It was sometime just after Christmas of 1977 that my sister, my father, and I moved from Indianapolis to Colorado Springs. My parents had just got divorced and as my mother was in law school and my father was unemployed we went with him to stay for the time being. I was eight years old.
Color Slide circa 1940 A.G. Jan Ruhtenberg Residence, southern exposure, Colorado Springs CO. Photographer unknown
My father told us we were going to live with his cousin and her children in a house he had helped build. He said that our grandfather had designed it for himself when he moved from New York City to Colorado in 1939. Dad filled with pride when he talked about it, and once we arrived and settled into the upstairs apartment of the vast house, I soon knew why. Almost every room opened up to the outside. Only in the lew could you be more that one door from mountains, air, and prairie. The windows were huge in all rooms, great bands of glass in the bedrooms and giant floor to ceiling expanses in the living room and dining room replete with wide, razor thin protective eaves. The walls were pumice block, natural un-plastered, and the fireplace seemed to hover from above the hearth unconnected at one corner. Great thin cruciform columns appeared here and there still bearing their maker on the sides, “Colorado Springs Steel Company.” My upstairs room had a door that opened onto a balcony that wrapped around the entire second floor of the house and connected with my father and sisters rooms. The floors were radiant heat; no matter how cold it was outside, one’s feet were toasty and the climate comfy.
Color Slide circa 1940 A.G. Jan Ruhtenberg Residence, Colorado Springs CO. Photographer unknown
I didn’t think of it as modern or even different from any other house. Too young to have a modern bias, the house seemed simply smart. Every clever effort had been made to achieve and create a real home. Opposite the dining room glass wall was a great expanse of French wallpaper with electric blues and vivid orange and yellow floral designs that grandfather Jan Ruhtenberg had imported at great expense. Victorian rosewood carved John Belter chairs and a dining table with its four legs removed was instead held at the center to a cruciform column that was imbedded in the foundation. “So your legs and chairs can move freely under the table” my father explained with overflowing pride. I would later learn that I was living in an early Modern house and that my grandfather was a modernist and had studied under Mies van der Rohe in the late 1920s. I also learned that my grandfather delighted in combining antique fine carved furniture like Belter with restrained modern settings. This meant little to me. I only understood that up to this moment, I had never been in a place so opulent and livable, so open and so private, so rough and smooth.
Ruhtenberg Home circa 1940, Jan Ruhtenberg furnishings and antiques mixed with Mies prototype and Le Corbusier pieces. Family photographs.
Some 28 years later I bought a “modern” house in Indianapolis (right). Built by period-man-turned-modernist Edward D. Pierre. The house was originally designed for the widow of racecar driver and mechanic Fred “Skinny” Clemons. It has walls of steel cased windows to the south, radiant heat in the floor and ceiling, bands of glass to the north, flat roof, and every room opens up to the outside. I can barely imagine what it would be like to go back to forced air turning on and off all day and night, small glare causing windows that beg to be covered, and giant attics that steal heat in the winter and force it to linger in summer. It turns out, my most formative aesthetic education didn’t come from a book or school. It came from that experience in a glass house at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain. The moral of this whimsical architectural digression? Perhaps, those who don’t fancy modern architecture never lived in it, and people who live in glass houses should throw parties.
Vessel G.R. von Ruhtenberg