Month of Modern, CU Art Museum and Historic Boulder join forces on October 13th for a one-of-a-kind tour of the homes designed by modernist architect, Charles Haertling.
By way of nature’s design, architect Charles Haertling built modernism in the mountains of Boulder, Colorado. Clean lines with minimalist ideations, Haertling was modern before his time, bringing houses of the future to a once small mountain town.
“My father used to always say a home is something that you put in a house,” says Joel Haertling. “So he did not design homes, he designed houses for homes to be put in.”
Haertling designed over 40 structures, most of which are found nestled in the foothills and camouflaged by now mature trees. After serving a two-year stint in the Navy and graduating from Washington University in Missouri, Haertling opened his office to practice architecture in 1957 and found his big break soon after in 1958 with the Noble House.
When asked to describe his father, Joel differentiates him from his work.
“My father: A potent aesthetic resource — qualified by caring. His work: Aesthetically coherent and enlightening upon seeing and living in.”
It is Haertling’s designs that find themselves intriguing audiences of all generations. To this day, people frequently stop to catch a glimpse of the groundbreaking masterpieces that took the architecture world by surprise.
However, Haertling’s houses were not all created equal. Amongst the quiet neighborhood streets of Boulder sits the Volsky House. Haertling’s residences were named after the first family who lived in them — families that Haertling interviewed and worked tirelessly with to ensure his vision would be properly maintained and loved.
Built in 1964, the Volsky House, like all Haertling houses, is special. With its circular design and curved wooden features, it was an object built in an unorthodox and foreign way. When the home was originally being built, neighbors petitioned to have the construction stopped due to the “grossness” of the design.
But present-day owners Firuzeh and Navid Saidi are in awe of its charm and modernism.
“As soon as you walk up to the house, the element of surprise grabs you and pulls you in,” says Firuzeh. “You don’t know what to expect when you open the front door.”
Details such as an indoor suspension bridge walkway and a living tree in a peaceful atrium, the Volsky House is more than meets the eye.
“Haertling’s creations were organic,” Firuzeh says. “The beauty of the house can be found both indoor and outdoor making it feel as if you are living in a treehouse.”
But owning a house that was intentionally built without a single 90-degree angle poses some specific complications.
“The hardest part about owning a Haertling house is the maintenance,” says Firuzeh. “The integrity of the house must be kept intact, while the upkeep of such a complex design results in the house becoming a true labor of love. But it is an absolute privilege to live in this house.”
While the Saidis did not know Haertling personally, it was Bob Matheson who knew Haertling as more than just a limit-pushing modernist. Matheson and his wife befriended Viola Haertling — Charles’s wife — when she was the choir director at their family church in Boulder. Soon after, the four of them became close friends.
“I think that there was an understanding that he might someday design a house for us, but that day might be many years away. In the meantime, Charles was designing and building more houses. Initially, the banks wouldn’t loan much money, because the houses were so weird. But he kept building more houses,” says Matheson. “And one day, everything changed. A couple of his houses appeared on the cover of LIFE Magazine and Charles was proclaimed the new ‘Frank Lloyd Wright.’ Suddenly, everyone wanted Haertling houses.”
After buying his own land, Matheson’s dream of having Haertling build a house for his family soon became a reality.
“We found 10 acres of land at the western tip of Davidson Mesa, with a great view of Boulder and the mountains from the southeast,” says Matheson. “At first, Haertling refused to build our house. But when we brought him up to the land, he looked around for a moment and suddenly changed his mind. I’m not sure whether Haertling thought about how his foreign design might look to 50,000 Boulderites, or what really caused him to decide to build us a house suddenly. But of course, we were very happy that he did.”
According to Matheson, Haertling saw his houses as sculptures. At times the functionality of the inside was lost due to the extreme focus on the outside.
Through the years, Haertling houses have grown to be adored by not only the community but by architects alike. His designs are empowering, inspired by nature and a proven testament to following your passion — no matter what others may think.
“The design process is one of painful exhilaration,” says Joel, “where one gives ultimate importance to the problem being solved, letting the problem itself be an integrated solution which uses materials and structures void of distortion of uses untrue to that nature of the material so as to give excitement, adventure and human interest to the project.”
To learn more about Haertling houses, join Month of Modern on October 13th for a one-of-a-kind home tour experience in Boulder. In partnership with CU Art Museum and Historic Boulder, see an awe-inspiring group of select Charles Haertling houses, including the Volsky House. All proceeds benefit the CU Art Museum, Historic Boulder and AIAS at CU Boulder.