighbors. For Childress, this was a key discovery that he later used at DU.

"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.

Second is the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Englewood, from 1971-1982, which is represented by the photo "Sky Point." Though the church is essentially late modernist in character, Childress has incorporated details from historic architecture, including the main-entry porch and the steeple. The relationship of the thin, vertical spire of the steeple to the long, horizontal form of the church anticipates the later DU structures.

Third is Granny's Castle, from 1991-1993, in Grand County, an imposing stone structure with a copper roof. This is a combination of building materials that Childress would use over and over at DU a few years later. Granny's Castle was built for Daniel Ritchie, the chancellor of DU. It was the second building Childress designed for Ritchie, having done the Dan Ritchie Grand River Ranch Headquarters in 1978-1981.

Before he designed Granny's Castle, Childress had sent the chancellor a package proposing that he be allowed to dedicate the rest of his life to DU in order to redesign its campus. Ritchie was obviously using Granny's Castle as a tryout both for Childress and for the new style of architecture that he was developing.

At that time, Ritchie had also asked the Davis Partnership to begin the design phase for a wellness center. He hated the building Davis proposed, and in 1992, he asked Childress to redo it. The result, done in consort with the Davis Partnership, is the Daniel L. Ritchie Sports and Wellness Center, from 1992-1999. It was the defining moment for the new look of the campus. "When you want to do something," notes Childress, "and then you meet a man like Dan Ritchie who says he'll get the money to pay for it -- wow! It was more than an opportunity of a lifetime; it was more like the opportunity of the century."

A number of commissions came in rapid succession, with Childress working together with other architects and designers to create the F. W. Olin Hall of Science in 1995-1996, the Daniels College of Business in 1997-1999, the Benjamin Stapleton Jr. Tennis House, from 1999-2000, and the Newman Center for the Performing Arts, from 1996-2003. Together with the Ritchie Center, these buildings have completely rewritten the appearance of the campus.

The distinctive style of these buildings is both conservative and radical. They are conservative because they consciously recall the collegiate styles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; they are radical because Childress took an original approach to the conception of the overall forms, which are modernist, and to the details, which have been looted from the history of architecture.

Childress became architect emeritus at DU in 1999, before some of these buildings, including the Ritchie Center, were completed. When DU originally hired Childress, he brought Mark Rodgers along with him. Rodgers has now succeeded Childress as DU's architect, but he's continued to work in the unique neo-traditional style that his mentor pioneered.

The show is definitely worth seeing, but it's even better to see the buildings themselves. As I walked through Poetry and Stone, I happened to look out the window that's just beyond the model of the Ritchie Center, and there was the stately monument itself.

The Childress buildings are situated on the edges of DU's campus, thus helping to define the school and making it easy to notice as you drive by. Taken individually or together, they prove that Childress was up to the job of his life. Done at the tail end of his career, these buildings represent the greatest accomplishments of his entire oeuvre, and he didn't even start them until he was nearly sixty!

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