Haertling’s houses

Charles Haertling firmly believed he did not design homes; he designed houses. The iconic Boulder architect maintained that a “home” was what one put into a “house.” He provided the blank canvas on which families could paint their own traditions and memories.

More than 40 of Haertling’s structures dot Boulder’s neighborhoods, and he’s recognized for combining elements of modernism and organic architecture into his work. As a member of the Boulder City Council, he was key in preserving open spaces, working with grassroots organizations resulting in the development of Pearl Street Mall and serving on the landmarks board in the early 1980s. Some parallel his work to that of Frank Lloyd Wright.

After serving in the Navy, Haertling went on to study architecture at Washington University in St, Louis. He graduated in 1952, and moved to Boulder the next year to teach at the University of Colorado. Before starting his own practice in 1957, Haertling worked as a designer with local architects Jim Hunter and later Tician Papacristou.

Like Wright, Haertling found inspiration in nature and often incorporated site features into the houses he designed. Some Haertling houses are drawn from plant and aquatic lifeforms.

The Warburton House in Gold Hill is an example of his design philosophies. Built in 1963, the owners had specific requirements: The project had to come in on budget, capitalize on the views, hold three bedrooms and withstand the winds blowing off the Continental Divide. Meeting the final requirement was no small feat considering the property is situated at 9,000 feet in the third windiest spot on the planet. But Haertling met all the requirements and solved the wind issue by designing a curved, cast concrete structure that mimicked the form of the yucca plant’s seed pod, allowing the winds to flow over and around it without damaging the house. All this for $25,000.

The Brenton House on Wonderland Hill, whose structure is based on the sea barnacle, is one of Haertling’s best-known designs. It’s often called the “Mushroom House” because the five connected pods resemble the fungi. Polyurethane sprayed over a steel wire and rebar frame are the primary building materials.

Haertling houses and commercial buildings are known for their uniqueness and individuality. Clients were very involved in developing the design. Haertling would interview every member of the family, including children, to get a thorough understanding of their personal visions for their future homes. One child drew him a picture of how she envisioned her bedroom, including details such as a fish tank. Barbara Brenton mentioned that she didn’t like angles, moving Haertling to create a house with only rounded surfaces; there is not an angle to be found anywhere.

While others may be considered more conventional than the Warburton and Brenton houses, they still convey Haertling’s genius. One is the Menkick House, at 165 Green Rock Drive in the Knollwood subdivision, currently listed with Colorado Landmark Realtors for $5.5 million.

Listing agent Emily Gadacz remembers first seeing the Menkick House during a hike when she first moved to Boulder 20 years ago. “I was awed by this house and have been a big fan of it ever since,” she said. “Personally, it’s an honor to have this listing. The Menkick house is an iconic piece of art.”

Gadacz described the house as being one with nature. Mature trees shade Boulder Creek as it runs through the property. The house has unencumbered views of the Flatirons, Red Rock and Mount Sanitas. One of its hidden gems is a path that leads from the back of the property to the west end of Pearl Street. “When you’re at the house, you feel as though you are away from everything and out in the country and yet you’re just a short stroll from downtown Boulder,” she said.

Haertling designed the Menkick House to relate to a massive rock outcrop that dominates the one-acre West Boulder site. The outcrop is integrated into the structure’s exterior in three different areas. At one point, beams extend from the house and seem to be embedded in the boulder. The neutral horizontal roofline doesn’t compete with the rock formations; rather it seems to almost disappear, calling attention to the boulders while giving the house equal prominence. The structure and the outcropping are perfectly in sync with each other.

“The design process is one of painful exhilaration in human endeavor,” Haertling once said, “where one gives ultimate importance to the problem to being solved, letting the problem itself be an integrated solution which uses materials and structure void of distortion of uses untrue to the nature of the material or process, testing the boundaries of the application so as to give excitement, variety, adventure and human relation to the project.”

Haertling’s son, Joel, remembers some of the pain his father suffered as a forward-thinking architect. He attracted clients whose senses of aesthetics were just as radical as Haertling’s designs. More than once, the architect and his clients faced off during a project.

“One of his clients hunted him down at a cocktail party he was attending,” Joel recalled. The client crashed the party and vehemently voiced her opinion regarding the status of the project before all the guests. And if a roof leaked or there was a problem with the plumbing, owners would call Haertling well after the structure was completed, asking him to trouble shoot.

“It’s like being a court composer, say Bach,” explained the younger Haertling. “He didn’t just compose. He also had the job to make sure the organ was working in (the court at) Leipzig. This – the terrible hassles – was the part of being an architect my father didn’t like.”

But Joel has wonderful memories of accompanying his father on evening drives to check on projects. Haertling would go to sites in the evening to make sure the builders were being true to the design and its intentions. “We kids loved that,” Joel said of himself and his three siblings.

“My father was a one-man shop. Sometimes that lost him commissions, but he always explained to his clients that this way he had ultimate quality control.”

A hallmark of a Haertling home is the attention to detail that went into each one during all phases of design and construction.

Charles Haertling died on April 20, 1984, four months after being diagnosed with a glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor. Although the architect is gone, his work and the legacy he left to Boulder live on.