It’s Back to School Week in Denver, so to celebrate we are going to examine the history and masonry of a few of Denver’s public schools. First up: the Fairmont School in Denver’s Baker neighborhood.
This gorgeous brick and terra-cotta school was built in 1924 based on a design by prolific Denver architect Henry J. Manning, often referred to as Harry. Manning was an Illinois native who moved to Denver in 1904. He had an architectural studio with F.C. Wagner from 1904 until Wagner’s death in 1921, and was in private practice until his own death in 1933. (Historic Denver and History Colorado [pdf] have great websites about this architect’s life and oeuvre.)
Thanks to the Denver Public Library, we know that the original Fairmont School was an imposing three-story brick and stone building with a standing-seam metal hipped roof, side dormers, and a central, rectangular-shaped cupola. It is not clear why this building was replaced with the current school building, though the current building is much larger (and frankly less ominous) than the original building. The Public Library also has numerous photos of the 1924 Fairmont School, including many of the interior, shortly after its construction. It amazes me that these historic photographs look as though someone sepia-toned photographs from today – so little has changed.
Now let’s take a look at the masonry.
The building has several entries, including this one facing West 3rd Avenue. The entry has an elegant terra-cotta surround with an ornate projecting oriel window at the second floor. The terra cotta is buff with a slightly darker mottled texture, which makes it resemble cut stone, as you can see in this bay window, below.
The Gothic Revival details of the bay and oriel windows, and the tower above the main entry (see below) are watered down from a more formal Gothic design but they still impart a sense of solidity, awe and reverence typical of the style. Notice that the arched windows on the façade have triangular cusps that extend into the arch, but there is no complicated tracery. Instead, this more formal Gothic Revival element is implied in the ornate, repeated panels above the windows and at the roof line. The panels succeed in making you think that the architectural design is more complicated and more ornate than it really is.
As you can see above, the repeated square panels have three designs: an eight-pointed star containing an inset octofoil motif with a shield at the center; a diamond-shaped feature with an inset octofoil motif pointing to a rosette; and a stylized X flanked by two vertical panels that almost appear as books placed on a bookshelf.
The main body of the building is brick masonry, which provides an excellent contrast to the terra cotta. It is a deep red-to-blackish colored flashed brick, meaning the bricks have uneven patches of lighter and darker colors. Flashed brick is created through a deliberate manipulation of the chemicals and temperatures in the kiln, and was a popular style of brickmaking in the early twentieth century. It lends variety to a long wall of what might otherwise be identical red brick.
Not only does ornate masonry of the Fairmont School extend along the main street façade, but it wraps the east (below) and west sides of the building. (The south side is largely obscured by a 1972 addition.) Note the little slate-roof structure that fills in a recessed corner in the photo below. These small features can be found dotted around the building’s three façades. They probably serve very little purpose, but they add whimsy to the façades.
Everything at the Fairmont School is highly ornate. Even the physical plant on the southwest corner has terra-cotta Gothic Revival detailing at the window openings, the roof line, and the smoke stack.