American Woodmen’s Life Building

Another week, another blog!  I got use my sweet new jacket this week as I pedaled around looking for my next building.

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I’ve been thinking about how many of my posts are about buildings of generally the same late-19th early-20th century era and how I wanted to bring in a building from a more recent time period.  While I love all the buildings I’ve blogged about so far, I felt the historical context section was getting a bit repetitive since all the buildings were from generally the same era.  Therefore, this week, I found a great building that should shake things up a bit!  (As much as a blog about architectural history can do, that is.)

Intro:

Here we have the American Woodmen’s Life Building, located at 2100 Downing St in the City Park West neighborhood.

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I took this photo facing directly east as the American Woodmen’s building sits at the southwest corner of 21st and Downing St. In 2009 it became one of the youngest buildings to be designated a Denver Landmark, though it has long been a crown jewel both architecturally and historically for the neighborhood since its construction in 1950. According to Denver tax records, 2100 Downing was designed by Denver architect Gordon D. White.

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The American Woodmen’s Life Building geographically sits at an interesting spot in this area of Denver.  Not too far from the San Rafael Historic District (discussed in my previous post on New Terrace) the American Woodmen’s Life Building is a good example of the changing architectural styles of the area and showcases the movement of neighborhood hubs over time from the older Victorian era homes to the more Modernistic styles.

Architecture:

Be amazed at Art Moderne, sometimes described as Streamline Moderne, this style was popularized in the 1920s until about the 1940s.

DPL historic woodmans

(Historic photo courtesy of  Denver Public Library)

I told you this one was going to be a bit different from week’s prior!  The main characteristics of the Art Moderne style are as follows:

  • Smooth stucco wall surfaces
  • Asymmetrical facades
  • Flat roofs
  • Horizontal grooves or lines

With some variants including:

  • One or more corners of the building are curved
  • Windows continuing around corners

So let’s start with the easy ones.  We can see from the historic photo in black and white above that there is a curved corner, with windows that follow the curve. Right away we have two of the above bullet points accounted for, now onto the others.

If the first two photos don’t do a good job of showcasing the flat roof and asymmetrical siding I think this next one does:

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This is the south elevation, and I took the photo facing north.   There are three windows on one side of the door, and only one on the other side.  Additionally this showcases the asymmetrical nature of the facade as well, since the above photo really shows the curve on that southwestern corner where as the northwestern corner is not curved as seen in the photo below:

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The last features to address then, are the stucco wall surface and the horizontal grooves/lines.  As opposed to Art Deco, a contemporary of the Art Moderne style though an earlier and arguably more recognizable style, Art Moderne emphasized the horizontal rather than vertical.

horizontal emphasis

As noted in the picture above, you can see that in red I emphasized two horizontal aspects.  One is the patterned section that sits below the windows and the second is the red vertical line that stretches across the facade and continues on other elevations.

History:

In an architectural context, the history of Art Moderne also carries stylistic significance not associated with architecture.  As McAlester writes:

Shortly after 1930…the beginning of streamline industrial design for ships, airplanes, and automobiles [rooted its influence in Modernistic styles].  The smooth surfaces, curved corners, and horizontal emphasis of the Art Moderne style all give the feeling that airstreams could move smoothly over them; thus they were streamlined.

Indeed, Airstream, arguably America’s most recognizable RV trailer is of the Art Moderne style. Airstreams are still widely popular today with their storied romanticism cultivating a return to the….wait for this….mainstream. Heyoooooooooooooooo. I’m sorry, I couldn’t not do that. Examples of trains and other consumer goods like toasters and cars which take their design aesthetic to the Art Moderne style hit their peak around the 1940s.

In a traditional historical sense, this building also is a conduit for telling the story of a supremely underrepresented group in historic preservation: African-Americans.

2100 Downing was home to the Supreme Camp of American Woodman which was a version of the Woodmen of the World, a fraternal organization founded in the early 1900s.  Other locations existed but because of the national scale of this location and its work, it was designated the “supreme” location rather than the “subordinate” which was the given title to other locations.

The current Denver Woodmen website has this to say in its history section (AWSC stands for American Woodmen – Supreme Camp) :

Membership of the AWSC was and is composed entirely of black citizens. In typical
Woodmen fashion, like the white organizations (e.g., Modern Woodmen of America
and Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society), the AWSC employed some of the
same terminology. Members were called “Neighbors,” a local unit was a “Campus,”
and most officers bore the same titles as in the older Woodmen societies.

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(Historic photo courtesy of  Denver Public Library)

gathering

(Historic photo courtesy of  Denver Public Library)

Like many fraternal orders to come out of the Progressive Era of the late 1800s and early 1900s this Woodmen group organized recreational gatherings, awarded scholarships, lent their time to community service projects, and offered insurance benefits for African-Americans.  It continued to act on its own as this family and community driven fraternal society, albeit with changes along the way, until 1995 when The Danish Brotherhood in America merged with the Woodmen.

While the broader roots of the American Woodmen were in place before 2100 Downing was built, it played an important, supportive role for African-Americans and their families in Denver after its construction in 1950, just before the official start of the Civil Rights Movement.

What is it today?

Today it is the home of Humphries Poli Architects.  You can find out more about them at their website, linked here.

What makes me really happy is the care they’ve taken not only acknowledging the history of the building, but upholding its integrity both inside and out.  Upon moving in to the building, the firm notes how the place was in need of interior repairs:

The intervention of an architect’s office into the existing fabric of the structure sought to compliment and make modern all that is Moderne. The attack was two-pronged– restore the main public spaces on the first level and redefine the second floor as a state-of-the-art design studio which embraced technology while fostering teamwork and open communication. With the above in mind, the primary spaces on the first floor were restored, but with new building systems introduced to contribute to a LEED-CI Silver Certification.  The intervention touches the existing fabric lightly, in transparent layers, always revealing its former purpose.  Upstairs, the building’s structure is the star, revealing glazed and unglazed terra cotta, steel, and concrete as a backdrop for the open loft studio spaces.

From this description they wrote and the pictures on their website, 2100 Downing certainly seems in good hands.

Thanks for stopping by for this week’s post and see you in the future! (Roughly 7 days when I post again.)


Sources:

http://mountainstates.construction.com/mountainstates_construction_news/2009/1001_LandmarkDesignation.asp

http://digitool.library.colostate.edu/R/4LF4G7XJKQL3HT23STPEH9VLR2SL2F7L73BEMGBAGQ61LV6YDH-02537?func=search-simple-go&local_base=GEN01&find_code=WRD&request=City%20Park%20West%20(Denver%2C%20Colo.)–Pictorial%20works.&collection_id=3109

http://hparch.com/work/american-woodmen-insurance-building/

http://blogs.denverpost.com/thebalancesheet/2009/08/04/american-woodmans-life-building-gets-landmark-designation/3584/

Click to access Bill_2009_0311.pdf

McAlister, Lee and Virginia. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

http://www.denvergov.org/cpd/CommunityPlanningandDevelopment/LandmarkPreservation/HistoricLandmarksMap/tabid/442537/Default.aspx

Click to access SCAW%20History.pdf

http://www.denverwoodmen.org/about/about-history.aspx