Colorado’s most notable architect, Burnham “Bernie” Hoyt (1887–1960) designed eighty-five major constructed projects in a variety of styles, ranging from a fifteenth-century Scottish castle (Cherokee Castle, 1926) in Sedalia to the radically modern Boettcher School for Crippled Children (1940) in Denver. As the official architect for Denver Parks and Recreation, he planned Red Rocks Amphitheatre (1941), his most famous work. His modern residences and modernizing projects, such as the Albany Hotel (1938), earned him accolades for bringing architectural modernism to Colorado.
Burnham Hoyt was born in 1887 in Denver. The son of a carriage designer from New Brunswick, Canada, he grew up in northwest Denver’s Highland neighborhood, where he attended Boulevard Elementary School and North High School. His older brother, Merrill, an architect, was aware of his brother’s talent and urged Burnham to follow him into that field. Burnham worked first with the Denver firm of Kidder and Wieger before beginning his formal architectural training at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in New York City in 1908. Hoyt excelled in his studies, winning six design competitions. He found work for seven years with the prestigious New York firm of George B. Post & Sons, for whom he designed the interior woodwork of St. Barnabas Church. Then he spent two years with another well-known New York firm, Bertram Goodhue.
World War I interrupted Hoyt’s New York work. He served in the Army Camouflage Corps, disguising heavy artillery and other instruments of war, for two years in France. He returned to Denver in 1919 to join a partnership with his brother Merrill. They officed in the neoclassical Colorado National Bank Building, for which they designed a rear addition (1920) that so precisely matched the original that few can tell the difference. The partnership of M. H. and B. Hoyt, Architects thrived during the 1920s, when they designed such notable Denver landmarks as the Spanish Baroque Revival Park Hill Branch Library (1920), the English Gothic Style Lake Junior High School (1926), and St. Martin’s Chapel (1927) at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral. Burnham became the preferred architect of Denver’s wealthy and architecturally selective, for whom he designed many fine residences.
In 1926, following a European tour, Burnham was commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to finish Riverside Baptist Church in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City. Moving back to the city, he joined the New York University School of Architecture as a professor and in 1930 became dean of the design department. He also worked for six years with the New York firm of Belton, Allen & Collins. His New York career ended with the 1933 death of his brother Merrill from a heart attack during a dinner party. Burnham returned to Denver to complete the firm’s commissions and stayed for the rest of his life. In 1936 he married Mildred Fisher, sister of the prominent Denver interior designer Thornton Fisher. She did interior design for many of Burnham’s buildings.
From 1936 to 1955, Hoyt headed his own firm. During this period, he shifted from historical styles, which had been popular in the 1920s, to the International style. His designs in this mode typically exhibit flat roofs, rounded bays, smooth masonry, glass walls, clean lines, and a lack of ornament. His interest in lighting is reflected in large expanses of glass and a clever variety of direct and indirect light. Many of Hoyt’s designs were featured in national architectural magazines as outstanding examples of modernism, including the Bromfield Residence (1936) at 4975 South University Boulevard and the Sullivan House (1941) at 545 Circle Drive in Denver’s Country Club neighborhood. With its flat roof, stark white facade, and dark bands of windows that wrap around corners, the Sullivan House is a masterpiece of International Style residential design. Hoyt ventured into historic preservation when he helped restore buildings in the mountain town of Central City, such as the Romanesque Central City Opera House (1932) and Ida Kruse McFarlane Memorial (1944). His work to advance the architectural profession included helping to organize the Denver Atelier, a branch of the New York Beaux Arts Institute, to train young students.
Red Rocks Amphitheatre
Hoyt’s masterpiece, Red Rocks Amphitheatre (1941), lies in the foothills town of Morrison, about ten miles west of Denver. Here Hoyt squeezed a 10,000-seat theater in between two mammoth rocks, with another, Stage Rock, serving as a backdrop in an acoustically superb natural setting. The most notable thing about Red Rocks, a modern echo of the famous outdoor amphitheaters of ancient Greece and Rome, is how closely Hoyt worked with nature, making minimal changes to the stony setting. He even brought down native juniper trees from Mount Morrison for the venue’s planters.
This awesome structure blending into the foothills brought Hoyt immediate national fame for what is still considered America’s finest outdoor theater. Red Rocks starred as the sole Colorado structure included in the American Institute of Architecture’s National Gallery exhibit on the history of American architecture in 1957. Red Rocks also captured an award from the Museum of Modern Art as “one of the fifty outstanding examples of American architecture” of the 1940s. The Civilian Conservation Corps, whose youthful recruits built Red Rocks, has also celebrated it as one of the finest of its many works nationwide.
In the early 1950s, Hoyt was struck with Parkinson’s disease at the peak of his career. He could no longer hold a pencil and had to dictate to his assistants when planning his final project, the central Denver Public Library (1955) in Civic Center. That sleek limestone building relates to its site—one of Hoyt’s fortes as an architect—by incorporating the same gray stone as surrounding government buildings while also featuring a large, glassy, semicircular bay overlooking Civic Center and reflecting the curve of adjacent East Fourteenth Avenue. One of the best surviving specimens of Hoyt’s modernism, the original 1955 building is now attached to Michael Graves’s much larger postmodernist addition.
Hoyt died in 1960 in a strikingly simple house he designed for himself at 3130 East Exposition Avenue. Although some of his best work—including the Boettcher School and the Albany Hotel—has been demolished, many of Hoyt’s finest designs survive as evidence that he remains Colorado’s premier architect and foremost champion of modernism. Of his buildings, Hoyt spoke modestly in the Rocky Mountain News in 1947: “Some of them stand up well—those of the simplest design.” Much of his surviving work is listed in the National Register of Historic Places or has been named a local landmark. In 2015 Hoyt’s finest work, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, was designated a National Historic Landmark, and his Denver Public Library is part of the Civic Center National Historic Landmark.