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Charles Haertling: Modernism in the mountains

Nature’s own intricate patterns inspired the architect’s outlandish homes

The 1970 Menkick House, build to align with outcroppings of rock on site
Courtesy of the Boulder Public Library

Charles Haertling called the city of Boulder, Colorado, his gallery, and throughout his decades-long career in architecture, he drew inspiration from the city’s incomparable mountain landscapes. He didn’t just frame gorgeous views of the Rocky Mountains, but built with nature in mind, replicating organic forms in a series of custom private homes for fellow artists, intellectuals, and nonconformists.

Often compared to Bruce Goff and Frank Lloyd Wright, Haertling found inspiration beyond modern theory and forms. The homes and offices he designed riffed off the shapes of yucca pods, a mass of barnacles, and even a human eye (the entry, of course, was in the cornea). Haertling didn’t seek these shapes for the sake of being nonconformist; he diligently interviewed clients for days, often steering homeowners to other architects if he didn’t feel like the project was a good fit. But the laborious process meant that while his 39 Boulder-area homes may have drawn double takes from neighbors—the Denver Post once wrote about the way his “space craft home” drew onlookers—they were above all livable, carefully mimicking nature’s balance of form and function.

Biography

After graduating from high school in his hometown of St. Genevieve, Missouri, Charles Haertling joined the Navy in 1946 for a two-year stint. During a series of military aptitude tests shortly after registration, he discovered his natural design talent and decided to pursue a career in architecture. After serving, he went back to Missouri, graduated from Washington University in 1952, and took a teaching position at Colorado University in Boulder in 1953.

The prow of the Volsky House, a circular structure that leaned over the hillside.
Courtesy of the Boulder Public Library

Between teaching and apprenticing for local architects, including Jim Hunter and Tician Papachristou, Haertling was on his way to starting his own practice, and would open his own office in 1957. But nothing in a classroom or office inspired him as much as his new surroundings; obsessed with the mountains and Colorado’s natural beauty, he would work there his entire life.

Haertling’s big break came with the 1958 Noble House, a series of thin, folded octagonal forms he described as a “wigwam.” As clients began hearing of the unorthodox Boulder designers and approaching him for their own eccentric homes, Haertling didn’t disappoint, constantly varying his style and approach. The circular 1964 Volsky House, arranged around a central indoor garden, had such an odd shape and dramatic balcony, which jutted out like a ship’s prow, that neighbors petitioned against its construction. His bold, blocky Razee House, an outlier in a portfolio of curvaceous creations, was Brutalism at its best, down to lined concrete walls (it’s since been renovated, without sacrificing its bold facade). St. Stephen’s Church, a rare nonresidential design, was a caricature of hyberbolic paraboloids, a set of swooping curves that looks more Googie than god-like. His perfectly perched Aspen Leaf House, featuring a flared copper roof, offers a stunning view of the surrounding mountains and hills.

Haertling’s portfolio, though small, lived up to his early promise, making it all the more tragic that his career was cut short. Diagnosed with brain cancer in 1984 at 54, Boulder’s irrepressible architect was forced to stop working in his prime.

Brenton House
Courtesy of the Boulder Public Library

Buildings to know

All of Haertling’s creations had character. But none makes as much of an impression as 3752 Wonderland Hill Avenue, officially called the Breton House but known to locals as the Mushroom House. A bulbous white building formed from five pods of polyurethane foam and rebar, it’s familiar yet futuristic (perhaps due to its cameo in Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper). Sean McIllwain, who runs the architecture appreciation site Mod Boulder, says it’s impossible to miss, and while the home, completed in 1969, offers an unforgettable profile, the design makes much more sense inside, where the open space and excellent views of the nearby lake give credence to the architect’s odd design, one inspired by the shape of barnacles.

McIllwain says the other Haertling gem that locals fawn over is the 1970 Menkick House, a Usonian-style beauty that appears to grow out of the elevated landscape. Located in the exclusive Knollwood neighborhood, the home boasts a near-perfect flat roof and amazing views, with all of its four stories aligned with adjacent outcroppings of rock.

“There isn’t one person I’ve shown the house to who doesn’t immediately want to move in,” he says.

Legacy and reputation today

Haertling’s architecture still beguiles and inspires today, and while a career cut short suggests unrealized potential, buildings may not have been the architect’s greatest contribution to his hometown. He spent years working in and for Boulder’s government as a city councilmember, deputy mayor, and a member of the Landmarks Board. A lover of open space and natural splendor, Haertling helped enshrine these ideals in city policy. He pushed to keep a green belt around the city and preserve historic architecture, and supported public space, including the famed Pearl Street Mall. Nature may have been his biggest inspiration, and he made sure generations after him would get the chance to be similarly inspired.

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