Modernism Week doesn’t want to lecture you about how hip a city Denver was a half-century ago. It wants to show you the proof.
“‘Flyover town,’ ‘cowtown,’ ‘little, podunk Denver,’” organizer Adrian Kinney says, rattling off a list of disses the city has suffered over time. None of that matches the reality of Denver’s architectural history, which was often cutting-edge in its time.
If you go
Modernism Week takes place Aug.16-25 with 18 events on the schedule, including curator-guided tours of the midcentury-themed “Serious Play” exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. Ticket prices vary. More info at denvermodernismweek.com.
His evidence: the 7,000-plus midcentury-modern homes his organization catalogued in the metro region, all marking their moment with the simple, sleek and sky-high design of their era. From the 1950s to the 1970s, as Denver was experiencing its post-war economic boom, developers were focused on “the now,” and looking toward a future full of fast cars, high-tech appliances, and open-plan living where emerging prosperity meant a higher level of home entertaining.
It’s just that a lot of these buildings are hard to find, tucked into residential enclaves and overshadowed by better-known monuments to the past — all those would-be Tudors in Park Hill, those wanna-be Victorians dominating Highland, those down-to-business Denver Squares in the neighborhoods around the State Capitol. (Note: if you are trying to convince people your city is hip, it doesn’t help that your most famous building style is called “square.”)
The Modernism folks know where to look: in Denver’s newer neighborhoods to the east and south; in suburbs like Englewood and Littleton; and in business zones, like Cherry Creek, where commercial structures with midcentury minimalism — blocky stores and office buildings that get their glamour from pure geometry rather than over-the-top ornamentation — once defined the area, similar to the way they made their mark on modern meccas like Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage in California.
“They’re everywhere,” said Kinney. “We’ve got the climate for them. They fit well here. It’s not just a California thing.”
Denver’s Modernism Week does find its inspiration in “a California thing.” The event, which runs Aug. 16-25, is modeled after a similar and well-known spectacle in Palm Springs that draws tens of thousands of tourists to the desert city every year for open houses, talks and parties celebrating the movement.
The version here will include tours of regional modern icons, like the high-rise Wellshire Arms residences on South Colorado Boulevard, built by developer Vincent Rieger in 1962 with amenities that shaped midcentury aesthetic, like walk-in closets and over-sized balconies that connect the living units to the outdoors.
There are tours set in neighborhoods that Denver’s midcentury fans worship — Arapahoe Acres, Harvey Park and Deza Estates — and events dedicated to the work of the era’s best-known architects, like Eugene D. Sternberg, who designed more than 400 schools, hospitals and community centers.
There’s an event highlighting the local contributions of international design superstar I.M. Pei, who lent his talent to downtown retail and hotel developments here, including the legendary “paraboloid” structure that was integrated into the May D&F department store in Zeckendorf Plaza. The building, and architect, are now gone, but retired Denver architect Alan Gass will be on hand to talk about his working partnership with Pei back in the day.
And there are a few particularly insider opportunities on the schedule, including walking tours in and around high-rises surrounding Cheesman Park — private places that people don’t always get to see.
Perhaps the most intimate of all the offerings is a tour of homes in a barely known enclave created in the Southmoor neighborhood in 1973 by local builder Seymour Fortner.
The development has just seven houses, but they are set up as a compound on two sides of a suburban block, allowing them to share a large, communal backyard with its own swimming pool.
“We call it the Fortner Country Club,” jokes resident Sally Stitch. Her home will be one of three open for visitors, and the event, which kicks off Modernism Week, will feature a midcentury themed reception with drinks and snacks on the common green space.
Stitch, a writer who has researched the properties, explained that Fortner was a prominent Denverite, but had a second home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. His development mirrored that community’s signature style with “sunken living rooms, floor-to-ceiling windows facing the back yard, many sliding glass doors for indoor-outdoor living, large patios, wide hallways, large rooms, mini-courtyards, and elegant marble,” as Modernism Week is describing it.
Fortner, Stitch said, “was in his 50s at that time — no kids in the house — and he wanted the equivalent of a gated community, without guards, but with that same kind of feeling for his family and friends.” He originally set up the compound as a condominium development even though all the houses are free-standing.
The houses were luxury residences in their day, with high-quality cabinets and state-of-the-art appliances. “We all had a Jacuzzi. Nobody had Jacuzzis then,” Stitch said.
The development has changed over the years. The condominium arrangement was replaced by a more conventional HOA and residents have renovated the structures to varying degrees as they aged, sometimes preserving original details, sometimes not. At just over 3,000 square feet, they’re no longer large homes by Denver’s constantly growing standards, but the compound remains a unique, and secret, part of Denver’s architectural fabric and midcentury fans will recognize enough elements of the style to be impressed.
Denver’s Modernism Week gets its spiritual inspiration from places like the Fortner compound, where residents recognize the value of their period design and work to save it. Kinney believes the region’s stock of midcentury modern structures is endangered at the moment because the houses and commercial buildings, approaching age 60 or 70, are at the point where they often need major renovations to stay inhabitable.
He’s seen too many classic homes scraped to the ground or popped at the top, essentially destroying the elements that make them special. If people knew what they had, they’d be more likely to preserve it.
Denver Housing Authority prepares to move into new HQ in Mariposa neighborhood
Denver only city to get top props from Boomers, Gen Xers and millennials in survey
Historic status of Tom’s Diner up to Denver City Council as owner confirms plans to close
Plans to redevelop Denver’s historic Evans School no longer just academic, potential buyers say
Denver seeking contractor to help it create incentives for more affordable housing near transit
Kinney is optimistic. Clean design is in vogue once again. Popular stores like Ikea and West Elm, with their stripped-down sofas, dining tables and patio furniture, are midcentury at heart and encourage a respect for the style.
Plus, he believes Denver, with an increasing population and hordes of newcomers, has grown more aware of its surroundings. Midcentury homes tend to be a little smaller than other structures, but their unique design — all those patios, courtyards and high ceilings — can make them as valuable in the real estate market as larger competitors. They’re different, and not every city has them. “You don’t need 5,000 square feet to have a nice house,” he said.
And that’s the dream of Modernism Week — to show off the goods and give them the respect they deserve, to make it fun, while offering a little education.
“Midcentury is crossing that threshold where we’re having houses come on the market for the first time because they’ve been in a family for so long,” he said.
“Many of them are in original condition, and they have the opportunity to be completely ruined or preserved.”