The first thing you should know about architect Charles A. Haertling is that he designed houses—not homes.
Families eventually brought homes into the funky, beautiful mid-century houses that dot the Boulder area with subtle confidence, quirky juxtaposition to neighboring buildings and a connection to the surrounding landscape. A house is not a home until someone moved in.
That’s one of Haertling’s many philosophies. He was a principled man and an uncompromisingly ethical and careful designer. His profundity made him both controversial and beloved to the residents of Boulder from 1957, when he opened his own practice, to 1983, when his last house was complete. Haertling’s work as a civic leader—he sat on City Council from 1967 to 1973 and championed open space and Boulder Tomorrow—and as an architect was a reflection of and a catalyst for Boulder’s culture, urban scenery and unique beauty. While the occasional Haertling creation can be found outside the bubble, his heart was most definitely in Boulder. Haertling’s eldest son, Joel, who is the official archivist for his father’s work, said the architect considered Boulder his gallery.
“I’m hopelessly influenced by the city and the environment of Boulder,” Charles Haertling told The Daily Camera in 1982. “It’s all I really know. I made a commitment to keeping Boulder my home many years ago, and I decided I wanted to make a living here. Maybe things have changed, maybe people’s tastes have changed but I will never leave Boulder. I’m going to make my living here no matter what.”
A year and a half later, Haertling died of brain cancer at age 55.
“If nothing else, we can hope that his houses will be landmarked,” said Linda Haertling, his daughter. “He has such a body of work here. It’s given us these little gems throughout the area, little organic gems.”
His 50-some designs once seemed alien. But today, Boulder has happily embraced his work—becoming attractions for wandering drivers, tourists and architecture students.
What makes a house a Haertling house?
Many of his designs take on the form of an organic shape: a shell, a snail, a leaf, a circle. His houses were sometimes white, which was bizarre at the time, or were covered in stones or wood. To Haertling, relating the house to natural elements like snow or rocks was, well, natural. They were often symmetrical, designed to take advantage of their views and to bring in
The style is now called “organic”—design that is inspired by natural forms and materials and the surrounding environment. Haertling called Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff his influences. Though, he designed “for a specific site and for specific people.”
“The building has my signature,” he is quoted as saying, “but if I kept my clients at arms’ length, all my buildings would be the same.”
Some called him futuristic, but nearly 30 years since his last building was finished, Haertling’s houses are both retro and otherworldly. They are as famous as they are infamous, and whether they have been maintained or sucked of all Haertling heart, they are still icons.
The Wilson House—which the Haertling family moved into in 1972 after it was set on fire and the original owner no longer wanted to live the house—was given landmark status last year. The Brenton House, which sits like a giant barnacle among—by comparison—very simple and “normal” houses in a north Boulder neighborhood, has received attention from countless media outlets and architecture enthusiasts, from The National Enquirer to Dwell to Woody Allen; the house appeared in his futuristic flick, Sleeper. The Volsky House was highlighted in Time.
Haertling worked closely with his clients, discussed their priorities and their needs, and then often spent hours soaking in the site. Barbara Brenton, the original and current owner of the famed “barnacle” or “mushroom” house, talked about how she and Haertling spent hours staring at the site in North Boulder. She told him about her preference for curves over straight lines, her love of music, their four daughters, and
“We talked about what we wanted the house to be,” she said, standing in her kitchen. “And he did it. He accomplished it.”
She and many others consider him a sculptor. According to Haertling’s son, Joel, the architect wanted his work to contribute to the fabric of the city, enhancing the spirit of Boulder. Because of this, he sought progression, innovation and excitement, he hoped to represent “the artistic and ruggedly individualistic nature of the community and reflect the physical environment, both earth and sky.”
As a fledgling architect, Haertling was named one of the top up-and-coming architects in the world, but he opted for local houses and churches over large, attention-getting projects. Because of his work in city government, he disqualified himself from local civic contracts. And instead of settling in a location that would have put his work in the international spotlight, he would never say good-bye to Boulder.
“I feel very good about the things I’ve done,” Haertling said in the Daily Camera. “They’ve worn well, and I don’t think they’re tiresome. They punctuate the beauty of the community the way it should be punctuated.”