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For Architect, Pencil, Paper Still His Tools

September 17, 2007
For architect, pencil, paper still his tools Hugh Brown, 71, reaches milestone: 50 years of design Steven R. Nickerson © The Rocky Hugh Brown is the senior member of Davis Architects Partnership, one of Denver's largest architecture firms. He is the only person at the firm who still uses a drafting table and pencil to design buildings. Over 50 years he has built a sterling resume.STORY TOOLS Email this story | Print MAP MY NEWS By James B. Meadow, Rocky Mountain News August 11, 2007 Just before he was to embark for Europe on a wondrous fellowship that would ignite his sensibilities like phosphorous, the young architect from Oklahoma sat in a stylish New York restaurant, looked up from the menu and earnestly posed a question to the urbane chairman of the committee that was sending him abroad. "Excuse me, sir. What's an 'entree'?" Nearly 50 years later, Hugh Brown is chuckling over the memory of that ingenuous Sooner. Of course, he can afford to laugh at himself. At 71, the most senior member of one of Denver's largest architecture firms, has not only designed himself one sterling resume, he has become an accomplished painter, photographer and oenophile to say nothing of a bit of a Beau Brummell when it comes to bow ties. He's also more than somewhat lost when it comes to high tech. Which might explain why he is the only person at Davis Architects Partnership who still uses a drafting table and pencil as design instruments. Why he prefers to dictate responses to e-mails for his assistant to transmit. Why, upon seeing a young architect conjure up a computer-generated design, he shakes his head and whispers, "I have no idea what he's doing." "I guess you could say Hugh's a little eccentric - but in a wonderful way," says Charlie Forster, a friend of 17 years. "He's so well-grounded; I like his style." An enigma with style Forster might be talking about the thick, dark-framed Buddy Holly eyeglasses that give Brown an owlish appearance to a face that already resembles that of the late actor Jason Robards Jr. Or he might be referring to the thinning, off-white hair that cascades well past his collar and gives him a mad scientist ethos. Then again, he might also be talking about Brown's architecture, which is less about his ego and more about others' needs. "I've not seen a time where it's been Hugh's interest to design a monument to his architectural abilities," says Forster, a banker in Buena Vista who has seen Brown's handiwork in the design of Salida's Heart of the Rockies Medical Center, as well as a building for Colorado Mountain Community College in Buena Vista. "He has the abilities to design a quality structure with a great appearance that has a practical feel to it, a warm feel, a comforting feel for those people who use those facilities." Or, as Brown puts it, "There's almost nothing out there that doesn't have a client who needs to be accommodated and pleased. And I don't mean the owner." Which explains why when he talks about designing, say, hospitals - and he's considered one of the eminent local architects of medical and research facilities - he says, "I think a modern hospital and a hotel are about the same. Patients and guests, you've got to think about their needs." A quick visit to Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette gives some backbone to Brown's statement. Outside, the graceful curves and two- tone brick make it a welcoming place, not a citadel. And when you enter the lobby, the wave of natural light that washes over an array of plants is as pleasant as it is warming. Similarly, Brown's design philosophy pulses at the University of Denver's Ritchie Center. Although Brown wasn't the lead designer, his bent for the human scale is all over the sprawling recreational facility. Yes, it's large, and, yes, that golden tower is a skyline unto itself, but there is something accessible about the building, something that rescues it from being an overpowering monument and makes it just fit. Not that Brown thinks his work is very cutting edge. "Look, people are still people," he says. "And buildings are mostly for people." He peers out of those glasses. "Architecture, things like proportion and scale, haven't changed much. The design principles in 15th century Florence are not any different from what we do now." Brown's reverence for the timeless sweep of architecture might explain why, when you ask him about his style, his first reaction is almost a wince, as if the word is too confining. "Style? The good architect should be a generalist." Then, "I don't like the word 'style.' It's OK in fashion design, but not in architecture." That might be what he'd say, but what he might mean, well . . . . "Hugh can be enigmatic at times, maybe even a little cryptic," chuckles John Anderson, one of the doyens of Denver architecture, as he recalls collaborating with Brown on a project. While he calls Brown "delightful," a "thoughtful architect," a "talented designer" and "fun to work with," he also says, "Sometimes, it was hard to decipher where he stood on things. You'd come away from a meeting, scratching your head, thinking, 'What the hell did he mean?' " Anderson thinks for a minute. "I don't mean this in anything but a good way, but Hugh kind of picked up Rod Davis' mantle as the character of the firm." The pull of Colorado Volatile, funny, opinionated, brutally honest, Rodney Davis was one of Denver architecture's larger-than-life figures. In 1971, he liked what he saw of a promising architect named Hugh Brown and swooped him up. By then Brown had been in Denver for four years, moving among different firms, looking for a destination, trusting that his instincts would lead him there. Not that he had always been so focused. As a young man, his first career tilt was toward art. A gifted painter, he was drifting in that direction when his father, an architect in Shawnee, Okla., gently asked him how he would support himself as a painter. Hmmm. "I was not hard to convince," he would later recall, explaining his segue into architecture. A B+ student at Oklahoma A&M - which became Oklahoma State University during his years there - Brown was "not terribly socially adept." He was, however, adept enough to pursue and marry Joyce Lain. By the time he was about to embark on the fellowship to Europe - where Paris, Amsterdam, Florence, Rome would open his eyes to possibilities beyond Oklahoma - Joyce was pregnant with the second of their two sons. Out of school, degree in hand, Brown had "no great future plans." He returned to Shawnee, collaborating with his father. Then it was on to a job in Ponca City, before landing in Tulsa, a place that had always "seemed more sophisticated." But the beauty of Colorado began to beckon. Brown, an avid outdoor person, started subscribing to a local newspaper, just to get a feel for the job situation. By 1967, the situation was pretty good. It would be four years before he hooked up with Rod Davis. Over the years, the firm would grow from 20 architects to 125, but Brown had no inkling of that when he signed on. He just knew there was a connection between him and Davis; he liked the spirit of independence, the fact that "Rod wouldn't get involved in your projects. You found the client, you did the work." Years later, after he had become a partner and Davis had died, he would say with a curious tone, "I didn't know this had really been my first choice all along." Renaissance man's path Hours have somehow elapsed and Brown seems surprised and curious that he has spent a lot of that time talking about himself, about how "creativity is a desirable human activity." About painting, about how he "loves light and shadow and color." Talking about his oil paintings, abstracts and landscapes that are good enough to fetch upward of $4,000 and are on permanent display at some of the buildings he has designed. You ask him about his skill at the piano and organ, about how some say he is a pretty good photographer, and he shrugs: "When you do a variety of things, you don't necessarily do any of them well." These days he's got plenty of time to do a lot of things not necessarily well. He can pick and choose the architectural projects he takes on. He has the luxury of doing quite a bit of pro bono work. He has time to ski, time to interact with his 11 grandchildren. But he doesn't have time to think about his body of work. In fact, if you ask if he's ever thought about what his architectural legacy might be, he acts as if he's been asked the oddest question imaginable before he says, simply, "No." Not that he's immune to pride. "Sure, sometimes you look at a building you've designed and you think, 'Wow, that's pretty good.' " And at these moments, "You feel you did what you were supposed to do, what you were supposed to be doing all along." He is smiling now. The pleased smile of someone who knows what it means to create a few architectural entrees of his own. Highlights Some of Hugh Brown's more notable projects in the Denver area: • Exempla Good Samaritan Hospital, Lafayette • Olin Science Hall, University of Denver (in collaboration with DU architect Cab Childress) • The Ritchie Center, University of Denver (with Childress) • Anschutz Cancer Pavilion, University of Colorado, Aurora. • The Denver Athletic Club, South Addition, downtown Denver. meadowj@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-2606