Quick—what’s the first word that comes to mind when you read “hospital”? Cold? Plastic? Linoleum? What about craftsmanship, creativity, or uniqueness?
Out of context, the Art Deco flair of the Mullen Building at Denver’s Saint Joseph Hospital seems wholly out of place for a medical campus, but a deeper look at the genius behind the building—renowned architect Temple Hoyne Buell—and the legacy he created for his community reveals a story that obliterates the notion that medical facilities are void of artistry.
In the midst of his rise to professional success, Buell was drafted to serve in World War I. In 1919, he returned home to Chicago, but poison gas attacks during the Battle of Chateau-Thierry left him with such severe lung damage, and subsequently tuberculosis, that he moved to Colorado to convalesce for a year—a serendipitous move that would change Denver forever.
Though he’s most remembered for his exquisite Paramount Theatre and his twenty year quest to develop Cherry Creek Shopping Center, one of the nation’s first, Buell designed more than 300 buildings throughout Colorado, including the 1934 Mullen Building at Saint Joseph Hospital, Denver’s oldest nonprofit community medical campus. At the time, the hospital was operated by the Sisters of Charity Leavenworth.
“This project was close to Temple’s heart…he sought medical help from the Sisters shortly after arriving in [Denver],” say Donna Hilton of the Saint Joseph Hospital Foundation. “In exchange for compassionate, top-quality healthcare, he rewarded the Sisters with one of the most intricate and inviting medical facilities in Colorado at the time.”
Today the building houses offices for the Foundation and other nonprofit groups, but in 1934, the then-called Catherine Mullen Memorial Nurses Home, named for donor Ella Mullen Weckbaugh’s mother, was a state-of-the-art dormitory and training facility for nurses and nursing students who were previously spread throughout patient floors.
But what makes it truly a marvel is its astounding exterior beauty, marked by Buell’s signature cascading brickwork that creeps up the façade and around each double-hung sash window. Some call it “waterfall” brick, but its resemblance is open to interpretation. Where one sees a tuft of wheat, others see Mayan or Middle Eastern influence. Some bask in the building’s linear symmetry; others feel a sense of foreboding by the top-heavy pilasters, as if each acme will soon topple over. In any case, it evokes an emotional response, and many agree that the building simply feels magical, its perpendicular bricks thrusting outward to engage onlookers.
No less important than the nuanced masonry are the wood-framed windows that anchor each layer of tapering brickwork. Preserving this phenomenal building requires distinct attention to the fenestration, a challenge that the Saint Joseph Hospital Foundation was more than willing to embrace when it received a History Colorado State Historical Fund grant for restoration of 72 historic windows.
“It is our privilege to restore one of Denver’s landmarks as it not only showcases the community’s unique identity and diverse history—it contributes to its ongoing economic vitality,” says Hilton. “In keeping with Buell’s compassionate spirit, Saint Joseph Hospital has made certain the Mullen Building continues to represent one of Denver’s charitable community endeavors, offering healthcare to all in need regardless of their ability to pay for it.”
It’s easy to argue that the stories worth telling at medical facilities come from the patients inside, but sometimes the building itself reveals its own history of adversity and triumph. When we take the time to dig deeper, the stories of historic buildings bestow a new way of understanding our communities that help us create a future that honors our past.