The Henry Roth Houses on Fox Street
by Michael Thornton
This is a statement submitted in an application for a house in the Baker neighborhood to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. As a result of this successful application a new term for the architecture was coined: “Hobo Craftsman”.
Narrative Statement of Significance
Three houses on South Fox Street at Ellsworth Avenue, in the Baker neighborhood, were hand-built by Henry Roth in the Bungalow or Craftsman style of architecture. He made ingenious use of cobblestones from the South Platte River, metal barrel-lids from canisters of railroad spikes, and other found and recycled materials. He built the houses from 1927 to 1941, during the time of the Great Depression with its transient populace. Located only a few blocks from the railroad line, many people looking for work wandered the neighborhood. Mrs. Roth handed out sandwiches at her back door. This was also the time when tourist camps and motor courts spread throughout America. These cobblestone houses not only reflect the Craftsman style of building, but their orientation in conjunction with the sheds on the property represent the typical grouping of cabins in a motor court. Henry Roth’s occupation as a cooper aided him in making use of salvaged metal barrel-lids to construct the sheds, which served as sleeping quarters during the 1930s. The landscaping is reminiscent of tourist camps located near rivers, where fast growing trees like elms and honey locusts are prevalent. Common lilacs provided a sense of hospitality. The buildings and grounds have been preserved, and represent a historical period in America when people were struggling to make ends meet. Henry Roth built the houses for his family, and built the sheds for income. He used materials that other people overlooked or dumped. These houses stand in marked contrast to the neighboring Baker Historic District in Denver, where Victorian houses built at the turn of the twentieth century are the norm.
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The main house has the typical arrangement of rooms for a bungalow. The house was completed in 1928. The front door opens into a long combined living and dining room, with a kitchen beyond. Cabinets in the wall open into the kitchen and dining room. A simple brick fireplace graces the living room. The exterior of the house is more indicative of the Bungalow and its connection with the Craftsman movement. Cobblestones are used for the foundation of the house and the front porch, with its natural open-beamed ceiling. Cobblestones were further used to frame outside stairs and for raised planters. The front porch and the garden-level basement emphasize the house’s connection to the outdoors, typical of bungalows. The low broad roof and simple overhangs add to its unaffected style. This house was very much made to fit into its environment, on a sloping lot that might have proved difficult to other homebuilders. Henry Roth saw its potential.
Finding a stack of metal barrel-lids available for the taking at a railroad-tie factory on South Santa Fe Drive, Henry Roth used these to construct a number of sheds on the property that he rented out as sleeping quarters during the 1930s. The sheds were watertight and each had a window; they were long enough to accommodate a small bed or cot. Tenants could wash up in the basement of the main house. When the city finally prohibited the use of these sheds for rooms, Henry Roth built a small house in 1937. The exterior was built completely out of cobblestones, except for the garage door facing east, at the end of the driveway into the yard. He immediately closed the garage door, and rented the unit as a small apartment. Henry Roth had situated this house at the rear of the property, to preserve as much of the open central yard and still provide parking as needed.
With the construction of the third house in 1941, Henry Roth realized the full potential of the metal barrel-lids; he used them as a lid for the house. He cut the lids and overlapped them in a manner that duplicated the layering of shingles. He coated them with as asphalt mixture that made them watertight. The roof on this last house only requires occasional painting. The rocks for the walls and chimney of the house were hauled from the South Platte River. The layout of the rooms is simple, with a large living room, kitchen and bedroom, with each room having its own outside door. The windows are long and wide along the south side of the house. The location of the house on the south side of the property preserved the open space and driveway into the yard. This last building closed off more of the yard to the south, and gave the property its distinctive look of a mountain tourist court, where people could drive up to rustic cabins and enjoy the great outdoors.
The landscaping has proven to be a major attraction in this complex of buildings. Large Elms and Honey Locusts stand at the center of the yard, where there is a small pond crafted out of cobblestones. The trees that border the rest of the property create a canopy and hedgerow that encloses the yard. The plant selection consists of fast-growing common varieties of trees, shrubs and perennial plants: Elms, Honey Locusts, Pines, Spruce, Lilacs, Iris, Daylilies, Periwinkle, Lilies of the Valley, Virginia Creeper and Ivy. Planting by the current owners has expanded on this theme, adding more Spruce, Rocky Mountain Junipers, Honeysuckle, Rabbit Brush and Apache Plume. Placing a path next to it has exposed an original birdbath built from broken granite, which had been hidden. A swimming pool has long occupied the original place of the driveway from Fox Street to the garden level of the main house. The garage doors have been replaced with glass brick, and the pool maintains the open space. This house appears even more grounded with the changes. One element that initially detracted from the property is the 6′ chain link fence that surrounds it. This was installed in the 1970s, to protect the property from people walking through it. This fence has actually contributed to preserving this complex of buildings with its vernacular landscaping. The fence is now covered with Virginia Creeper and Silver Lace Vine, making it less offensive while it has kept intact the yard and buildings.
This property stands in marked contrast to the Baker Historic District, which borders the property. Whereas Baker contains many classic Victorian houses built in the late 1800s, most on standard city lots, these three buildings were built in the Bungalow style, and take full advantage of the outdoors and expanse of land that they share. Henry Roth built these houses and sheds using materials that he found and recycled. Not only are the houses some of the only cobblestone structures in Denver, but the vernacular landscaping is unique in the metropolitan area. The houses were built by a craftsman, who knew well America’s plight and interest in the 1930s – he offered people inexpensive lodging, and showed them what it might feel like to stay at a motor court.