This week’s Modern In Denver archive looks back at our Winter 2010-2011 issue, which featured a piece on a house originally designed for sculptor Jean Neufeuld in 1956. Mike Hughes and Karen Brody later transformed the house into a reimagined mid-century structure as beautiful as a sculpture. Scroll through to read more!
Sometimes the most unexpected treasures are right in front of you. It just takes the right people to recognize and uncover them. For Mike Hughes and Karen Brody, a Hilltop diamond in the rough became their dream home – and a stunning example of what is possible when you listen to the stories a home has to tell.
Originally designed and built for sculptor Jean Neufeld in 1956, this geometric house is as much a piece of art as the sculptures created in it. Contrasting the mid-century love of convenience and technology with Japanese minimalism, the home was uniquely designed for Neufeld. Along with a formal living room, the public space boasted a sculpting studio off of the kitchen, enclosed with rice paper screens. The sweeping angle of the roofline was softened by grasscloth covering on the walls and glass doors that opened to a courtyard with beautiful southern exposure. With the doors open, the living space was extended significantly – in essence, adding an outdoor room. Also unique to the home was an indoor water feature – a pond nestled at the base of a set of floating stairs.
State-of-the-art for the 1950s, the kitchen featured bright red metal cabinets and a blender built into the counter. Custom cabinetry, which included a stereo system in the living room, was built of red birch, a warm wood that added richness to the home’s linear design. The humble yet beautiful exterior materials consisted of terra cotta blocks offset with wood panels. The building was a study in contrasts. Sharp angles and soft materials, a minimalist aesthetic and cutting-edge features, all designed with energy efficiency decades ahead of its time. The home was truly unique among the neighborhoods of Hilltop.
The home’s architect, Richard Crowther, is remembered as one of Denver’s great mid-century designers. A pioneer of sustainable architecture long before the public valued green design, Crowther built the home on the principles of passive solar technology. He positioned the home on the lot so that the windows would allow sunlight to warm the house in winter, and eaves were placed to keep it cool in the summer. When Crowther later wrote the book “Ecologic Architecture: The Ecologic Perspective for Design,” a treatise that encapsulates his architectural philosophy, he included the home as a case study. Richard Crowther is also known as the designer of the cutting-edge Cinerama Cooper Theater that once stood on Colorado Boulevard, as well as many homes in Cherry Creek North and Hilltop. Sadly, many of these buildings have been torn down and replaced with new developments, making Mike and Karen’s home a true treasure.
Like many mid-century modern homes, significant changes were made in the 1960s and 70s that diluted the essence of the architecture. After Neufeld sold the home, new owners painted over the grasscloth and faux-finished the red birch cabinetry. The exterior terra cotta brick was painted white and the wood panels were allowed to deteriorate. When the property came up for sale in 2003 it was in such disrepair that it was on the market as a home to be torn down or significantly remodeled.
Looking to move out of their loft and into a Hilltop home, Mike and Karen were in search of just such a place. After seeing a Julius Shulman photograph of Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann house in Palm Springs, a building that now typifies the International Style, Karen fell in love with the idea of finding and preserving a similar home in Denver. The couple was specifically looking for an architecturally interesting home on a good block in Hilltop, something in need of renovation. With these requirements, they drove past Crowther’s house and, in spite of the overgrown landscaping, they knew they had found something special. When they went inside for the first time, Karen had the vision to see what the home was – and what it could become. The low roofline of the entryway leads into a generous living room, with the low-slung angled ceiling and glass wall opening up to the courtyard beyond. As visitors walk through the home, the spaces unfold, opening up to greet them. At the back of the house, a split-level holds an office and a master suite on the top level and a basement below. What convinced Karen this was the perfect home for them, in spite of its years of neglect? “I love the composition, its serenity and simplicity,” she says. “It’s simple yet modern.”
Mike and Karen were not interested in a strict renovation to return the home to its 1950s origins. Instead they set out to adapt the home to modern living, while being true to Crowther’s architectural vision. This was made easier when the couple found drawings for the home in the basement. The drawings helped them track down the original construction plans in the Denver Public Library’s Western History Department, and led to a meeting with Richard Crowther to discuss the remodel.
The couple moved into the house and for a year planned the renovations they would make. Living in the space before making any changes informed their process, and helped them to decide that doing less was the best course. With the help of Jeff Sheppard of Roth + Sheppard Architects, Mike and Karen transformed the home into a fusion of mid-century modern and contemporary design. Their goals in the renovation were to restore the essential elements of the home while updating it to make it as cutting edge today as it was when it was built. Says Sheppard of the architect, who died in 2006: “Richard [Crowther] not only understood the fundamentals of passive solar design, he understood human behavior, spatial sequence and the physical and emotional connection between space and the activity occurring within the space. This house is actually very small in scale, but lived big. … It’s the surprise you get upon entering, when the house reveals itself, that makes this a wonderful house, even today.”
The first step was to remove 50 years of overgrown landscaping to uncover the sunlight the western exposure brought into the formal living room, as well as the southern exposure of the courtyard. The white paint was stripped from the terra cotta blocks to restore the original warmth and richness to the house. Updating the exterior called for removing the wood siding and replacing it with pre-weathered aluminum with the same vertical lines created by the wood. The aluminum is easy to maintain and contrasts beautifully with the terra cotta, modernizing the original look. Inside the cabinetry, too damaged by a faux paint finish to restore, was replaced with new red birch, keeping the same material as the original. This red birch is carried through the house to the new millwork in the basement.
Mike and Karen’s most crucial decision was to go against the current trends in Hilltop and not add additional square footage to the home. Doing so would have compromised the architecture, and a change to the building footprint would ruin the carefully balanced design. The most dramatic changes took place in the great room. The original kitchen was quite small, walled off from the rest of the room. The wall was taken out, and the dated cabinets and appliances replaced with modern stainless steel. The new stove and an island with a granite countertop were built like furniture, raised off the floor on legs to add lightness and a feeling that the pieces were floating. In areas where it wasn’t practical or feasible to restore the architecture, careful pains were taken to reference the original design intent. The new master bath was transformed based on this thinking. The room originally had one-inch ceramic tiles on the walls and floors. Mike and Karen chose to replace them with translucent glass tiles in warm colors that complement the terra cotta blocks, in the same one-inch size.
The floating staircase was another design decision that was carefully thought through. The home’s original indoor pond sat in the location where the stairs now lead to the basement. When Mike and Karen moved in the fountain had been drained and they had no idea if it worked. At first they considered it an untouchable feature and intended to restore it, but the location blocked access to the basement. The lower level could only be reached through stairs outside the back of the house. Looking through the original plans for the home they discovered an option, which included stairs in that location. Knowing that this was one of Crowther’s early ideas, they felt comfortable making the decision to remove the fountain and add stairs.
With the renovation complete, the entire interior of the home was painted a flat white. The white unifies the space and highlights the silhouette of the architecture, while allowing the terra cotta to become the accent color. White also creates the perfect background for the couple’s impressive collection of art. Focusing on Colorado modernists, Mike and Karen have collected gallery-worthy artwork that is displayed throughout the home. The first piece they bought, by Bruce Price, hangs in the living room. Their favorite piece, Clark Richert’s “Quark Theory” is the focal point of the great room. The artists they choose to collect make up the fabric of Colorado Modernism. According to Karen, the collection focuses on “interesting people in Colorado doing interesting things.”
Their collection extends to the furniture. Nearly every piece was bought for the home and includes a combination of original mid-century and contemporary designs. Most remarkable is the set of Hans Wegner dining chairs that are original to the home. They were purchased by Jean Neufeld and sold with the house to the subsequent owner. Mike and Karen were able to obtain them from the family when they bought the house, and the chairs continue to sit in the place they have occupied for over 50 years. The chairs are paired with a reproduction dining table by Charles and Ray Eames, carefully chosen for its minimalist profile. Other Eames pieces are found throughout the house, along with an Isamu Noguchi coffee table, a nod to the Japanese inspiration behind the home’s design. The most striking example of contemporary design comes from the Artimide Logico pendant above the dining table. The cloud like glass fixture floats in the room, reflecting the light that pours through the windows.
Art, architecture and design combine to create a home the couple loves to live in, perfectly suited to their life. “Every day I come home to this house I’m happy.” Karen says. Mike agrees, “It’s fun to live here. We’re very lucky.”
The building was a study in contrasts. Sharp angles and soft materials, a minimalist aesthetic and cutting-edge features, all designed with energy efficiency decades ahead of its time.
Mike and Karen’s most crucial decision was to go against the current trends in Hilltop and not add additional square footage to the home.