Semple Brown Soars: Architecture and Design Firm Has Left Lasting Mark On Denver

Masters of melding the old and new, Semple Brown Design has shaped and reshaped Denver for more than 30 years. Co-Founder and Principal Sarah Semple Brown's fingerprints are all over the city, from the Ellie Caulkins Opera House to The Kitchen Next Door Union Station. 
It's difficult to pigeonhole Semple Brown Design.

"We're fairly diverse in the projects we do," says Sarah Semple Brown, who started the Denver architecture and design firm with her husband, Rusty Brown, in 1982.

That's something of an understatement. Semple Brown has designed restaurants, theaters, residential projects, schools, churches, offices and most every other kind of building under the sun, from Denver to Abu Dhabi.

But restoration and adaptive reuse might just be Semple Brown's strongest suits -- as has been the case from the very beginning.

"In the early '80s, we had just come out of a recession," says Sarah. "We were doing a lot of restoration projects back then."

In tough economic times, necessity is the mother of invention, and that's not really a bad thing. As architect Carl Elefante famously put it, "The greenest building is the one already built."

Echoes Semple Brown Project Designer Leila Schwyhart: "Buildings that don't work, we try to give them life again."

The firm's early work includes the Ice House in LoDo and the revitalization of Larimer Square in the early 1990s. More recent restorations are RedLine, Highlands Ranch Mansion and The Kitchen Next Door Union Station.The Kitchen Next Door in Union Station.

Historic buildings bring plenty of challenges, but they also represent an aesthetic opportunity. "We cherish historic buildings or even industrial buildings," Sarah says. "What we try to do is peel back and subtract, and be really authentic about what we add back."

Venues that shine

Semple Brown Design moved into performing arts venues in the early 1990s, transforming a chunk of the Denver Municipal Auditorium into the Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

That was no small feat. The antiquated building was the country's second largest auditorium (after Madison Square Garden) when it hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1908, and later gained fame as Led Zeppelin's first U.S. venue in 1968 and the home arena for the Denver Nuggets a few years later. Rock and roundball legacy aside, it was not necessarily designed with aesthetics or acoustics in mind.

Semple Brown subsequently reworked the building's old auditorium space into the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. When it opened in 2005, Ellie Caulkins herself, "Colorado's first lady of opera," was quoted in Opera Now, describing the project as "like building a ship in a bottle."

Not only was the striking $92 million project nearly universally acclaimed in the architecture world, it was also the site where Sarah was named an American Institute of Architects Fellow as recognition for her illustrious career in 2011.

Performing arts remains one of the firm's focal points. Semple Brown is now wrapping up work on the Colorado Ballet's new building at 1075 Santa Fe Dr. that's slated to open in the fall, among other projects.

"We're currently consulting with the Colorado Symphony," says Sarah, adding, "I'm not voting to tear down the Boettcher Concert Hall."

Five pounds of potatoes in a three-pound bucket

"Because of Larimer Square, we started doing restaurant work as well," Sarah says. In the 1980s and '90s, Semple Brown worked on several since-shuttered eateries on the historic block as well as the 16th Street Mall's Paramount Cafe during the firm's early years.

In the most recent recession, the dynamic was similar. "If one thing kept going, it was restaurant design," says Schwyhart, who joined Semple Brown in 2005. The firm worked on 10 eateries in 2012, including a pair of LoDo staples in The Squeaky Bean and The Kitchen Denver.

Sarah says restaurant design "is all about proportion, scale, intimacy, lighting and color." It's also about creating a functional workspace for the staff. "We're architects who are coordinating equipment and mechanical."

Schwyhart likens it to cramming "five pounds of potatoes into a three-pound bucket."

The culinary scene in Colorado is light years ahead of where it was at the turn of the millennium, and the turning point was arguably the opening of Frasca in Boulder in 2004 -- another Semple Brown project. "It's been fun to watch the culinary game get stepped up a notch," Sarah says.

The Frasca work catalyzed an enviable pipeline. The Kitchen's Kimbal Musk loved the space and contacted Semple Brown to ask if the firm could design the first Kitchen Next Door "community pub" in Boulder. "He just called," laughs Sarah. "Marketing 101 -- wait for the call."

Now Semple Brown is Musk and partner Hugo Matheson's go-to designer for all Kitchen locations, including The Kitchen Denver and Fort Collins; The Kitchen Next Door Union Station and Glendale; and the upcoming Kitchen Chicago.

"We love working with them," Musk says. "We speak the same language. When we say something, they understand it, and when they say something, we understand it."

Musk says usually takes two years to train chefs to "uncomplicate food” at Kitchen locations, where the maxim is "simple but good." There was no such runway with the design. "Semple Brown does that already," he says.

The Kitchen Next Door Union Station was no exception. "We actually wanted it to be an old restaurant the day we opened," says Musk.

His wish was more than fulfilled. Green tile, natural wood and the historic neon sign above the bar, on lease from RTD, add up to a satisfyingly nostalgic whole and an aptly unpretentious setting for beers  and cheeseburgers.

Musk says he recently stumbled across a historic photo of the Continental Room and the Caboose Lounge, open in Union Station from the 1950s to the 1980s. "It's bizarre how much it looked like our restaurant," he says. "It was completely unplanned."

From Denver to Naples and backKnox-Kelley Pool House in Hilltop.

Semple Brown's relationship with Frasca's Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson led to another account that also might soon expand beyond Colorado. The Frasca duo turned to the firm when they opened the first fast-casual Pizzeria Locale in Boulder in 2011.

Chipotle Mexican Grill Founder and Co-CEO Steve Ells liked the concept and partnered with Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson to open the second location at 550 Broadway in Denver in 2013. Again, Semple Brown handled design, featuring a glassed-in dough-making room, abundant tile, and street photos from Naples, Italy.

Now the third location is underway at 32nd Avenue and Lowell Street in Denver's Highlands neighborhood, slated to open in Sept. 2014. If all goes to plan, Semple Brown's Pizzeria Locale designs will be go nationwide in the next few years.

"They're trying to refine it to a concept for 1,000 restaurants," says Schwyhart. Considering that there are now 1,600 Chipotle locations, it's not that big of a stretch.

When they hit the town themselves, Schwyhart, who leads Semple Brown's Kitchen and Pizzeria Locale projects, and Brown try to avoid self-critique. "It's funny," says Sarah. "We like to go to restaurants we haven't worked on. That way, you don't have to second-guess everything. It's a little more relaxing."

Architectural peers hold Semple Brown's work in high regard. "They've been involved in some really important projects for Denver,” says Jesse Adkins of Shear Adkins Rockmore Architects. "The Ellie Caulkins Opera House is right up there."

"They've proven to be versatile, and I think they're thoughtful," Adkins adds. "The great thing is they're practicing architecture and not specializing in a specific market. Design is design and you should be able to solve problems in every kind of building. They have the ability to cross over."

With 21 employees, Semple Brown Design offices are at 1160 Santa Fe Dr. Sarah says she loves working in the Art District and couldn't see herself in any city but Denver.

"One of the things I love, I love, I love: It's so cool to see how all of the planning and all of the effort that's gone into the city," she says. "It's coming to fruition. The stars are lined up for Denver. It just has a great vibe to it right now."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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