Modern History: The Story of Casper Hegner • July 1st, 2014
The Story of Casper Hegner
In an era when much of the architecture we see is driven by the image, presented here is an artifact of originality in Denver. This is the story of Denver’s first modern house. Casper Hegner (1909-1991) is a hero of the modern era in Denver and his story is at once cautionary and revelatory.
“One cannot remember the future.” John Hejduk, after reading Metamorphosis
Imagine: You are a recent architectural school graduate ready to make your mark in the city you have chosen to put down your roots.
“The site is a hill top, located at the intersection of two main avenues. The traffic, combined with the building restrictions, dictated the placing of the house far back on the lot. Brick and timber were selected as the cheapest most suitable local materials, the plan developed naturally from the site requirements and the budget; the largest and fewest rooms possible were designed to reduce both upkeep and housekeeping.
Our family is small and will require at most one servant, but provision is made for adding an additional bedroom and bath over the garage. We felt the plan should be kept long and narrow to ensure cross ventilation and maximum sunlight. The best exposure is southeast and corner windows were a natural result. Because of traffic dangers, as much ground area as possible was preserved by the erection of a retaining wall, thus eliminating useless slopes. More privacy and safety were secured by a deck on the second floor. It commands a view of the Rockies, and because of the desirability as an outdoor living room in this dry climate, the deck was made accessible to the hall, no private rooms being a thoroughfare to it. “ Casper Hegner, Architectural Record, April 1937
The house is simple in plan with elongated rooms filled with light. The structural framing allows light to flood in through corner ribbon windows. Simple rectilinear masses of natural stucco were set on a red brick base. There is some speculation that Hegner’s western roots and awareness of Frank Lloyd Wright led to the use of natural materials evolving from the site.
Relationship to site is an inversion of the typical image-oriented landscape of the day. The site perimeter is bounded by a landscape retaining wall leveling the site for use by the house. As a child, Hegner’s son remembers how large their yard seemed in contrast with their friend’s yards. (They did have to keep away from the formidable edge and five-foot drop to the sidewalk.) This simple device gives the house a sense of grandeur and aloofness. The wall as perimeter, as an architectural device, gives strength at the sidewalk edge.
One is drawn, via a slot in the wall, up flights of stairs, turning at right angles and back again to center on the sculpted forms of the house. There is a clear sense of procession. The landscape rather than being tucked up close to the house to frame or soften the architecture is rather at the perimeter of the site atop the wall. With the mature landscape the house feels miles away from the adjacent busy street. As one ascends to the entry there is a distinct sense of retreat from the everyday world.
The sculpted recess of the entry porch receives visitors into a small entry hall with direct connection to the living room. The living room is a pleasantly-scaled generous volume exuding purity and simplicity of line. The light coming through the ribbon windows at the corner provides contrast to the strong form of the room. Dappled light and view into the now mature landscaping give an illusion of being in an aerie at the top of the trees.
The current owners have renovated the interiors and found traces of the original green paint in the living room. The suspicion is that Hegner may have been attempting to subdue the strong Colorado sunlight prior to the shade of mature landscaping. Flush-mounted glass plate ceiling light fixtures are found through out the house and were made by the architect in his garage. Rough sheet metal boxes were lined with eight to ten, 25-watt bulbs. The etched glass cover plates were mounted directly to the ceiling. Hegner wanted no projecting impurities within the rectilinear volumes of the house.
This house is without doubt a modernist castle-on-the-hill, abutments and all, including one of the very first electronic drawbridges. The residence looks large at only 2800 square feet and this was clearly the architect’s intent. The house as originally designed had two bedrooms. In the early 40’s Hegner added another two rooms to the north to accommodate his growing family of three sons.
The architectural issues of transparency and light, anchoring in the land, simplicity of form, and use of industrial product windows are hallmarks of the residence. It is ordered by visual image and procession, with a bit of posturing. As the current owner suggests: “Casper Hegner’s ego is hovering about somewhere…” This is the work of a 26-year-old architect setting out to claim the high ground in pursuit of becoming THE avant garde architect in Denver.
The residence of Casper Hegner built in 1935 is as avant garde as anything one can find of that year. The Hegner Residence was published in Architectural Forum in April 1937. It was one of only five modernist residences presented out of more than 50 houses in that issue. The other modern houses in the article are by such architects as Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler.
Current architectural theorists ask once again for: “A re-conception of architecture as a moral undertaking based on the problems of the day…unsullied by nostalgia and traditional form falsely re-enlivened through picturesqueness debilitated by longing.” Stanley Tigerman
The Hegner House was well on the way toward this goal almost 80 years ago.
The house generated a good deal of controversy in its day. Many of the leaders of the Modern Movement visited the house while in Denver. Sigfried Giedion, author of the seminal work Space, Time and Architecture, visited and thought that it should be painted all white. When Hegner completed an addition to the house in the 1950’s he would accede to this idea, perhaps out of a sense of artistic insecurity regarding the appropriateness of the distinctive brick base-form. Having trained as a Modernist at Princeton, Hegner would clearly have wanted the house to be in the International Style of the era.
Alvar Aalto, the renowned Finnish architect, toured the house as well. More traditional Denver architects who visited the house were aghast. In an interview with Michael Paglia Hegner admitted that when Jaques Benedict toured the house he feigned collapse on the stair and quoted him as saying: “ How could you?” Whether this was due to the minimalist chrome detailing or the lack of a landing is not known.
Lay people of the day were somewhat puzzled by this brash building. Contemporaries of Hegner insist that the house was “a subject of great merriment” for the general public. University Boulevard running east of the property was, in 1935, a simple two-lane road. There was not much else there; horse pastures to the east and only 4-5 houses around at the beginning of the neighborhood. People would drive by and try to imagine “What was that man thinking?”
The nearby neighborhood is now going through the scrape-off / pop-top syndrome typical of many Denver neighborhoods. The house was in jeopardy of being irretrievably altered or destroyed just a few short years ago. It is still regarded with skepticism by those who do not appreciate this particular aesthetic.
“It is the Acropolis that made a rebel of me. One clear image will stand in my mind forever: The Parthenon. Stark, stripped, economical, violent; a clamorous outcry against a landscape of grace and terror. All strength and purity.” Le Corbusier, Fourth meeting of the CIAM, 1933
Hegner was a structural authoritarian and a functionalist. He studied architecture at Princeton with Jean Labatut from 1926-1930. Labatut was one of a handful of ivy league professors who took up the torch of modernism educating the next generation. Hegner was later a friend of Eero Saarinen while at Yale sharing numerous discussions on theory and issues facing architecture of the era.
Influences also include study at the Ecoles des Beaux Arts, Fontainebleau in 1930. Hegner was likely to have seen Gropius’ Werkbund Exhibit and visited many modernist icons during his Grand Tour. The Paris Exhibit of the Bauhaus work was on display while he was at the Ecole. Gropius’ semi-detached faculty quarters at the Bauhaus Dessau were completed in 1925, Le Corbusier’s Villa La Roche Paris in 1925, and Villa Savoye under construction from 1929-31. No information is available about how Hegner spent his time that summer. The ideas planted by Labatut and a student of modern architecture would have been drawn to the modernist icons.
Modernism in Europe was a reaction to class order and structure after World War 1. It was an antidote to formal style and tradition. Europe was a continent attempting to lose its past.
“The Bauhaus was not an institution with a clear program – it was an idea, and Gropius formulated this idea with great precision. He said: Art and technology – the new unity.“ Mies van der Rohe, 1953
“The fact that it was an idea, I think, is the cause of the enormous influence the Bauhaus had on any progressive school around the globe. You cannot do that with organization, you cannot do that with propaganda. Only an idea spreads so far.” Sigfried Gideon
By contrast America had open spaces waiting to be filled with middle class dreams. A sentimental desire for a cozy craftsman bungalow was as adventurous as one could expect in the outlands of that era. We were a country trying to invent a past. American dreams were unable to embrace the idea of living in a laboratory; we did not want our houses mistaken for dental clinics. Hollywood may have had us yearning for the Art Moderne house of Carol Lombard and Clark Gable. (Frank Sinatra’s modern Palm Springs house was still decades away.) We wondered: “How can I play a love scene next to a fireplace that looks like an autoclave?” The International Style contained images too stark and cold to be accepted wholeheartedly by a country invested in inventing itself.
The Hegner Residence seems driven by different aspirations than the production/manufactured-based housing of Europe. His house is grounded, anchored in its western setting. In contrast to that, the ribbon of window corner opens up the volume providing lightness and airiness. Decidedly these windows were not a characteristic of Denver’s typical post-Victorian architecture.
The Bauhaus “attempted to bridge the gulf between the world of spirit and the world of the everyday.”
Hegner was a person driven by idea and the quest for spirit in the everyday.
To have transplanted the ideas of the modern movement to Denver in 1935 took a great deal of courage.
A great epoch has begun.
There exists a new spirit.
There exists a mass of work conceived in the new spirit; it is to be met with particularly in industrial production.
Architecture is stifled by custom.
The “styles” are a lie.
Style is a unity of principle animating all the work of an epoch, the result of state of mind which has it’s own special character.
Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style!
Our eyes, unhappily, are unable to discern it.
Le Corbusier in Towards a New Architecture,1931
Every Man for Himself and God Against All (with thanks to our friend Werner Herzog)
It’s interesting that Hegner began to abandon the purity of the modern as he got further into his career. Part of the reason, as described by his son, was that he was “just trying to sell some houses.” During this period he served as Chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission and as President of the Colorado AIA. In 1955 President Lyndon Johnson appointed him as National Commissioner of Public Buildings for the General Services Administration.
Ultimately, having a modernist architectural office in a city that did not have the clientele to support such an enterprise lead to financial pressures. Denver’s desire to be more national and international lead to projects being awarded to firms having national prominence. As with many artful endeavors, “the genius is not necessarily appreciated in his home town.” His service in the Marines during World War 2 and later the Korean War lead Hegner late in his career to be appointed Chief of Design for the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C. completing hospitals and care facilities across the country.
“The engineer and the architect have to work with other people’s money. They must consider their clients and, like politicians, cannot be too far ahead of the moment.”
Frederick Etchells, Introduction to Towards a New Architecture, 1931
Hegner’s son admitted to me that his father’s decision to leave Denver was a “great sacrifice.” It is true to this man’s character that he should want his three sons to have the same start in life his father had given him. He put all of his sons through Princeton. It’s a cautionary tale that he was unable to provide for his family in the way he wanted as a modern architect in Denver.
Hegner’s iconic house stirs memories for me. The peculiar relationship between visual memory and primal modern forms has me recalling a modern house in my childhood neighborhood. The strong clean lines, raw aluminum, porthole windows and the certain aloofness are clear to me even now. Many have shared similar memories. Perhaps these minimalist forms call up vivid memories out of the visual cortex. This should not surprise: great orators used memory palaces to keep thoughts ordered prior to the invention of written language. Recent research has discovered that memory is intimately tied with our awareness of space.
“Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has advanced art, business, design, or humanity, was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information. Because the only way to be certain before you begin is if the thing you seek to do has already been done.” Jonathan Fields
We get one chance to make artifacts for the future.
Good work should be honored and respected.
It is our good fortune that the owners of this house elected to restore it.
As an owner, builder or designer don’t we all want this of the projects we build?
One hundred years from today someone may say:
“Let’s save that old building from 2014, it has good bones.”
“If there weren’t so much style, maybe there would be time for more content.”
Tibor Kalman and Karrie Jacobs, The Edge of the Millennium, 1993
For the Arch11 Blog
Summer Solstice 2014
Thank you to:
Michael Paglia, Art and Architecture Critic
John Woodward MD, “Defender of Modernism”
Don D. Etter, Denver Going Modern, 1977
Robert Alan Bowlby, Preservation Architect
Bill Bessesen, Landscape Architect