From up close and from miles away, CU Boulder's red-orange tile rooftops signal it's no ordinary place.
CU Boulder’s soul-stirring vistas are legendary. John Steele couldn’t avoid them if he tried. For the past 19 years he’s been repairing and replacing the red-orange clay roof tiles that are a hallmark of CU’s campus.
“Best office in the world, I’ve always said,” said Steele, the senior roofer in CU’s Facilities Operations and Services division.
With 160 tiles in a 100-square-foot area, and at least half of the school’s 3 million square feet of rooftop covered in clay, Steele and a partner are responsible for keeping on top of millions of tiles.
Along with CU Boulder’s signature sandstone walls, limestone trim and black metal accents, the Mission-style tiles were the inspiration of Philadelphia architect Charles Klauder, who in 1919 produced CU’s first campus master plan. He ultimately designed 15 buildings in what he called “Colorado style” and former campus architect Bill Deno calls “Tuscan Vernacular.” Boulder’s landscape reminded Klauder of a bike ride he’d taken through northern Italy.
In 1921, Hellems Arts and Sciences went up as the first campus building in the new style, a departure from Klauder’s previous collegiate gothic work.
“He stressed that Colorado would be the first educational institution in the West to attempt a uniform building style,” Deno said in Body & Soul, his book about Klauder’s influence on CU. “He promised them that his building plan would make Colorado’s campus one of the most beautiful in the United States, and he delivered.”
In the early 20th century, the clay for the tiles came from local quarries, a factor for the ever-frugal Klauder. Most have since closed. Today the handcrafted, kiln-fired tiles come from an Ohio firm, Ludowici Roof Tile Company. Each comes with a 75-year warranty.
CU replaces between 50 and 75 tiles each year. But a lot of the originals, now nearly 100 years old, are still in place.
“That’s what tile roofs do — they last a long time,” said Steele, who’s been on top of nearly every building at CU Boulder. “You’re paying for longevity.”
When CU gutted and renovated the 81-year-old, Klauder-designed Ketchum Arts and Sciences building in 2015, workers pulled off, examined and reused almost every tile. Besides the exterior walls, the tiles are now among the only original elements, campus architects said.
It’s not just the tiles’ mixture of clays that make them strong. Their curvature helps mitigate hail damage by distributing the force of impact.
Hardy as they are, their most striking feature is their color — colors, really.
To the careful observer, there are sometimes subtle but usually harmonious variations from rooftop to rooftop. Duane Physics has only a few red and orange tones in a generally flat finish, for example, while Clare Small has ivory and deep brown tiles, some with glossy finishes. CU Boulder’s architectural style guidelines, while strict, are not rigid.
“When a new architect arrives, we don’t hand them a stylebook, like at other places,” current campus architect Bill Haverly said. “We walk them around.”
Sometimes it can take Steele and a partner up to an hour to change a single three-pound tile.
“It depends,” said Steele, who does most of the work in summer. “If they’re the pans, which are the bottom tile, then you have to take off the caps all around it to get to that one piece. And then you have to put it all back together.”
It’s the dedication of people like Steele that helps CU Boulder maintain its reputation as one of America’s most beautiful universities. Without the red clay roofs, it wouldn’t feel the same.
For Steele, that’s satisfying. So is the feeling that he’s contributing in a practical way to the university’s academic mission. “I like helping to keep people’s heads dry while they are learning and advancing their life,” he said.
In our print edition, this story appears under the title "Shouting About the Rooftops" Comment on this story? Email email@example.com.
Photos by Glenn Asakawa