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Period Homes Magazine



Western Classicism

By Thomas P. Matthews, Jr.

This past spring, when New York architect Gil Schafer III mentioned to friends that he was coming out West to speak at the new Rocky Mountain chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, the response was typically akin to, "they have Classical architecture out there?"

Let's face it, many still think of Denver as a "cow town in the Rockies." But, fellow traditionalists, au contraire! Thanks in large part to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, Denver has inherited an abundance of architecture rich in the Classical tradition. Greatly influenced by the ideas of Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted that he had seen at the Exposition, Robert Speer began implementing many of the principles of the City Beautiful movement upon being elected mayor in 1904. Mayor Speer's success in organizing and beautifying Denver with planned boulevards, parks, and new buildings is still being enjoyed today. The Marean and Norton's Cheesman Pavilion (1907) and Greek Theater (1919) and Frederick J. Sterner's Daniels & Fisher Tower (1909) are but a few examples of Classical buildings that grew out of the City Beautiful movement, thereby anchoring Denver and helping her become the "Queen City of the Plains."

Fast forward to the 1970s. Urban renewal had not been kind to parts of historic Denver, and the preservation movement was just getting under way. Tall buildings were rising on recently cleared blocks downtown and suburban business parks were taking shape. It was during this time that I moved out to Denver from South Carolina. Just out of college, I was hoping to rent a carriage house apartment in the historic Denver Country Club district. During my first day I spent hours knocking on handsome doors along those quiet streets. Finally, a kind woman explained that the area was zoned R-0, which meant "no renters." Later that afternoon I found a room up on Colfax Avenue, but the beauty of the established neighborhood I had just visited reminded me of similar neighborhoods of my younger years that had prompted my interest in architecture in the first place.

This interest in traditional architecture had not been nurtured in college. I recall my initial interview with the assistant dean at Clemson's School of Architecture. Eager to make a good impression, I proudly rolled out a curled set of blueprints that my father had drawn for the Jeffersonian house in which I grew up. "What's this?" he asked. I explained that I wanted to study architecture. "Oh," he said, gesturing at the prints covering his desk, "you can roll those up now." And for the next four years I toed the line and worked on nothing but modern design.

Even with a decidedly Modernist bent, the school employed the vestiges of a L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts teaching method of design and problem solving that provided sound training. My schooling put me on a commercial career path but my passion for traditional architecture remained steady. Even while traveling as a project architect to various cities I would get up early to admire houses in the older neighborhoods. Then, in 2002, I read an article in Southern Accents magazine called "Masters of the New Old House," which was about a group of like-minded architects who were rediscovering the beauty and harmony of traditional residential design. I was enthralled and began researching everything I could find about the work of Norman Askins, Russell Versaci, Ken Tate, Jim Strickland, Dinyar Wadia and other New Classicists. Reading an article from The Charlotte Observer on Milton Grenfell led to the discovery of The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America. This was just the impetus I needed to start my own residential practice, which has allowed me the opportunity to apply the architectural principles I had learned years ago in an exciting new way that I now truly enjoy.

There is a re-awakening of Denver's Classical tradition, thanks in part to the new Rocky Mountain chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America. Denver enjoys a wealth of Classical architecture, both commercial and residential, and one of the tasks of the new chapter will be to bring these examples to the fore and expand on this rich heritage.

This process of education began in earnest on May 19, when the chapter held its inaugural Spring Party event at the Phipps Mansion, an outstanding example of late Georgian Revival in the heart of the Belcaro neighborhood in Denver. The guest speaker for the ICA&CA event was the aforementioned Gil Schafer, whose firm, G. P. Schafer Architect, specializes in Classical residential architecture with a particular emphasis on traditional design and craftsmanship, rigorous detail and livability.

Mr. Schafer became better acquainted with the abundance of Classical homes in Denver on a driving tour through the historic Denver Country Club neighborhood. Among the 10 period homes selected for the tour was an early Tudor design by Denver architect Jacques B. Benedict with leaded glass and a mahogany ceiling with piano finish, and a beautiful Spanish Colonial house with Baroque cast ornamentation designed by Fisher & Fisher in 1924. The tour concluded with a stroll around a rather impressive English Manor house with towering brick chimneys designed by Henry James Manning and completed in 1931.

The Rocky Mountain ICA&CA has been buoyed by the success of the spring party. It is becoming apparent that many people are drawn to Classical architecture, have an interest in touring beautiful houses like the Phipps Mansion, and enjoy lectures by accomplished professionals like Mr. Schafer. The chapter will continue to reach out to a cross-section of the community including architects, designers, planners and other consultants who share common traditional interests, along with owners and general contractors who might lend support and even offer their houses and projects for tours. Realtors, suppliers, teachers, artisans, craftspeople, authors and renovators can all help the chapter to become a forum for like minds and a means of creating awareness through highlighting fine local examples of the vocabulary of Classical design.

There are many ways to get involved with the Classical movement. Earlier this year, for example, I was invited to give a presentation entitled "What Makes a House Beautiful?" which was well received by a group of lay persons. You may visit the ICA&CA website ( to learn more about local chapters and discover periodicals, books and related websites. Plan to attend the Traditional Building Conference on October 20-23, 2010, in Chicago, hosted by Restore Media. Through classes, lectures and tours, many will come to understand that design and planning in the Classical tradition is a worthy pursuit…even out West.  

A practicing architect in Denver, Tom Matthews greatly admires Classical architecture and strives to use time-tested principles in designing traditional houses for modern living. He serves on the board of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America.
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