Magazine Feature / People

Architect Childress remembered for his approach

Colorado architect Guion Cabell “Cab” Childress IV, whose celebrated body of work culminated with a number of landmark DU buildings, died Nov. 17 at Meadow’s Edge, his home in Castle Rock.

Childress served as University architect from 1994–1999 and as architect emeritus until his death at age 74.

He will be remembered for dozens of buildings that ennoble the endeavors within them while honoring the landscape around them.

Born in Bristol, Va., in 1932, Childress earned a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and then served in the U.S. Navy. After moving west, he studied architecture at the University of Colorado and established his own practice in 1966.

During his career, he served as president of the Colorado Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, architect’s chair at the Colorado Historical Review Board and as a member of the Design Review Board for the University of Colorado. In 2003, Childress was honored as Denver Architect of the Year and Colorado Architect of the Year by the American Institute of Architects.

Childress traced his DU ties  to the 1960s, when his sons came to campus for ice skating lessons.

In the 1970s, artist Mel Strawn, then director of the School of Art and Art History, invited Childress to teach classes on interior and exterior space. He also taught at the University of Colorado and Kansas State University.

In 1990, casting about for work to sustain his firm and his energies, he identified two projects he wanted to tackle, one of them the DU campus.

“I wrote a letter to the president of Copper Mountain and one to [DU Chancellor] Dan Ritchie,” he recalled in a summer 2006 interview. “In the letter I said, ‘Gentlemen, you two have well-starting things that haven’t been fouled up to this point, nothing that can’t be fixed. If you’ll give me those, I’ll give you the rest of my life.’ ”

Although Childress never heard from the ski resort, he eventually received a summons from Ritchie, who was beginning to address a backlog of infrastructure needs at DU. (Childress built a home for Ritchie in the 1970s.)

In 1992, Ritchie hired Childress to design a new science building and a wellness and recreation center. Pleased with the Colorado flavor that characterized Childress’ designs, Ritchie offered him the position of University architect.

In subsequent years, Childress spearheaded the design of many signature DU buildings, including the Newman Center for the Performing Arts and the Daniels College of Business. After his retirement in 1999, Childress continued to consult on DU’s ongoing projects.

His work at DU is praised for its sense of proportion and scale, as well as its seamless blend of classic materials like brick, stone and copper.

“I like real materials,” he said. “What should a university be if not real and honest?”

The architects who worked with Childress remember him as an eccentric and life-loving mentor who considered architecture a full-immersion experience.

“He wanted you to become an architect from the inside out,” said Jane Loefgren, an architectural consultant with the University architect’s office.

Loefgren, who worked with Childress for more than 20 years, likened his practice to an idea-infused “atelier,” where his protégés were encouraged to learn about everything from stone cutting to regional history.

“Cab couldn’t stand people who stop architecture at 5 o’clock or begin it at 8,” University Architect Mark Rodgers said.

Rodgers’ association with Childress began in 1991 with an unorthodox job interview that symbolized Childress’ far-ranging approach to his craft.

“He flipped through my portfolio in what seemed like a few seconds and said to me, ‘Where have you been?’ ”

The resulting conversation went on for hours.

On DU projects, Childress aimed to create adaptable buildings that would age gracefully — buildings destined to be what he called “a good ruin.” He also designed buildings that welcome adaptation.

“You don’t want to finish a building,” he once said. “You want to start it.”

A memorial service will be held at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver at 10 a.m. on Dec. 30.

This article originally appeared in
The Source, December 2006.

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