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.)

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.

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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