Some Pretty Homes of Boulder

While doing some research for a new project, I ran into a these photos of some of Boulder's older houses in a weekly newspaper called the Daily Herald.  This article is from 1908 and is really more of an advertising/marketing piece for the local realtors than an actual act of journalism.

"Boulder is not a manufacturing  town - it's  just the place to live, a deslightful city with admirable schools, several sanitaria, a great university, a fine theatre, admirable sewer system, fine churches representing all denominations, a Carnegie Library, a $40,000 YMCA building and $125,000 hotel, provided with the purest water known, a most equable climate, an electric street car and lighting system and five newspapers (two of which are dailies having their batteries of linotypes) and several college publications to tell the story of her wonderful prosperity and to give that publicity without which no community can prosper.  Boulder has six trains each way to and from Denver and is in close touch with her neighbor towns of the north."

As most current local know, the regional transportation provider, RTD, has promised a Boulder-Denver train over the years and taxed the residents mightly for its eventual construction.  That date of completion is now something like 2035, where we will be back to the original route of 1908.

"The city is not only building rapidly, but it is building well. Many beautiful residences are being erected. Retired capitalists are choosing this ideal little city and building magnificent homes with the intention of enjoying the remainder of their lives in this ideal garden spot."

"...settle here to enjoy the superb school and health advantages of a modern up-to-date, beautiful little city, whose boast that it is "The Place to Live" seems to be accredited by a never ending tide of immigration from the great West. The say the county could be walled in and become a self sustaining community with all the creature comforts."

The above quote is as true today as when it was written in 1908.  Boulder has indeed become a beautiful spot where retired capitalists choose to enjoy their remaining years. And our "wall" is an expansive green space ring around the city, making an ideal natural setting, but also limiting the housing supply and driving up the costs to lofty heights only retired capitalist can climb.

Realtors in Boulder no longer sit around in smoky offices, in fact they are more likely to be seen pedaling around the city with their prospective clients.

As you can see from the images above, many of Boulder's older homes have been wonderfully preserved and at least from the outside, seem remarkably unchanged. That is certainly the case for the two houses shown and undoubtedly have benefited from a robust preservation code and historic district designation.  For as much change as Boulder and every town has seen over the last 100 years, so many things remain the same - the marketing of the city's real estate and the endless attraction of a beautiful home on the hill.


by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

description of place - Cheever

Most writing about architecture, beyond the usual documentary descriptions in professional magazines, involves the kind of communication that is broadly encompassed by the term criticism.  It is the stuff of professional critics, some good, some not so much, and leans toward the academic.  Most of its best examples are engaged with writing about cities - their history and future, how they work and what they mean.  Inummerable books and articles by Jacobs, Goldberger, Sorkin, Lange and so many others are thoughtful descriptions of buildings and most often the cities in which they reside.  I read a lot of this stuff because I am an architect, a particularly geeky one when it comes to my own profession.

However, as an architect, I find that precious little of this kind of writing relates to what I do as a designer of spaces for people to inhabit.  I don't design cities and have a fair skepticism about the hubris of anyone who wants to.  For the most part I am interested in how a space feels, about how it will become the stage of events yet to play out, of personal dramas both joyful and tragic.  To communicate this to my clients I use all the tools that architects have at hand - models, both physical and computer, drawings and sketches.  However, with even all of these mediums employed, I do far more verbal descriptions of future spaces than anything else.  I try to describe the spaces, how it looks and feels when you walk in, when the sun dips below the horizon, or how room sits in winter and summer.  My clients listen to me far more than they review drawings and peruse models and they form their impressions of the nascent building largely from these verbal descriptions and their trust in me.

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture"

attributed variously to Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa and Miles Davis. (My bet is on Zappa, but I'd love to hear it in Miles' gravelly voice with a few expletives thrown in.)


Maybe the same can be said about writing about architecture, or at least the kind of verbal description of a place that I am talking about.  Maybe it is doomed to failure.  Or maybe, in the hands of the best writers, the description of a place can be such a rich evocation of both the physical setting and the psychological landscape, that architects ought to pay attention.

Chapter 5, The Wapshot Chronicle, by John Cheever

"The heart of the Wapshot house had been built before the War of Independence, but many additions had been made since then, giving the house the height and breadth of that recurrent dream in which you open a closet door and find that in your absence a corridor and a staircase have bloomed there.  The staircase rises and turns into a hall in which there are many doors among the book shelves, any one of which will lead you from one commodious room to another so that you can wander uninterruptedly and searching for nothing through a place that, even while you dream, seems not to be a house at all but a random construction put forward to answer some need of the sleeping mind."

I don't know about you, but I have been in that house, that imaginary place that is both very precise and detailed, but generic enough to connect to the memories and imaginations of so many readers.  In my mind I can place this house in New England, Cheever's landscape, and smell the slightly briny air and moldy books and drying boots.  I can place it in the arid West, and hear the warp of dry floor boards and the hum of crickets outside beyond the lawn once-tended.

So much of the task of architect, if not engaged in the purely ego-driven game of  "making architecture", is in a sense trying out these descriptions on our clients and seeing how they react.  How do the descriptions of the spaces of the building evoke the memories and imagination of the clients and mesh with their expectations and desires.  I think most architects do this unconsciously, reading the client's reactions, judging their responses and readjusting the spaces in their heads in a series of rapid tweaks and revisions.  I think we would do it better if we read a bit more and were more conscious of how great writers evoke the same responses in ourselves, to give ourselves over to the descriptions of someone else of other places and our own tugs of memory and desire.


The Great Gear Dilemma

Boulder is known as an outdoor enthusiast's kind of town.  Almost everyone I know has a plethora of outdoor gear - multiple bikes, skis, helmets of every configuration, packs and bags, tents, stoves, and the occasional kayak and canoe.  Largely this equipment has usurped the car from its usual haunt in the garage.  It is a rare Boulderite who can actually fit their car in their garage because of the ever-expanding collection of bikes if nothing else.

Inevitably all this gear starts to overwhelm the garage and starts to slowly make its way into the house.  It starts with a few pairs of ski boots in the mudroom, which is already choked with daypacks, dog leashes and coats and jackets in every configuration of breathable, wicking, wind-stopping fabrics.  This is especially true for families with school-age children and their additional collections of school packs, musical instrument cases, sports gear bags and the odd science fair project that can't find a home.

For additions and renovations we are always directly engaged with providing space and corralling all this gear and making not so much a mudroom as a tack room.  The Colorado mudroom is minimally 10' x 15' and consequently larger than some bedrooms.  It certainly is not the quaint little niche just inside the door of a Midwestern house designed to hold a pair or two of wet galoshes.

All of this however does not save the garage and we increasingly are discussing with clients the real function of these spaces.  You can store a lot of bikes in a garage but you certainly can't get to the townie when you want to take a quick trip to the store because it is buried behind a peloton-worth of other cycles.  We are talking about adding doors to garages, lots of doors, on every side of the space, to access all the stuff.  And, for that matter, really changing the nature of the room from a garage-converted-to-gear space to its own dedicated room with its own requirements.   This room can access outdoors in a couple of locations, is probably heated, certainly has a floor drain and most likely a work sink.

If we can get this all figured out for each homeowner and accommodate the average 2.5 bikes/person storage requirement, we might even be able to give the garage back to the car.  As long as you still remember you have the bikes on the roof before you try to pull inside.

loads of new construction

It has been a very busy number of weeks here with quite a few projects in construction and a few in development stages.  The postings to this blog have been few, but the activity here has been breakneck. The project shown above, in South Boulder, has been moving along and is another joint venture, design/build effort with ACI.  The project consists of the almost complete renovation of the main level and the addition of a second story.  An extremely tight set of constraints from our local Solar Shadow ordinance and Bulk Plane requirements largely determined the only possible location for the second story and we worked diligently to integrate the new and old and avoid the "wedding cake" look of stacked levels so common with second story additions.

Shown above, the new house we have under construction in North Boulder's Dakota Ridge neighborhood has passed the half-way point.  Built by Cottonwood Custom Builders, it is coming together nicely and with the installation of final finishes we are getting our first glimpses of final building held in our imaginations for so long.

The model images above are from a project in development as we are getting ready to submit documents to the County for approvals.  It is a cabin renovation and addition in the mountains west of Lyons, Colorado for a couple's use as a vacation home.  The new work on the existing building consists of a series of slightly skewed additions and a writer's shack that re-orient the building to views of the Twin Sisters mountains outside of Estes Park.

Also in development we have a new house for a young couple in the foothills of Boulder, Colorado.  Facing the challenges of an extremely steep site, this project's design has been a careful study in carving out space for living on the slope while minimizing impacts as much as possible.

The interior model view shown above is for a project with the exact opposite site conditions as the previous project.  This project is a newly constructed hunting lodge on the flat, damp banks of a large lake in southern Minnesota.  We have been studying old photos and documents to glean the essential characteristics of these traditional hunting camps and the vernacular architecture of the prairie.

The last update I will throw at you is the recently commenced construction for a house in Boulder, Colorado partially constructed from shipping containers.  This project has just broken ground and delivery of the first 53 foot long container will soon take place.  Our client's desire to build as sustainably as possible along with severe site constraints suggested the use of the shipping containers and it is very exciting to see this innovation finally get a try-out here in Boulder.


The London Olympics and the clubby NBC set

I have admittedly been spending entirely too much time watching the Olympics in the past few days.  And, once again, I am distracted by the little in-studio vignettes that run between the actual sporting events where Bob Costas sits and talks with various guests.  These are endlessly aggravating as we all know that we are missing significant portions of the athletics we are really tuning in for, not to mention that the whole time-delay issue makes these wee, precious chats particularly annoying.  And, like the past Winter Olympics, the set is more interesing than the folks parading around in front of it.

After looking at these staid bookshelves and comfy club chairs, my conclusion is that NBC said, "hey, the Olympics are in London, let's make the set into something old schoolboy Englishy" and hence the television studio is formed into a kind of London Gentlemen's Club.

Bob is sitting around making small talk with his colleagues (how did they let a woman in here anyway) in the library of the club.  I'm surprised not to see some stolid waiter with glacial but velvety quiet pace walking around with a silver tray of drinks.  Or at least some dear-old-boy octogenarian snoozing quietly in some massive wing chair in the background dreaming of Empire and the white man's burden.

Of course this is all more reflective of what some tv execs think Americans need and want Britain to be rather than what it actually is.  These gentlemen's clubs still exist, but I think the images referenced by the set designers have more to do with televised portraits of Sherlock and Watson sitting around Baker Street or something out of Downton Abbey or Brideshead.  In fact, if you look closely, you will see a decanter of something amber sitting next to Bob on a small table.  Mind you, no open books on the table, just laid aside as someone pops in for a chat, just the prop tomes on the faux mahogany shelves.

Architects of days gone by

Overly fussy designs:  check

Haughty pose: check

Little glasses: check

Lots of attitude: check

Some things never change.  Mr. Lundborg's visage was found in a 1908 newspaper down at the Carnegie Library for Local History here in Boulder, Colorado when I was doing some research on a project.  The buildings shown above are still standing, although greatly modified.  Mr. Lundborg shall stand forever I believe.