Structures of Merit

Map of proposed Structures of Merit

Historic preservationists in Boulder are seeking to revive a long-dormant program that provides honorary recognition to important buildings without the restrictions that come with the formal landmark process.

Boulder has 64 "structures of merit," some of which are also landmarked. They range from the humble Ruth Cave Flowers house in the Goss Grove neighborhood, named for an early black graduate of the University of Colorado who lived there, to the National Center for Atmospheric Research's imposing building atop Table Mesa.

But Boulder hasn't named a structure of merit since 1997. Because the designation was purely honorary, some previous Landmarks Boards were less interested in the program. They preferred to put their energy into securing landmark status for important buildings.

Now, 14 buildings, all striking examples of post-war modern architecture, many designed by Boulder-based architect Charles Haertling, have been nominated for the honor.

Landmarks Board Chairman Mark Gerwing said the current board wants to do more outreach and education, as well as legally protect important buildings, and also simply celebrate great architecture.

Modernist architecture is "not the traditional face of preservation," Gerwing said, but Boulder is fortunate to have a large number of homes and office buildings designed by important architects in the 1960s.

"We happen to have a remarkable collection of these in Boulder," he said. "They did some really remarkable work in what was then a really small town."

Gerwing also happens to be a big fan of this style of architecture and have his office in the Boulder Eye Clinic, one of the nominated buildings.

Designed by Haertling with a plan that follows the design of the eye, it appeared in Woody Allen's movie "Sleeper."

The Landmarks Board discussed the program and the nominated buildings with some of the property owners at a meeting earlier this week. City staff will follow up with homeowners one-on-one to see how they feel about being included in the program.

Boulder Historic Preservation Planner James Hewat said the city has no plans to designate buildings as "structures of merit" if the owner objects. The goal of the program is to be a positive force for raising awareness, not an imposition by the city.

Gerwing said he suspects half or a little more than half of the 14 proposed structures of merit will end up actually being designated, most likely in May during Historic Preservation Month.

'You are living in something really special'

Homeowners have mixed feelings about the program.

Diana Kahn, who commissioned her Haertling-designed home on Flagstaff Drive in 1968, has resisted landmarking in the past.

She believes the city landmarks too many buildings and that homeowners should have wide latitude to do what they want with their property, and she worries that the "structure of merit" designation could be changed in the future to add restrictions or that it could open the way to landmarking over her objections.

It's very rare of the city to landmark a building against the owner's wishes, but it has happened.

Kahn said she hasn't decided whether to accept the designation, though she loves her home and would be happy to have it recognized by a non-governmental entity or by the Haertling family.

Mel Shapiro, who lives in another Haertling-designed home, the Willard House on Bellevue Avenue, said he understands some of the concerns others have, but he's happy to have the recognition for his home.

"My personal view is that it's a heads up through the Landmarks Board that you are living in something really special, both for the history of Boulder and from an artistic standpoint," he said.

A meteorologist who worked first at NOAA and now at NCAR, Shapiro bought his home in 1989 for $200,000. He said the house gave him a "nice roost to look at the clouds in the mountains." He's also made a "minor hobby" of architecture and recognized the distinct qualities of the home.

NCAR Mesa Lab, Boulder, Colorado

NCAR Mesa Lab, Boulder, Colorado

Shapiro said homeowners are understandably cautious about landmarking their homes, even when they love them and don't want them to change, because they worry the resale value will go down.

"Everyone who lives in these houses, their biggest fear is that they'll have to sell the house and whoever buys it will take it down," he said. "But they think, on the other hand, if it's preserved, I lose half my assisted-living money."

Shapiro said he's facing a dilemma himself, in that he wants to build an addition that would complement the original architecture but allow him to live on the main floor as he ages. But the size of the addition means he would have to bring the building up to modern energy efficiency standards.

In a Haertling home, with extensive windows, that's prohibitively expensive.

At the same time, teardowns in his neighborhood have placed domineering Tuscan villa-style homes on his street.

'This was a jewel that we just stumbled into'

Shapiro said the city seems to be sending a mixed message about preservation and should consider both smaller, targeted historic preservation districts aimed at modern architecture and tax breaks for homeowners trying to maintain the integrity of their architecturally significant homes.

Gerwing said he would love to be able to extend tax credits to structures of merit, but that is not possible.

Stan Hamilton, who lives in the Caldwell House at 415 Drake Street, another Haertling house, said he and his wife promised the original owner they would maintain the house as it was when they bought it 13 years ago.

And they have largely kept that promise. They remodeled the kitchen and bathrooms and built a back patio, but they have no intention of changing the basic structure.

"This was a jewel that we just stumbled into," he said. "This is really a home to us that we appreciate, and I don't mind the recognition being given to the architect."

Other Haertling-designed homes proposed for recognition are the Volsky House on Willowbrook Drive, the Dammann House on College Avenue, the Brenton House on Wonderland Hill Drive, and the Davis House also on Bellevue.

The Charles A. Haertling-designed Brenton House at 3752 Wonderland Hill Drive in Boulder. (Paul Aiken / Daily Camera)

The Charles A. Haertling-designed Brenton House at 3752 Wonderland Hill Drive in Boulder. (Paul Aiken / Daily Camera)

There are also three homes designed by Tician Papachristou: the Sirotkin and Jessor houses on Euclid Avenue and the Sampson House on King Avenue.

The Tye Dental Building, 1150 Maxwell Avenue, designed by Gale Abels, the Thron House, on Christmas Tree Drive, designed by Hobart Wagenar, and the Easton Office Building, 1636 16th St., designed by Roger J. Easton, are also on the list of proposed structures of merit.

by Erica Meltzer, Daily Camera Staff Writer
(published January 11, 2014 in by the Daily Camera)