Robert Roeschlaub (1843–1923) was Colorado’s first officially licensed architect, working in Denver during the early settlement era. Roeschlaub played a central role in defining the city’s building code, which has affected the development of Denver’s built environment through the present. Today, his design can be seen across Denver and the state of Colorado, with several of his structures nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
Born July 6, 1843, in Munich, Germany, Robert Roeschlaub was the son of Michael and Margaretta Roeschlaub. In 1859, at the age of sixteen, Roeschlaub watched his father depart from their adopted home in Quincy, Illinois, bound for the Colorado Gold Rush. From that time on, the romance and hardship of the fifty-niners made a deep impression on the young Roeschlaub, and he saw in his pioneer father a builder of the Western empire. Although his father returned to Quincy before long to continue his medical practice, those who remained on the Colorado frontier, Roeschlaub later wrote, kept secure the “outpost of a coming civilization.”
Civil War Veteran
When Roeschlaub was nineteen, he enlisted in Company E of the 84th Illinois Volunteers to fight for in the Civil War and quickly rose from private to sergeant. In 1863 he received a commission to second lieutenant, and in the temporary absence of his superiors he assumed leadership of his company. Involved in the Western theater of the war and General William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign, Roeschlaub saw action at Perryville, New Hope Church, Peach Tree Creek, and Confederate General John B. Hood’s defeat at Nashville. Wounded twice, first at the Battle of Stone River and then more seriously in the bloodbath at Chickamauga Creek, he was promoted to captain following Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Fiercely proud of his war record, Roeschlaub nevertheless refused to glamorize the experience. Thirty years later, coming into possession of his war letters home, he wrote a compelling account of the common life of the foot soldier.
Mustered out of the service in the summer of 1865, Roeschlaub returned to Quincy. For a time, the young veteran ran a magazine and stationery shop. Soon he was working as an apprentice for Robert Bunce, an established architect in Quincy. During his eight years of practical training with Bunce, Roeschlaub designed a home for himself and Annie Fisher, who became his wife in 1868, although the home was probably never built. Finally, his training in architecture proved sufficient to launch his own practice, and Roeschlaub set out for Denver. As a parting gift, Bunce gave him a copy of Joseph Gwilt’s Encyclopedia of Architecture, a useful memento that Roeschlaub kept throughout his professional life.
Roeschlaub came to Denver in 1873 and built his practice in the rush of the young city’s growth. When the young, eastern-trained architect stepped from the Pullman at the Denver station with his wife and two children, he regarded himself as a “tenderfoot,” indebted to the early pioneers yet a part of their grand tradition. Decades later, looking back on the dusty enterprise of early Denver, he said, “In twenty years they [the pioneers] had given to the world, through their zeal, what other cities were hundreds of years in acquiring.” Weathering economic downturns and resisting the more flamboyant architectural fashions, Roeschlaub designed with confidence, an awareness of current styles, and a sense that he was a pioneer in his own right. During his forty-year career—marked by carefully drawn plans for schools, churches, homes, and business blocks—he helped to set building standards and worked to develop a strong professional alliance among his competitors. In 1909 they united to designate him Colorado’s first officially licensed architect.
In spite of Roeschlaub’s architectural training, the early months in Denver were lean ones for him. His first known commission did not come until 1875, and this—the Broadway School—was indeed modest. Yet it was perhaps his most important commission of the 1870s, for it secured his appointment as official architect of the East Denver School District.
Sensitive to the budget restrictions of the school board and to the needs of the students from the beginning, Roeschlaub paid less attention to the exterior appearances in his first three schools than to interior conveniences. In fact, the Broadway, Twenty-Fourth Street, and Ebert Schools were all variations on the same plan. However, as the rapidly growing district became perennially cramped for space in the early 1880s, Roeschlaub found himself designing a new building each year, and slowly they became more elaborate and inventive. Each went up with words of high praise typical of Denver’s booster spirit, but even school officials may have been privately surprised when Roeschlaub was invited by the Department of Education in Washington, DC, to exhibit his work.
During the final years of the nineteenth century, Denver expanded as never before. In 1890 Mayor Wolfe Londoner claimed that the city ranked third in new construction nationally, and the news of its promise had already attracted scores of architects, both trained and untrained, who sought commissions from well-to-do merchants, landowners, and business or civic groups willing to pay the 3 or 4 percent fee for up-to-date and elegant structures. For the first time, Denver architects boldly advertised their skills, and even in this land of plenty, a competitive spirit added bitterness to differences of taste and design.
Roeschlaub took an active part in the professional response to these conditions. First, he agreed to assist the city’s new building inspector in a major revision of regulations aimed at improving standards of construction. Second, he joined the newly formed Rocky Mountain Association of Architects, a forerunner of Colorado’s first chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and a visible step toward the recognition of mutual interests within the profession. When the fledgling Denver organization—renamed the Colorado Association of Architects—joined the AIA in 1892, Roeschlaub was its president.
Even before the Panic of 1893, the local construction market was showing signs of serious decline. Between 1891 and 1895 Denver lost half its architects, and Roeschlaub’s business fell to a fraction of what it had been in 1890. Yet as his daily workload decreased, he assumed leadership in matters vital to the profession, from challenging the exploitation of architects in design competitions to arranging events for out-of-state visitors. He was consistently reelected president of his AIA chapter, and in 1900 he became Colorado’s first fellow in the national organization.
The later years of Roeschlaub’s career were marked by few commissions, though he continued to design schools for the East Denver District as an independent architect, and in 1905 produced both plans and beautiful watercolor renderings for the large Central High School in Pueblo. Then in his sixties, Roeschlaub kept abreast of changing architectural tastes, and his firm’s designs exuded the new spirit of the age—classicism—while appropriately demonstrating the architects’ own classic sense of restraint, balance, and moderation. In this he could have perhaps found no greater admirer than Robert K. Fuller, a young licensed architect who joined the firm in time to work on two of Roeschlaub’s last-known projects: Greeley High School and the elaborate Isis Theatre in Aspen.
Buildings designed by Roeschlaub on the National Register of Historic Places include the Lewis Department Store, Central City Opera House, Trinity United Methodist Church, Corona School, Chamberlain Observatory at the University of Denver, Cheyenne County Jail, Hover Mansion, and the First Congregational Church of Manitou Springs.
Under doctor’s orders, Roeschlaub retired in 1912 and moved to San Diego, where he lived until his death in 1923. Roeschlaub lies buried in Fairmount Cemetery in Denver.
Adapted from David N. Wetzel, “Robert S. Roeschlaub: Pioneer Architect of the Queen City,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 3, no. 1 (1983).