Shortly after I decided to start this blog, a friend introduced me to the Mullen Building at St. Joseph Hospital. Located on Franklin Street in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood, the Mullen Building is a masterpiece of Art Deco brick work, the likes of which I had never before seen.
Designed by celebrated Denver architect Temple H. Buell, the Catherine Mullen Memorial Nurses Home was erected between 1932 and 1933. Money for its construction was donated by Ella Mullen Weckbaugh in memory of her mother, Catherine Smith Mullen, though the source of the family’s wealth was Ella’s father and Catherine’s husband, John K. Mullen.
John Mullen had an interesting life. According to Wikipedia, he was born in Ballinasloe, County Galway in the 1840s, moved to the United States when he was about 10 years old, and eventually settled with his family in Oriskany Falls, New York where he worked in a flour mill in his teenage years. That may not sound remarkable to most people, but his family’s choice of Oriskany Falls surprised me. Oriskany Falls is a tiny village in Central New York not too far from where I grew up. It seems like a strange choice for Irish immigrants in the 1850s, as the town is land-locked in the center of New York State, it is several miles from the Erie Canal, and the area was still considered the frontier as late as the 1830s. In the nineteenth century, the countryside around Oriskany Falls was (and still is) largely agricultural, though by the 1850s there must have been sufficient industry to attract the Mullen family. However, John did not stay in Oriskany Falls for long. By his late teens, John Mullen moved west to seek his fortune in Kansas and later in Denver. He purchased his first flour mill in Denver in 1875 and by the 1880s owned several mills and consolidated the industry. He eventually diversified his investments to land and cattle, and was known for his philanthropic work as he grew older. But enough about Mullen. The brick masonry of the Mullen Building is what fascinates me.
Temple Buell’s design for the Mullen Building included the use of a contrasting buff-brick body and deep-red brick piers. Each line of windows is connected from the ground to the parapet with these wonderful vertical piers of undulating brick. When you first glance at the building, it appears as though the red-brick piers are rising up to meet the sky, but the downward angles of the decoration also appear as though the brick is melting down the façade. Descriptions of the building often use both upward and downward vocabulary, with History Colorado calling the brick ornament “a rustic wheat tuft”, while another website calls it “waterfall” brickwork. Either way, Buell’s remarkable, dynamic design is uniquely his own creation. (Buell used similar geometric ornament at the Paramount Theater, built in 1930 using terra cotta, as well as the brick-clad Horace Mann Middle School, built in about 1939.)
The brick that Buell selected for the Mullen Building not only varied in color, but it varies in texture. If you look closely in the photo below (click to enlarge), you will notice that the buff brick of the building’s body has an etched spiral design on its stretchers and on some of its headers, though other headers have simple linear striations created by the extruded brick’s die. The red brick has similar spiral patterns intermixed with plain sides and striated headers.
Buell’s method for installing the brick is also unique. Typically brick is laid in stretchers or headers, perhaps with a few upended or diagonally laid bricks to create ornament. At the Mullen Building, the red brick piers were created using alternating patterns of headers, stretchers, rowlocks (or headers oriented vertically), and soldiers (or stretchers oriented vertically). The buff brick body has several courses made with a mixture of stretchers and headers, and are separated by a course of recessed rowlock bricks. This irregular pattern of brick installation allows the outer wythe of brick to better bond with the inner back-up brick courses and creates a more stable wall system.
The Mullen Building’s street façades and side elevations are clad with the same unique masonry ornament, but the adjacent structure’s window piers also pay homage to the Art Deco masterpiece. The adjacent structure, which is to the southwest of the Mullen Building, is partially visible in the photo below, just above the glass skywalk.
The adjacent building, which appears to be a mechanical annex of the main St. Joseph’s Hospital structure, has a red-brick body with decorative spandrels, sills and parapets executed in rough textured, maroon brick. Although it’s certainly not as interesting as the Mullen Building, it is nice to see that the architect of the addition paid homage to Buell’s masterpiece.