Richard Crowther’s house was a laboratory for his ideas

The groundbreaking structure that renowned architect Richard Crowther created at 401 Madison Street as his own home has been purchased by Denver-based Mag Builders, who want to scrape the structure and build two duplexes – if the city determines it won’t s is not a landmark and issues a Certificate of Eligibility for Demolition. You can check out the Denver Community Planning and Neighborhood report here; keep reading for Michael Paglia’s article on Richard Crowther published on January 11, 2007, shortly after Crowther’s death.

Over the past twenty years the “Built Green” movement has become widespread, with major developers such as ForestCity in Stapleton promoting green features incorporated into their buildings. But a generation or two ago, only madmen or visionaries thought of such a problem.

Here in Denver, we had a pioneer in architectural ecology: Richard Crowther. As an architect, Crowther made the relationship between structure and environment a key part of his commercial and residential designs, and he became internationally famous for his theoretical writings on the subject. But unlike the works of so many others who have embraced the Built Green mantra, Crowther’s are not ugly neo-traditional buildings; on the contrary, they are unashamedly modern and breathtakingly beautiful. They feature revolutionary technologies contained in avant-garde formal expressions, and the best of them are as sophisticated as anywhere in the world.

Crowther was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1910, and moved to San Diego in his youth. Although he received formal training, Crowther, as was the case for his generation, learned on the job, starting with lighting design for amusement parks and working his way up through the profession. He arrived in Denver in 1948 and was hired by Lakeside owner Ben Krasner, who wanted him to give the park a partial facelift. It was a humble start, but within a few years Crowther had built a thriving architectural business. He built several luxury homes in Cherry Creek North, an upscale neighborhood he helped start. He also completed several office and retail buildings in the same area. Among the stores, for example, is an impressive two-part office complex at 310 Steele Street and 3201 East Third Avenue. The sleek, low-rise buildings feature ribbon windows that cut through light-colored walls, flat roofs at varying heights, and triangular atriums marking the horizon.

Among Crowther’s most important commissions were the three Cinerama theaters he made for the Cooper Trust in the early 1960s. One was built at 960 South Colorado Boulevard in Denver, another in Minneapolis, and a third in Omaha. The theaters were nearly identical, with the curved auditorium inside expressed on the outside as a sturdy drum-like form. Unfortunately, all three have been demolished – the one in Denver to make way for a Barnes & Noble parking lot. (To see photos of the three Crowther cinemas, go to cinematreasures.org.)

I was lucky enough to visit a few Crowther homes – one in Cherry Creek North and the other in Greenwood Village – and believe me when I say both were impeccably chic. I’ve never been inside one of Crowther’s greatest masterpieces, the 1979 home and studio he designed for himself and his wife that sits inside northwest corner of Fourth Avenue and Madison Street. The house was a laboratory for the development of Crowther’s environmental theories. The elaborate forms of the place include a lively constructivist rhythm of rectilinear blocks highlighted by a wedge-shaped roofline with an integral canopy protecting a row of solar panels. Separated by flat roofs is another corner and a long barrel vault. The stern-looking painted concrete structure is certainly one of the coolest residences of all eras in Colorado, right up there on the top level with Charles Deaton’s sculpted Genesee home.

Crowther, who was a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, donated his plans, documents, and drawings to the Denver Public Library’s Western History Department. Crowther died on Christmas Day 2006, aged 96, ending a life well spent in the resolute pursuit of his art and science.

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