THE WRIGHT STUFF | Arts | Denver | Denver Westword | The Leading Independent News Source in Denver, Colorado


Buildings are among the most public of artifacts--they're really out there, literally. So it's a shame that most of Denver's built environment is so bad, more "narcotecture" than architecture. On the bright side, this sorry situation makes the good structures all the easier to recognize, even for neophytes. And surely...
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Buildings are among the most public of artifacts--they're really out there, literally. So it's a shame that most of Denver's built environment is so bad, more "narcotecture" than architecture.

On the bright side, this sorry situation makes the good structures all the easier to recognize, even for neophytes. And surely there are few among us incapable of appreciating the sheer delight that is so often associated with a building by the great mid-century modernist architect Victor Hornbein.

Hornbein, who died last month at age 82, created nearly one hundred thoughtfully planned and richly decorated buildings, most of them in greater Denver, during a success-studded architectural practice that spanned nearly fifty years.

Hornbein was born in Denver in 1913. In 1930, while still in his teens, he enrolled in the atelier program of the Beaux-Arts Academy of Design, at the time the city's only architecture school. The academy's program was modeled on the age-old master-apprentice arrangement in which a student was taught through the example of a working architect; in this way, Hornbein not only learned his trade, but he did so by participating in the design of actual buildings.

And two of the Denver buildings he worked on while at the academy surely made a lasting impression on him. He first apprenticed in the office of Montana Fallis, where he helped design ornament for one of the city's rare art-deco masterpieces, the Mayan Theatre on Broadway. Soon after, he was at the G. Meredith Musick firm, working with Roger Musick and again designing ornament, this time for the Bryant-Webster elementary school in northwest Denver, another of the region's art-deco triumphs.

Both of these spectacular buildings were "total designs," in which a unified and coherent ornamental scheme enlivened every visible surface. And though Hornbein never created a building of his own in the art-deco idiom, this preoccupation with visual interest is seen throughout his work.

After graduation Hornbein was employed by the Works Progress Administration. While with the WPA, he worked as a draftsman on the Boulder High School project, which was designed by Denver architect Earl Morris, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was through his association with Morris that Hornbein was exposed to the work of the greatest American architect of the century. Hornbein quickly embraced Wright's philosophy of "naturalism," in which solutions to design problems were seen to be a "natural" consequence of a consideration of site, function, materials, climate and the like.

These ideas were to occupy Hornbein for the rest of his life.
After a brief period designing furniture for the legendary Viennese-born Hollywood decorator Paul Frankl, Hornbein returned to Denver and eventually established his own firm in 1940--in retrospect, hardly the best time to launch a new enterprise. In fact, Hornbein enlisted in the Army Corps of Engineers in 1942 and didn't reopen his Denver office until shortly after the end of WWII.

For several years Hornbein almost exclusively designed residences, most of which survive scattered through the east Denver neighborhoods of Montclair and Hilltop. But in 1951 he was awarded the first of many high-status public commissions, Cory Elementary School, at 1550 South Steele Street, which was completed the next year.

Cory is a knockout. Even though it is built of such mundane materials as red brick, concrete and painted wood, Hornbein's astounding attention to detail shows to advantage. The brick paved walks around the school--which sadly have been allowed to fall into ruin--were laid out in a pattern that suggests weaving, a la Wright. Even the horizontal imprint of the wooden forms on the concrete was called upon by Hornbein to serve as ornament.

Although Cory was featured in national architectural magazines and led to many commissions, Hornbein was always troubled by the school. Wright's philosophy put more emphasis on the interior of a building than on its exterior, but Denver Public Schools had a formula for school interiors that not only dictated spatial configurations but prescribed specific interior finishes as well. With the exception of work in the entry lobby and the kindergarten, none of the brilliance of Horbein's exterior survived the guidelines and made it inside. It was this experience that inspired Hornbein's observation--which he repeated many times--that all he ever wanted as an architect was to be given "a blank sheet of paper."

An opportunity of this sort came soon after with a commission for the Ross-Broadway branch library. This magnificent building, which has been well-maintained, is situated at the corner of Lincoln and Bayaud Streets, a couple of blocks from the Mayan. It's a masterpiece that makes everyone's list of favorite Denver buildings, which may be why it was miraculously spared the 1990 voter-approved, bond-financed deconstruction that befell most of the other postwar branches in the city's library system. (Don't get me started about the Cherry Creek branch.)

Ross-Broadway is a small building, no bigger than some of the deluxe residences Hornbein was designing at the time. In spite of this, the library, both inside and out, seems monumental. Hornbein said he accomplished this by employing the "smaller-than-standard scale used by Wright."

But the sense that the library is an important building is also emphasized by the limited use of luxurious materials alongside the common red brick, concrete and wood, and also by the traditional formality of the design, essentially a pavilion raised on a platform. Hornbein relied on a planar conception of enclosure: A large flat roof, punctuated by steel trusses, cantilevers over walls of brick or clear and colored slag glass arranged in geometric patterns made of wood; the walls are part of an elaborate rhythm of planes that includes the main steps and numerous integral planter boxes.

There's one other Hornbein design from the early 1950s that shouldn't be missed: Aurora's City Center, at 16th and Elmyra Streets, in what is amusingly called "old Aurora." This complex includes a large composite building and several smaller, related structures that originally housed Aurora's city hall, police station, library, welfare department and fire station. Though many of the lawns that once gave the complex the quality of a campus have long since been paved over into parking lots, the essential character of the City Center survives.

The work Hornbein created forty years ago would have been enough to ensure that he ranked as one of the city's great architects. But it was in the 1960s and even later that Hornbein created his most powerful, dramatic and individual works--including his greatest accomplishment, the Denver Botanic Gardens, along York Street between 9th and 11th avenues. The buildings of this period, although still displaying Wright's naturalism, also demonstrate that Hornbein had made the philosophy entirely his own.

In partnership with architect Ed White, Hornbein began to design the Botanic Gardens in 1960, with the first small building completed in 1965. The centerpiece is 1971's dramatic and futuristic conservatory, which achieved a kind of pop celebrity as one of a select number of Colorado buildings featured in Woody Allen's Sleeper. The tentlike structure recalls the greenhouse that it is; concrete vaults, which are articulated with ribs, provide the framework for the conservatory's dominant element, the pyramidal Plexiglas windows.

The elaborate site-planning and many buildings of the Botanic Gardens kept Hornbein busy up through his semi-retirement in the 1980s (he designed a residence, among other smaller projects, afterward). His last building at the facility, the Orchid and Bromeliad House, was completed in 1982. Don't blame Hornbein for the ugly ersatz Victorian gates at the main entrance: Someone replaced his originals, ostensibly for security reasons. The city has planned improvements for the Botanic Gardens in the near future; it should begin by respecting the integrity of Hornbein's design and replacing those inappropriate, ill-fitting gates.

Other examples of Hornbein's later work include the cluster of buildings that make up the 1968 JFK Child Development Center and the Stolinsky Research labs along Eighth Avenue on the University of Colorado's medical-center campus and the Wellshire Presbyterian Church, at 2999 South Colorado Boulevard. Like the Botanic Gardens, the medical buildings and the church demonstrate the increasing appeal that clarity and simplicity had for Hornbein late in his career as he stripped all the complicated forms and elaborate details of the early years off his designs.

With the passing of someone like Hornbein, there's an inevitable sense of loss. But his ideas live on, written in stone--and brick and concrete and wood--in the many fine buildings he left behind.

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