Buildings are rarely known for their architects and if they are, the architects are likely a select few “star-chitects” like the familiar Wright, Liebeskind, Graves, Calatrava, etc. Usually the buildings are known for their function or named after their Owner. We were surprised and excited when we were contacted by Family of Christ Presbyterian Church in Greeley to assist them with a house known for its very unique architect. Bessie Smith was born and raised in Greeley and became an architect by correspondence. She was Denver’s only female architect from 1901-1903. She returned to Greeley in 1903 to practice. She was known for climbing around on her buildings to inspect the construction.
The house was built c. 1907 for the Carrel Family. Up until 2016 it was located at 1115 15th Street. The City condemned the block and began plans for demolishing the structures to make way for a future municipal project. The Bessie Smith house is one of only a handful of surviving examples of her work in Greeley, which include the Coronado Building (at 9th Ave and 9th St) and the Plumb Farm House (Now the Wright-Plumb Farm Learning Center). Linde and Ron Thompson, members of Historic Greeley, Inc., began spreading the word to save the house. Family of Christ Presbyterian Church, located on 35th Ave, answered the call to save the house. Having a nice large property, they saw the potential for the house to become part of their growing community outreach programs and a way to help even more people.
While Family of Christ has taken the lead, this project has been, and will continue to be a community endeavor. Creating space for a new municipal building, the City of Greeley awarded the house to the church after reviewing its community-minded proposal. Going forward, Family of Christ is looking for additional partners to help rehabilitate the house and carry out the community center’s mission of “Honoring History, Practicing Hospitality, and Seeking Harmony.”
Family of Christ, with the aid of a City stipend, moved the house into their parking lot and began the first step in setting the building back down. When Form+Works met with the church, the new foundation walls had been poured, but they were looking for assistance in working through their vision of what the final building will be to complete the systems rough-in and adequately plan for providing accessibility. Form+Works worked with this wonderful group and now, with the City’s approval, the house is ready for the final move to its new home. Stay-tuned as we will surely document this momentous event. Once on the ground, the Thompsons and Form+Works will continue the work to fully restore this beautiful building.
Don’t let the before photos scare you, the bones of the house are in good condition.
Bessie Smith’s architectural career after 1910 is unknown. Records show she moved to San Diego with her father in 1910 and in 1912 she married Benjamin Wellington Bryant. Together they had a daughter, Barbara. Bessie died at the age of 39 in San Diego and there are no records that she ever returned to Greeley.
When I first read about Bessie Smith, the correlations between the two of us are quite striking. Having been born and raised in Greeley myself, my house was less than 2 miles from the original Carrel House location. Our birth years are exactly 100 years apart – 1882 and 1982 – and I moved to San Diego after getting married. Of course, our stories depart from there, as I returned to Colorado after my graduate degree.
Regardless, I was elated that Form+Works was selected to be a part of this very special building in my hometown. I think about Bessie Smith as I stitch the histories of our projects back together from the same time period. She lived a drastically different life than other women of her time. She likely had no idea that 110 years later a group of women architects would be looking back at her work, grateful she paved the way for us in the practice of architecture. I like to think that she simply loved the discipline as much as we do. Various articles and opinions about her reach the same consensus – Bessie Smith never received the attention she deserved, but we are hoping this project is the first step in shedding some light onto her work and life. Additionally, we hope to honor her as we put this house to a new use for First Family of Christ and the Greeley community.