Outside the box

Architect Charles Haertling left a controversial organic footprint on house design in Boulder


Rocky Mountain News (CO) - January 19, 2008

Author: Lisa Marshall, Special to the Rocky


A 5,600-square-foot aspen leaf glistening gold on a sunny hillside.

A three-story toadstool sprouting from a grassy lakeside field.

A super-size yucca pod on a windblown mountain top.

In a community known for both its unconventional taste and its affinity for the environment, it's no surprise to find artwork modeled after nature's wonders. But 25 years after his death from brain cancer, organic architect Charles Haertling has left behind much more than a collection of whimsical sculptures.

He's left 39 nature-inspired houses so distinctive that their owners, and many in the architectural community, are still praising his legacy.

"I really feel that we owe him a thank-you," says homeowner Betsy Turner, standing in the sun-drenched great room of the aptly named Aspen Leaf house, where cathedral windows frame 180-degree views of Boulder. A leaf-shaped copper roof inspires its name. "It is an art object, but it is also carefully thought through on both beauty and functionality."

When Haertling first began building in Boulder in 1958, not everyone shared such enthusiasm for his work.

Emulating the "organic architecture" philosophy of Frank Lloyd Wright, he aimed to build each house to uniquely suit its landscape, almost as if it had naturally sprouted from the ground. But he also added his own trademark flair, designing wildly unconventional houses shaped after objects in nature, like a yucca pod or a poinsettia blossom.

Neighbors grew troubled as the skeleton for one of his first houses, dubbed the Noble House for its original owners, began to rise near the Chautauqua neighborhood. With 14 jagged sides, a roof composed of 16 leaf-like triangles and two towering spikes, the elaborate wigwam looked nothing like the boxy homes of the day. One newspaper headline declared "Space Craft Home Draws Traffic in Boulder," and it soon became a common stop for Sunday drivers.

Then came the Warburton House, a Gold Hill home modeled after a yucca pod; St. Stephen's Church, a Northglenn sanctuary whose curved white roof resembles huge elephant tusks; and the Volsky House, which has been likened to a towering white starship clinging to a steep Boulder hillside. Neighbors were so appalled at its construction that they submitted a letter of protest to the city lamenting its "sheer grossness" and predicting a "definite loss of property values."

But instead, the Volsky home was featured in a six-page spread in Life Magazine, catapulting Haertling 's career into a new realm. Soon, he was being compared to Frank Lloyd Wright and pegged as one of America's most promising architects.

"He pushed the edge of what was possible," says John Haertling , 48, a Boulder artist who, along with his brother, Joel, established a foundation and online home tour (atomix.com/ haertling ) to help preserve his father's legacy.

"He called Boulder his gallery," Joel says.

In 1969, Barbara and Stanley Brenton commissioned the renegade architect, a longtime college friend, to build what has become perhaps his most recognizable home: a three-story curvilinear foam house with an uncanny resemblance to a toadstool sprouting from the ground. (In reality, Haert- ling had sea barnacles, not mushrooms, in mind, when he built it.)

Long referred to as the Mushroom House nonetheless, the Boulder home was made famous in 1973, when Woody Allen filmed several scenes for the movie Sleeper there. It was once listed by the National Enquirer as one of the "world's weirdest houses." (Allen also filmed scenes for the movie at another mushroom-shaped house designed by a different architect near Genesee.)

"I said, 'I don't like angles. I like curves.' And he just took it from there," says Barbara Brenton, walking through the 6,400-square-foot wonderland of colorful curved walls, circular windows and domed ceilings where she has raised four children. Her six grandchildren have enjoyed many hours in the home.

"Some people hated it. It was just too different. But he built it just for us. There isn't another house like it."

In 1984, at the age of 55, Haertling died suddenly of a brain tumor, leaving behind a devastated wife and four children.

But before he died, he completed his magnum opus: the Aspen Leaf House, which earned the American Institute of Architects' prestigious "25-year award" in 2004.

Set on a breathtaking Boulder hillside, the home features a golden cape-like roof with a pointed tip curling upward like a leaf. A network of exposed stone pillars - each one visible thanks to a wide-open interior floor plan - holds up the roof. In many places, there is nothing but glass between it and the floor.

"There was a very wise person who once said our environment shapes us, and in many ways this house has had that effect on our family," says Turner, an art aficionado who bought the home with husband, Lee, 23 years ago. "It makes your view farther extended, not just physically, but intellectually, to live in a house like this."


Born in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., in 1928, Charles Haert ling initially had his mind set on a military career. He joined the Navy after high school, serving from 1946 to 1948.

But after taking a series of military aptitude tests that opened his eyes to his natural design abilities, he shifted gears and pursued a degree as an architect.

He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 1952 and moved to Boulder to teach architecture at the University of Colorado in 1953. In addition to designing more than 40 structures in the Denver and Boulder area, he served from 1970 to 1971 as deputy mayor of Boulder and from 1967 to 1973 on the Boulder City Council, where he was a champion of open-space preservation.

In addition to homes, he also designed the eye-ball- inspired Boulder Eye Clinic, 2405 Broadway, and St. Stephen's Church, 10828 Huron St., in Northglenn. He raised four children with his wife, Viola, and was active with his church.

In 1984, Haertling fell ill and soon was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

"He was 55 years old, and he went from being a perfectly functioning person to someone who had a really hard time buttoning his shirt," Haertling 's son John Haertling recalls. "Within three months he was dead."

John points out that in one of his final media interviews, when asked what he believed was most important in work and in life, his father offered a simple two-word answer: "To care."

"He really did have a way of showing a great deal of compassion and caring in his life and in his work," John says. "His architecture is only one example of that."

- Lisa Marshall