Modern Architecture Roots in Colorado Springs

Tracing the lines of the Bauhaus School to the international and local influence of architects Jan Ruhtenberg and Elizabeth Wright Ingraham.

After the end of World War I, a movement began in central Europe that would radically alter the course of art, design, craftsmanship and architecture throughout the world.

In 1919, a German architect named Walter Gropius started the Bauhaus School. Inspired by the work of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and others, Gropius set out to teach a holistic approach to arts and crafts.

“The Bauhaus strives to bring together all creative effort into one whole, to reunify all the disciplines of practical art—sculpture, painting, handicrafts and crafts—as inseparable components of a new architecture,” Gropius wrote.

Although the school itself was short-lived, Bauhaus became one of the most influential movements of 20th-century modernism. A century later, its guiding principles live on in everything from sleek, simple structures to the minimalist furniture of Ikea.

“Walter Gropius had the foresight a century ago to start a design movement that integrated art, craft, graphic design and architecture, created by students of all genders and cultural backgrounds,” says Ryan Lloyd, local architect and founder of Echo Architecture. “The impact of [Bauhaus] still feels progressive 100 years later and influences the design world—and civilization—to this day.”

One of the movement’s key figures was German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mies was the last director of the Bauhaus School before it shuttered in 1933 under Nazi pressure. He was a pioneer of modern architecture and helped develop the International Style that became the Bauhaus brand.

Elizabeth Wright Ingraham's architecture work in the Pikes Peak region
Solaz exterior in Manitou Springs by Elizabeth Wright Ingraham. Photo by Ron Pollard

Mies never worked in Colorado Springs, but two of his students later made the Springs their home—both personally and professionally. Their names were Gustav Jan Ruhtenberg and Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, and they were masters in our midst.

Ruhtenberg, originally from Latvia, apprenticed under Mies at the Bauhaus, then emigrated to New York, where he practiced and taught “new architecture” at Columbia University. But after he received a commission from Broadmoor owners Spencer and Julie Penrose in 1939, he moved west and started a 25-year residency in Colorado Springs.

Elizabeth Wright Ingraham was the granddaughter of famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright—architectural royalty. Of equal consequence was her own experience studying under Mies at what is now the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. In 1948, she moved to Colorado Springs with her architect husband, Gordon Ingraham, and remained here until her death in 2013.

Each had their own unique approaches to the practice, but both architects observed tenets that can be attributed to both Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bauhaus: less is more; what’s inside should reflect what’s outside; buildings should be not only beautiful, but honest.

“The buildings were light, modern and clean, with no ornamentation—the form was the function,” says local journalist and historic preservationist John Hazlehurst. “Think of [Ruhtenberg and Ingraham] as forerunners—as people who were experimental. They were architects, dreamers, artists.”

Here is a closer look at their work and influence in Colorado Springs.

Elizabeth Wright Ingraham

Soon after arriving in Colorado Springs, the Ingrahams fell in with a crowd of young artists, enthusiasts and intellectuals who frequented the Fine Arts Center, the Broadmoor Art Academy and the Bemis School. Many of these new friends—the Tilleys, Vradenburgs, Beadles and Brittons—became some of the duo’s first clients.

Interior of the Tilley home by Elizabeth Ingraham Wright
Interior of the Tilley home by Elizabeth Ingraham Wright. Photo by Ron Pollard

Ingraham & Ingraham’s early work was based on the Usonian homes of Frank Lloyd Wright. They were designed to be accessible and affordable, with America’s middle class in mind.

The houses were low-slung, grounded by strong horizontal lines and deep eaves. Changes in ceiling height created feelings of compression and expansion. The interiors featured custom built-in furniture, indirect lighting and exposed wood, stone and brick. Placement was also greatly important, and the Ingrahams took great care to integrate the homes into their natural surroundings.

“Her understanding of place was exceptional,” Lloyd says. “Her ability to transform and progress with time was profound, and her impact on architecture and the practice was inspirational.”

Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, the Ingrahams produced around 90 of these homes in Colorado Springs. But things changed in 1970, when Elizabeth started her own firm. By 1974, the couple divorced, and she set out on a new artistic trajectory.

Elizabeth’s later homes were a departure from Usonia, exchanging wood and stone for concrete and steel. If the Ingraham & Ingraham homes were comfortable, natural and horizontal, her solo work was ambitious, vertical and stark. For Elizabeth, it was a return toward the International Style of the Bauhaus and of her mentor Mies van der Rohe, and her Solaz in Manitou Springs and La Casa in Pueblo remain as local residential masterpieces.

La Casa outside of Pueblo by Elizabeth Wright Ingraham
La Casa outside of Pueblo by Elizabeth Wright Ingraham. Photo by Ron Pollard

“Elizabeth’s understanding of our region and her craft was exceptional,” Lloyd says. “Her work truly tells the story of the Pikes Peak region—the culture, the climate, the geography—in a way that I aspire to in my own work.”

Jan Ruhtenberg

There wasn’t much progressive about Colorado Springs when Ruhtenberg arrived in 1939, a far cry from the burgeoning modernist cities of Europe.

He was here at the request of Julie Penrose, who had hired him to design a carriage house museum to showcase Spencer’s rare collection of carriages and early automobiles. The result was a curvilinear, steel-framed structure with a flat roof and walls of glass. It was upsetting to the city’s old guard, but a small bastion—many of whom lived in the Broadmoor—were impressed.

“In the artistic history of the city, you have this stream of people who were open to the greater world and fascinated by the greater world,” Hazlehurst says. “They were adventurous people—you had to be to live in one of those houses in the ’40s.”

Ruhtenberg built several more homes, including one for Julie Penrose after Spencer’s death, as well as a few commercial buildings. They were minimal, with sharp angles, large banks of windows and a focus on Bauhaus ideals.

“They were cutting edge for the era—so interesting and quirky,” Hazlehurst says. “Jan wasn’t sitting around saying, ‘How can I make a fortune?’ He was thinking about what he would want to live in.”

One surviving example of Ruhtenberg’s residential work is the Fischer House. Built in the late ’40s, the Broadmoor home was featured in the February 1954 edition of Progressive Architecture magazine and received an award for its unique design. It includes a steel frame, pumice block walls, a flat concrete roof, insulated ceiling tiles made from pressed sugar cane and striated wood panels. In the living space, next to floor-to-ceiling windows and across from a large hearth, is a fresco mural by Colorado artist Edgar Britton.

Ruhtenberg’s designs were often takes on the International Style, although he preferred to use more organic materials than Mies. Like many of that era’s modernists, Ruhtenberg also placed high value on nature. Living room windows were often oriented away from roads and other houses, instead overlooking a garden or the mountains.

Interior of Solaz in Manitou Springs by Elizabeth Wright Ingraham
Interior of Solaz in Manitou Springs by Elizabeth Wright Ingraham. Photo by Ron Pollard

One example of Ruhtenberg’s commercial work is an office building he designed that contained his personal office. Known as the Cooperative Building, the structure still stands at 5 W. Las Vegas Street and is now owned by Springs Rescue Mission. The building featured a glass skin over a steel frame, with exposed structural elements. When constructed in the early ’50s, it floated about 10 feet off the ground with the help of thick steel columns.

Although Ruhtenberg created several innovative structures in the region, his potentially greatest building in Colorado Springs was never built.

In the January 1957 edition of Progressive Architecture, Ruhtenberg unveiled his design for a Colorado Springs opera house that would seat an audience of 3,000 under a fanned concrete facade. It’s needless to say that Ruhtenberg’s opera house, had it been realized, would be a treasured landmark.

“That design was so striking,” Hazlehurst says. “It was too progressive for the old guard of the time. It was just so unlike anything this small city had seen.”

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