Paramount Theater

The Paramount Theater on Glenarm Street in Downtown Denver is a visual treat.  Originally constructed as a silent movie theater, the Paramount was designed by Denver architect Temple Buell [pdf] in the Art Deco style for the Publix Theater chain.  It was constructed in 1930 in a period of transition as the motion picture industry moved from silent films to ‘talkies’.


The main entrance of the Paramount Theater was originally through the Kittredge Building on 16th Street (as you can see in this historic photograph), while a secondary entrance was located in the theater and office portion of the building on Glenarm Place.  This configuration was later altered with a marquee and neon blade sign running down the southeast corner of the Glenarm façade.


The National Register nomination [pdf] for the Paramount Theater indicates that the façade was erected using cast concrete blocks with glazed terra-cotta ornament.  I was surprised to find that out, as the entire façade looks like glazed terra cotta to me.  I would guess that if any portion of the façade is cast stone, it is the masonry piers.  Whatever their material, they have an interesting texture of irregular, vertically-oriented striations that mimic natural sandstone laid with its bedding plains perpendicular to the ground.  The vertical striations of the cast stone also bring the eye to the top of the building, which is crowned by this wonderful geometric- and floral-patterned parapet.  The theater also has ornate spandrel panels and window sills.


Paramountdetail3The central portion of the façade is flanked by two taller tower-like features, which also add verticality to the three-story building.  Each of these end ‘towers’ have thin mullions between each window opening, rising to a chevron shaped parapet executed in richly ornamented terra cotta.

The terra cotta was fabricated by the Denver Terra Cotta Company and was sculpted by Julius Peter Ambrusch, their celebrated in-house artist.  Ambrusch, an Austrian native, emigrated to the United States after the first World War, arriving in Denver in 1923.  He worked for the Denver Terra Cotta Company for nineteen years before becoming a three-dimensional scale model maker for the US Bureau of Reclamation.  Ambrusch’s artistic talents can be found on terra-cotta buildings throughout Denver, the Front Range, and the Western states.

The terra-cotta ornament on the Paramount Theater features “recurrent motifs of rosettes, leaves, feathers, and fiddle-head ferns”. (Source: National Register nomination [pdf])  If you look closely at the photo below, you will see all three masonry features present on the theater’s façade: the vertically striated blocks of the piers; the smooth, zig-zag shaped terra cotta; and the richly sculpted ornament created by Ambrusch.


The building was saved from demolition in about 1980 by a group called the Friends of the Paramount with support by Historic Denver, Inc.  It is a Denver city landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.  The Paramount Theater no longer shows movies but is used as a concert hall and an events venue.

The Paramount Theater has one of two remaining Wurlitzer organs still in use in the United States; the other being at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall.  The Paramount’s twin-console Wurlitzer organ, which used to accompany silent movies, has been restored.  Although I do not have any photographs of the interior of the theater, but the Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library has an extensive collection of historic photographs of the interior and exterior of the building.  If you do not have a chance to visit the theater during a concert or event, I hope it will once again be open to the public next spring during Doors Open Denver.

Mullen Building at St. Joseph Hospital

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.