The Simple Buildings: The Career of William Robb in Fort Collins


Jim Bertolini


Historian/City Planner – City of Fort Collins


Regional Spotlight, Colorado
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Rocky Mountain Modern Part Four 
The Simple Buildings: The Career of William Robb in Fort Collins

Throughout the ages, it has been the simple buildings that solve a problem (that) become the representative buildings of their time.

William "Bill" Robb

The words of Fort Collins’ eminent Modern architect, William B. “Bill” Robb, ring true as a foundational basis for modern architecture.

Fort Collins is a mid-sized city in northern Colorado approximately sixty-five miles north of Denver. Founded as an agricultural community, and never on any main highways, Fort Collins’ adoption of Modern architecture after World War II was generally more conservative than many other communities. The dramatic auto-oriented architecture of Colfax Avenue in Denver rarely graced the roadsides of Fort Collins. However, in a community that expanded dramatically after the Second World War, the presence and influence of Modern architecture on Fort Collins was profound. While the city may never have broadly embraced Googie, New Formalist, or Brutalist design, its offices, residences, and churches reflect some profound local examples of Modern architecture. The key, defining examples of the movement for Fort Collins, largely Contemporary or Usonian in inspiration, in many cases, sprang from the desk of William Robb. 

Robb had a significant influence on the character and architectural heritage of Fort Collins over his 35-year career between 1952 and 1986. A native Coloradan, he was born in Pueblo, raised in Durango and served in the U. S. Army during WWII.  After the war, he returned home to Colorado and attended the University of Colorado, earning his bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering and master’s degree in structural engineering. He later earned a master’s degree in architecture from MIT, after which he returned to Colorado and worked with Robert W. Ditzen in Boulder. Robb and his family moved to Fort Collins in 1953 and he established his own office as the only architect listed in the Fort Collins City Directory for several years. William “Bill” Brenner joined the firm as an Apprentice Architect in the late 1950s and by 1971, the firm was known as Robb & Brenner, Inc. Architects and Planners after Brenner became a principal.  Architect George Brelig joined the firm in 1979 and the name changed to Robb Brenner & Brelig in 1986 when Brelig became a principal. The name was later shortened to RB+B, an existing firm that continues Robb’s award-winning architectural legacy. During the latter point in his career, Robb and his firm began providing site design and land planning for developments in Fort Collins, further stamping their imprint on the community’s appearance and layout. RB+B is the oldest, continuously operated architectural firm in Fort Collins, now in its 67th year of business and has had a tremendous influence on the built environment of the city. Many other Fort Collins architects were one-time employees of Bill Robb and went on to establish their own successful architecture firms. 

While postwar Modernist buildings are still under-appreciated as potential landmarks, Fort Collins is using the lens of Robb’s career to further community understanding and awareness of the Modern Movement in our city. Fort Collins is no stranger to appreciation and preservation of the Modern Movement. In 2000, the City of Fort Collins became one of the first municipalities in Colorado to designate a local historic district for a small Modern neighborhood on Sheely Drive built in the early 1950s. A decade later, the City completed an historic context, Fort Collins E-X-P-A-N-D-S: The City’s Postwar Development 1945 – 1969 with the support of the Colorado State Historical Fund, which documented the broad patterns of post-war development in Fort Collins. While not specifically about Modern architectural principals, the report features Robb prominently, and includes a list of Robb’s projects between 1953 and 1986, but the locations of many of these are not currently known, since many are listed by a name without an address.  The 2004 context study In the Hallowed Halls of Learning: The History and Architecture of Poudre School District R-1 by Historitecture, provides a list of schools designed by Robb and his firm for the district.

Despite these gains, the vast majority of designated resources over the last two decades have recognized properties built in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. There is still broad apprehension in Fort Collins about whether modern buildings and neighborhoods are worthy of preservation. This aversion to embracing modern design is largely based around the question of whether Modern design reflects significant history and culture of the community, whether the resources are old enough to be considered historic, and/or stereotypes that historic preservation is only about saving Victorian and Craftsman cottages or the homes of famous business or government leaders.

Fort Collins secured a grant from the State Historical Fund in 2020 to develop an historic context study about William Robb and his career in Fort Collins. The project, supported by Robb’s former architectural firm and his grand-daughter, who is currently studying historic preservation, aims to accomplish three separate tasks. The report will provide the city with a strong appreciation of the work of one of its most important architects during Fort Collins’ extensive growth after the Second World War, as well as a better understanding of the adoption of modern architectural principles in Fort Collins through the study of Robb’s contributions to the city’s built environment. The City hopes to leverage this research in our ongoing outreach to residents of Fort Collins about the importance of preserving elements of Modern architecture and the more recent past.

Like so many Modern architects, Robb embraced the power of the simple, functional space and the elegance it could bring to human experience. We hope this upcoming project can draw attention to this approach and its tremendous influence on what Fort Collins looks like today.

About the Author

Jim Bertolini has been with the City of Fort Collins, Colorado since July of 2019. He previously served as the National Register Coordinator for the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office and the Historic Preservation Specialist for the City of Aurora, Colorado. He received his M.A. in History from Colorado State University in 2011.

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Rocky Mountain Modern Part Five
Preservation win for a Googie-style building in Denver