Polychrome Brick at the First Avenue Presbyterian Church

Today we are going to look at the First Avenue Presbyterian Church in the Baker neighborhood.  At first glance it’s an average neighborhood church building, as you can see below.


But when you look more closely at the masonry, the polychrome brick work reveals that this church is an architectural gem.

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The First Avenue Presbyterian Church was designed by famed Denver architect Montana Fallis (pdf) fairly early in his career during his partnership with John Stein.  (Fallis designed several churches and commercial or office buildings, but he was best known in his later career for his design of the Mayan Theater and the Buerger Brothers Building.)

Constructed in 1906, the First Avenue Presbyterian Church made extensive use of a mixture of pale pink and light gray brick that is very similar in color to Castle Rock rhyolite.  The brick was probably used instead of rhyolite as a cost-savings measure, but the architect may have selected it as a modern approach to church architecture, which in the 1880s and 1890s was dominated by heavily rusticated stone masonry.  The use of this pale pink and light gray brick is uncommon, but it is even less common to see it accented with yellow and orange bricks at the entrance and windows.


This polychrome brick treatment continues on all four sides of the building but is most prominent at the entrance, with its recessed, but simplified archivolts at the Gothic arch.


What I also found interesting is that the base of the building is supported by Castle Rock rhyolite, which you can see at the right in the photo below.  But the steps are a different type of stone, probably a buff Lyons sandstone from Larimer County.


The architect was clearly familiar with various types of masonry available in the early 1900s, and was comfortable mixing materials and colors to create a unified, polychrome façade.

The Rhyolite of Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church

This week we are going to look at some of Denver’s incredible churches.  The first one is my favorite church in Denver: Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, at the corner of Broadway and East 18th Avenue.


I first saw this church in 2010 when I visited Denver for the Association for Preservation Technology Annual Meeting.  Trinity is a gorgeous pink and gray church that sits in a sort of no-man’s land of parking lots surrounded by skyscrapers.  Here is another view of the church looking southeast.


Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church was designed by architect Robert R. Roeschlaub and constructed in 1887.  Roeschlaub’s name may sound familiar to you because he designed the Dora Moore School on Capitol Hill, which we looked at last week.  The Dora Moore School couldn’t be more different from Trinity Church in design and materials.


Trinity Church was constructed using Castle Rock rhyolite, which is a strong stone formed by compressed hot volcanic ash.  There is a particularly good vein of rhyolite in Castle Rock, as I discussed in the Three Stone Buildings post back in June.  This pinkish, grayish stone is typically quite durable.  It can be rusticated, smooth-cut, or carved into ornamental details.  All three of these treatments are found on the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church.

Rusticated stone, seen below, was cut into irregularly sized rectangular units and laid into the wall in horizontal bands.  The majority of the church has gray or pinkish-colored stone, while buff-colored stone was used as an accent.


You can see the buff-colored stones surrounding the church’s rose window in the photo below.  Different colors of rhyolite were also laid in a checkerboard pattern at the peak of the gables.


Smooth-cut stone, seen below, was cut into more regular units to form Gothic arches at the entries.  (The squat columns supporting the arches are polished granite, probably a Colorado Red granite from the Pinewood Springs area of Larimer County.)


Finally, intricately carved rhyolite was used around windows and at the roofline.  Decorative turrets flank the central gabled roof, and the square tower at the northwest corner has an elaborately carved cornice featuring a female’s head and stylized foliage.


This building is truly a masterwork of stone, and must have employed many stone carvers and masons when it was being erected.  I recently read on Denver Infill that there are a few new buildings being planned for some of the surrounding parking lots.  One can only hope that the design of these new buildings respects the historic architecture of the church and does not diminish our experience of the church in any way.

PS. If you ever have a chance to go inside the church, please do!  The interior sanctuary has incredible carved wood details and is illuminated by luminous, polychrome leaded glass.  The church is equally impressive on the inside and out.

Three Stone Buildings

In April, my husband and I visited several of the sites participating in Doors Open Denver, the Denver Architectural Foundation’s annual open house.  Our favorite stop was Denver Water’s Three Stone Buildings.  The knowledgeable guide told us that these three small buildings were built in 1880, 1881 and 1905, all of Castle Rock rhyolite.


The photo below is from the Denver Architectural Foundation’s Facebook page, and shows you two of the three buildings as they appeared in 1896.  While the history and use of the buildings are interesting, I was most interested in the stone.


Castle Rock rhyolite, known geologically as Wall Mountain tuff, was formed during a volcanic explosion near Mt. Princeton about 36 million years ago.  The volcano spewed an immense amount of hot ash and pumice into the air.  When it landed, the hot ash and pumice compressed and cooled to form either tuff or rhyolite.  Tuff is a soft pumice stone that erodes easily and is not a durable building stone. (The ancestral Puebloan people carved caveates out of tuff.  Many are now protected as part of Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.)  Rhyolite, however, was better compressed and is much more durable as a building stone.  According to the geology website Geocaching:

“This rhyolite is ideal for a building stone because of its uniformity, durability, and light weight. The glassy matrix does not have cracks that weaken many types of rock. When it does break, it breaks in conchoidal fractures similar to patterns in broken glass or other non-crystalline volcanic rock like obsidian.”

Fortunately for us, a thick band of fine-grained rhyolite about 15 to 30 feet thick was deposited in the Castle Rock area, just south of Denver.  Most of the Castle Rock rhyolite is quite durable, but inclusions in the stone like iron cause staining and deterioration of the stone.  Castle Rock rhyolite began to be quarried in the late-nineteenth century, and many historic buildings along the Front Range were constructed of this stone. (A nice collection of historic photographs of Castle Rock and its environs, including one of a rhyolite quarry, can be found here.)

The rhyolite used to erect the Three Stone Buildings is very fine grained and is in excellent condition despite being over a century old.  Take a look at the original tooling marks banding the corner stones and the irregular, chipped appearance (conchoidal fractures) typical of rusticated rhyolite units on the 1905 building, below.


You can also see small iron inclusions that are rusting and staining the stone’s surface, especially at lower right in the photo above, and the two units in the photo below.


The bedding pattern of the hot ash and pumice is also evident on some of the stones in the above photograph, which was taken of one of the two older buildings.  The quality of the stone is much less regular on these two older buildings, as is the carving of the stones.  Still, the condition of these buildings is quite impressive.  Clearly Denver Water has been a good steward of these historic and important buildings.