Standing in line with pen and notepad, I’m hoping to capture the history of the architect, the home and any tidbits Mr. Logan has to offered. Mr. Logan is the curator for the tour, owner of Modern in Denver and the sponsor of Denver Design Week. The only house on tour today is the Razee house.
The architect for Razee, finished in 1970, was Charles Haertling, notable for many of his Colorado houses, including the 1969 “Mushroom House” that appeared in Woody Allen’s 1973 film, Sleeper. I first noticed the house twenty-eight years ago, in 1990, a few weeks after moving to Denver from New Orleans. The cubed concrete facade, appearing to float above the lawn, was so intriguing, even if it was not really my style. I was awed by the copper trim, the rectangle windows and flat roof of concrete cubes. I could picture having a deck on the roof to watch the sunset over the mountains and observe the skyline at dusk.
Growing up in New Orleans, I’d never seen the mountains. Moving to Denver, I became fixated on the massive white peaks. One day, I hoped to live in a house with a mountain view.
Regarding architecture, I knew only the architecture of New Orleans: French Quarter cottages, plantation homes, shotgun or suburban brick houses that all looked the same. In Algiers, Louisiana, a suburb within the city limits of New Orleans, I grew up in a brick house, one that my parents chose out of nine models.
The first house I bought in Denver was a townhome emulating a Boston brownstone. I decorated it in reproduction Ethan Allen furniture. By my early thirties, I was starting to enjoy more contemporary living. I sold the townhome and all the furniture, rugs and accessories and bought a concrete and brick shelled loft in downtown Denver. I finished it in concrete, contemporary woods, stainless steel, glass and tile. Colorado Homes and Lifestyles featured it, referring to it as “the James Bond loft.” The kitchen counters were stainless steel and the island, poured concrete. From the living room and massive rooftop deck, I could see sunrise, sunset, lightning storms and miles and miles of the Rocky Mountains.
I’d never known a home could be a piece of art, yet extremely practical and efficient. During my loft living, I met the woman I would marry. She moved in and while she loved the loft too, once we wed, got a dog, and she started her dermatology practice, the loft days ended.
We bought a Cape Cod, previously owned by Byron ‘Wizard’ White, in the central Denver neighborhood of Hilltop. We made a big mistake in hiring an architect-builder-designer, all one company with too much bias and money to gain. Our plan of turning a Cape Cod into a contemporary eclectic Cape Cod on steroids only kind of worked. In truth, the remodel never really came together because we ran out of the money needed to truly complete it. We ended up referring to the house as our “modern monstrosity.”
While ‘monstrosity’ was for sale, Razee went on the market. I’d grown to love Razee, as did my wife. Because we hadn’t sold ‘monstrosity,’ we couldn’t afford to make an offer on Razee. We did tour it, as did others. Razee received seven offers the morning it listed and sold that afternoon. In contrast, it took us thirty-eight months to sell old “monstrosity” and we lost almost $300,000.
Standing in line for the tour of Razee, I scan the Denver Post article for Denver Design Week: “The Razee House on Shangri-La Drive is a true brutalist masterpiece designed by legendary Colorado architect Charles Haertling. After 40 years in its original state, new owners opted to update the home—adding a new master suite, redesigned kitchen, and glass-enclosed lounge—while staying true to Haertling’s singular vision. Haertling was a major figure in Colorado during the mid-to-late 20th Century. His work is known for the way it melds modernism, organic architecture, and mathematical themes. Comparison to the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright or Bruce Goff are common.”
Meanwhile, four people ahead of me discuss the 9’ by 6’ front lawn spider sculpture, and how funky and fun it would be to have a similar piece. I hear another say, “The copper is gorgeous and must have cost a fortune.”
‘If they only knew,’ I think, well aware that the copper trim cost more than the home my parents bought in 1977. I don’t dare inform anyone that I know exact costs, that my wife and I are, in fact, the proud owners of Razee. Nor do I mention that the copper is a mixture of copper and other materials, and while costly, is a third less than pure copper. I am here covertly, curious to what people will say about the renovation and eager to learn from Mr. Logan.
We purchased Razee four years earlier, although we only moved in eight months ago. Between the closing, architectural design, planning and renovation, the project took three years. Only the contractor knows I’m the owner.
Gathered in the living room, the contractor shows pre-and post-photos, along with pictures of the special saw he used to cut through the eighteen-inch concrete facade. The guide informs the audience that Mr. Haertling was hired by Ms. Razee, the first Colorado female owner and CEO of a Colorado construction company. Her company poured the beveled concrete.
“We can’t tell the difference between the original and remodel,” a couple comments. Several people gesture in agreement. Multiple people ask questions about when and how the concrete was poured. One person asks if the original house had air-conditioning (It did not). A woman who seems excited by the interior decor, asks if the art and furniture belong to the current owners or if the house is staged.
“It all belongs to the owners.”
I’m flattered when the woman states, “The house, art, and furniture are all art, like a museum.”
“Make yourself at home and we’ll gather on the second floor in fifteen minutes,” Mr. Logan informs us. People scatter to the basement, upper levels and backyard. “The stairs are amazing,” I hear, referring to the stairwell between the third and fourth floor. “The owners must have sprayed the copper so it would not patina,” a man tells his wife. Restraining myself, I don’t say it is too new to patina. I’m most tempted to speak when people begin to share their interpretations of the art or suggest how the owners must interpret the art. One man asks the contractor, “Are the owners Catholic or hyper religious?”
He smiles and says, “Not that I know.”
My wife and I have similar tastes in art, design, religion and politics. We got along well during the remodel and truly, only had one argument on a design decision, one which I feel vindicated on when a man walks out of the lower bathroom and states, “I would love a urinal too.” Six men comment on how wonderful it would be to have a urinal in their home. “Brilliant,” one says. In fairness to my wife, not a single woman states how cool the urinal is.
“How did the stairs pass code?” one inquisitive woman questions. The contractor blatantly lies, answering, “They were grandfathered.” In truth, he built temporary railings.
“So glad someone spending this kind of money on such a renovation kept the floorboards,” a woman shares, adding, “I’m not the only one.” In truth, my wife and I could not afford to replace the floorboards with a better system.
In the backyard, a man informs his wife that the small plants are bamboo. “Probably to block the neighbors,” he explains. He is correct — I yearn for the bamboo to become a cheap wall.
“The yard sculptures are fantastic,” a woman tells her partner. “What’s that thing,” I hear someone ask, referring to the outdoor pizza oven. I want to share that the pizza oven is magical, although I say nothing.
“I would never have known the grass was turf, it looks so real,” one lady tells her husband. “The turf seems counterintuitive, it gets so hot,” he replies. I step out of my flip-flops to stand on the turf. It is hot, but I don’t tell anyone the small area of turf receives only a few hours of sun a day. I wanted turf in the front, too, but it wasn’t as important as the urinal so I never pushed the issue with my wife.
“That’s a strange place for a wood sculpture,”a man says. “ I hope they don’t start a fire.” I realize he is correct. Later that afternoon, I will remove the mounted balsa wood moose head, a spoof on hunting, that hangs over the outside gas grill.
One adventurous man on the tour climbs the steel ladder from the fourth-floor patio deck to the rooftop deck. I follow him. The day is clear and we can see downtown, Mt Evans and Longs Peak, two fourteeners.
“This might be one of the best views in Denver,” the stranger says to me.
“No doubt,” I concur. Besides the architecture, unique concrete and more, the real prize of owning Razee is this view. We feel like we live in an urban tree house, providing us daily contact with nature.
As the tour ends, I walk outside with the guests. Several people walk toward the street, turn and look back to the house. One woman looks toward the additions of the third and fourth floors and scoffs, “They ruined it, shame on them.”
I can’t hold back. “Have you read the article in Colorado Homes and Lifestyles,” I ask.
“They interviewed the architect who did the renovation. He was a protégé of Haertling. He discussed how he meditated on the house, trying to do what Haertling would do if he were designing today.”
“I don’t care, they ruined it.”
“A friend of mine, a purest for mid-century modern and brutalism, sits on the Denver historical society. He told me they called the owners to thank them for staying pure to Haertling,” I add, trying one last time to win her over. I don’t tell her that just three days earlier, at 6:10 a.m., a jogger stopped and asked, “Are you the owner?” He went on to thank my wife and me for making the neighborhood more beautiful, for not changing the original design, and for not building another heinous McMansion “monstrosity.”
“The historical society is not God,” the woman says. She is clearly annoyed. I’m silent as she continues, “We’re all entitled to our opinion, and I have a master’s degree in design.”
I remain silent. Then she asks, “What do you do?”
“I’m in medical devices, and I’m trying to write an essay about today’s tour. I love brutalism.”
“Oh, I guess you have me.”
“No worry, I don’t know your name,… and we are all entitled to our own opinion.”
I grin amicably, recalling the guy who climbed to the top of those new additions, and who, like me, had a different opinion about that rooftop deck, and where you can find one of Denver’s optimal mountain views.