When architect and artist Norman Cable bought a home in the heart of Denver, he put a down payment on an 1876 Italianate two-story house and with that, an investment in optimism. The old house had survived boarders, disrepair and neglect. But sagging floor joists and boxy rooms couldn’t obscure wood floors, high windows, tall doors with transom windows and an elegant fireplace.
The street showed signs of neglect, too. A gloom of despair surrounded a few homes where drugs were sold. Problems of vagrancy and petty crime overshadowed the neighbors who quietly helped each other, shared music and food, chatted over fences and recalled memories of better times.
That was 1985, when Norman’s optimism included hopes for a new family. ” I had a scheme,” Norman says, “I moved in with my young daughter and hoped that Susan and her daughter would join us. One day, Susan and I spent the entire day in the tiny crawl space, jacking up each of the sagging floor joints in the living room. We crawled out and collapsed on the lawn. But we got the floor straightened out.” Renovation proved to be a good basis for a marriage.
Susan Dickson, a teacher and artist, discovered that Norman shared her love for city life, for salvaging the unloved, cherishing fine old objects, collecting textiles from other cultures, travel and art. Their home, poised for renewal, was the beginning of a life together.
“We are city people,” Susan says, “We like to work downtown. Even when we travel, we drift to cities and find ourselves going to the center of things. And there were a few key factors: this house was affordable and we liked the diversity of the neighborhood. Over the years we have lamented the gentrification. But we sure don’t miss the crack houses and shootings. There is something about pioneer living in the city that is appealing. We even loved Calcutta.”
“It’s a gritty life in Calcutta,” Norman adds about their recent trip to India, “It’s electric, a constant pulsing in the city. There’s no adjusting for the volume—it’s full on all the time. This neighborhood was like that.” Over the years, neighbors worked to rid the neighborhood of drug dealers. In time, homes were renovated. Even the most derelict structures found a new life and many were returned to their original luster.
Susan and Norman’s modest, 1800-square-foot house is a simple brick structure with a front porch that sits only a yards from the street. Except for flourishes along the roofline, it’s not the ornamented gingerbread-trimmed home often associated with 19th century Colorado homes.
But the high ceilings, door moldings and elegant stairwell situate it comfortably in the Victorian age. Small, clustered rooms have been opened using structural and decorative pillars. Wood floors sanded and finished, walls painted a dusty sage green–a complementary color, Susan says, to show off gold frames and the glow of her portrait paintings.
The parade of portraits and two reclining human sculptures in bronze capture immediate attention from visitors. But look more closely and you’ll see a number of disparate items have been collected. They look right at home, although they’ve been soiled, discarded and abandoned by previous owners.
A carved wooden frame came from a mansion in Philadelphia. Dumped without care or caution, it has been rescued, cleaned and given a new mirror. Reminiscent of the florid styling of French rococo times, the frame’s size alone makes for a commanding presence. Even in a room with unusually high ceilings, the mirror is slightly larger than the wall it leans upon.
The dining table is a door, topped by glass—another piece of urban refuse too beautiful to pass by. A skylight in the kitchen was dragged along the street, salvaged from a nearby demolition. An oriental carpet ties two couches and glass coffee table together. Susan found it rolled and dumped in the alley. To replace missing pieces of the house, like tiles or hardware, they scoured antique stores that specialize in artifacts—the doorknobs, doors, windows and moldings from demolished buildings. A large wooden table that is a chopping block came from a ranch house owned by Norman’s grandmother.
Although Susan says she sometimes yearns for the clean lines of modernism, she loves the height of the rooms in old houses. Sleek and minimal, or old and ornate, “one extreme or the other,” Susan describes as her architectural aesthetic.
Old homes provide many of the architectural amenities that Norman loves—high ceilings, tall doors, wood floors and good-sized rooms. And older homes, he points out, often come with these amenities at less cost than a more modern home. Expansive wall space allows for large paintings, or the grouping of several small paintings—a boon for two artists.
But step into their kitchen or backyard studio and you’ll see a sudden change. The kitchen is smooth ‘Butterfly Verde’ granite, deep red-tinged cherry cabinetry and sleek black fixtures. The kitchen ceiling has been extended to the roofline with the salvaged skylight atop. And the 780-foot studio is one room wrapped in long windows built on the foundations of a dismantled garage.
To tie the studio to the house, Norman built a wood deck connecting the back door to a flagstone patio. A small pond nestles against the studio wall and crabapple trees shelter patio seating. The red-tinged tiny apples match the vividly red zinnias that rise from a patch of orange marigolds. A pergola covering the deck is strewn with vigorous grapevines and ripe grape clusters fill the air with a smell of jam. “They’re on the way to becoming raisins,” Norman says about the withering grapes drying at the end of autumn. Although cold has turned the leaves golden, the ripe clusters of concord grapes hang staunchly on their vines.
Inside the studio, walls and easels are filled with Susan’s portraits and Norman’s architectural paintings. “Painting takes me back to the places we have visited,” he says. Venice is a favorite destination, which Norman paints over and over, each time a recollection of their year spent in Europe with several months in Venice.
“It’s the human face that I like,” Susan says, “and hands, too.” Like many artists, her favorite subject is her family, recognizable to even the casual observer for obvious resemblances.
These old houses have a human scale, Norman says, not so big that they echo, but roomy enough to raise a family, entertain friends, host a guest and invite neighbors over. Front porches encourage neighbors to meet each other and a long narrow lot means that backyard gardeners share plants or garden produce.
Norman recalls a neighbor, a gospel preacher with a gentle disposition and a musical talent. He often stood on his porch in the twilight, playing the blues on his harmonica.
Several years ago, screams in the alley pierced the midday quiet. A pit bull had attacked the neighbor. The dog’s teeth were sunk deeply into his knees. Norman hit the dog with a heavy board, but the animal was unrelenting. In desperation, Norman ran inside, grabbed an old gun and shot the dog. The extent of his neighbor’s injuries from ninety bites so shocked the Denver community that an ordinance banning the ownership of pit bulls made front-page news.
Norman tells the story because his longtime neighbors now are gone and missed. Also, he worries that houses on the street may have become too pricey for people, much like himself, who yearn to find affordable homes and settle in for a long residency. Would his old neighbors, like the blues-loving musician and his gospel-singing wife, be able to live on this street now? He hopes so.
When a street falls upon troubled times and neighbors face adversity together, a community strengthens, finding solace and security in each other’s presence. Problems are solved. Old houses, too, can be salvaged, much like their neighborhoods if they remain harmonious to their surroundings.
“There’s a context for a house,” Norman says, “that fits the neighborhood. It’s not like I only like Victorians. I might design a very different house for us if there was an affordable, empty lot in this neighborhood.” Norman believes that houses come with surroundings, which may be more meaningful in the long run than the house itself. “I would listen to the Reverend play his harmonica in the afternoons,” he says, after the neighbor was attacked. Traffic quieted as the day was ending. The notes sounded truer, clearer and more fragile than ever before.
After a long decline, Norman’s street rebounded. The houses remain graceful and sturdy, despite their age, but houses reflect those who care about them. In a neighborhood as closely built as this one, sympathetic ties have lasted for decades.
Norman and Susan notice when a building is being demolished or renovated and will ask the developer if they can salvage building materials. Often, not only is the developer eager to give away hardware, even doors, but will also help in the artifact collection. The Cables also scour architectural artifact stores. Here are a few:
- Architectural Antiques, 2669 Larimer Street, Denver, 80205; 303-297-9722; www.archantiques.com.
- Architectural Salvage, 5001 North Colorado Boulevard, Denver, 80216; 303-321-0200.
- Architectural Stuff, 3970 South Broadway, Englewood, 80110; 303-761-2999.