You didn't know you came to make a city,
Nobody knows when a city's going to happen...
That's the start of "Elegant Dust," one of the poems in which Thomas Hornsby Ferril, named Colorado's Poet Laureate in 1979, 83 years after he was born, captures the city he always called home, the city he described so lyrically, the city he came to define.
Colorado Endowment for the Humanities
Ferril wrote his poems, and won awards for them, while working in the advertising department of the Great Western Sugar Company for 42 years and writing a weekly newspaper column — under a pseudonym, so the public would not think of the emerging poet as an "irresponsible word-slinger." His was not verse dropped from an ivory tower, but prose that came up from the dust, from the often water-parched land, as he explained when he collaborated with artist Allen True on eight panels that still grace the Capitol rotunda. They begin: Here is a land where life is written in water/The West is where the water was and is.
The trickle-down economics of Colorado may soon dry up another part of Ferril's legacy, however. The Thomas Hornsby Ferril House, a designated Denver landmark that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places, could be going on the block.
The two-story Queen Anne Victorian was built in 1890 at 2123 Downing Street by John and Joanna Palmer, the aunt of Ferril's mother. In 1900, when he was four, Ferril's family moved into the house; when he married, he took his bride to live there; he raised his own family there, wrote his poems there, died there in 1988, at the age of 92. A year later, his daughter gave the house to Historic Denver; Ferril had been a member of the city's first landmark commission.
The Colorado Center for the Book, the state affiliate of the Library of Congress, bought the house from Historic Denver in 1996 and moved in while also undertaking a major renovation of the 2,600-square-foot building, one designed to turn it into a community literary center and funded by half a million dollars in grants from state and federal agencies, as well as many Colorado foundations and corporations. Seven years ago, in a toast-filled ceremony at the refurbished Ferril House, the Center for the Book merged with what was then the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities. At the time, remembers then-center director Chris Citron, there was a stipulation that the center would stay in the house. A month later, though, it was moved into the headquarters of what is now known as Colorado Humanities, "so I left," she says.
"The Center for the Book was there when it was independent," explains Colorado Humanities director Maggie Coval. "It's not efficient dividing staff."
At least Colorado Humanities was able to find a tenant that Ferril would surely have applauded: Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a creative-writing school that's done so well it outgrew the house. In July, two months before its lease expired, Lighthouse moved into the also-historic — and huge — Milheim House, a Denver Square that had originally been across from the Molly Brown House and was moved to 1515 Race Street. For the five years Lighthouse was in residence, co-founder Michael Henry worked out of Ferril's old office. "It was very inspirational," he says, particularly since, as a poet himself, Henry has always considered Ferril the quintessential Colorado author. "His writing about Colorado and Denver has always stayed with me."
Although Lighthouse was able to consolidate all of its programs in the new building, Henry says they still miss the Ferril House and hope it lands the right tenant, one that will appreciate its heritage. "Denver is just a very literate and literary city," says Henry. "It seems like the literary arts are definitely thriving."
But not the empty Ferril House.
This part of Denver, just north of downtown, is in flux, with projects all around the hospital zone. While the old Pierre's Supper Club just two doors up is back in business under a new name, another house on this short stretch seems abandoned. Colorado Humanities is currently considering what to do with the Ferril House — and the possibilities include selling off this piece of history, a concept it's explored before. "We could certainly rent it to another organization, we would consider selling it to another organization," says Coval, whose group will discuss the options at an October meeting. "Unfortunately, we can't occupy it; we're too big."
The news that the Ferril House might be sold stuns those who've spent time there. "I'm sad, and dismayed, to hear it," says Citron. "Stewardship of this is a very serious responsibility."
"I really hope it stays somehow a part of the public trust," says Henry.
"Ferril's ghost will be interested," says historian Tom Noel.
That ghost now looks out from Ferril's "House in Denver":
I can remember looking cross-lots from
This house over the evening thistle and
The bee flowers, watching people coming home
From downtown. In the morning I could stand
A long time watching my father disappear
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Beyond the sunflowers which you noticed farther
In the morning. Now tall buildings interfere
In piles of shining masonry, but are there
Walls yet to come no more secure than these?...