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The House On Downing Street

Unlocking the secrets of renowned poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril's historic Denver home.

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In August 2005, I found my dream house, a majestic, three-story Victorian on Downing Street that’s a few doors down from what was once the infamous Pierre’s Supper Club. The house, built in 1890 and owned by the celebrated poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril and his family until 1988, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has a brilliant rose garden in the front yard. Visitors to the house might describe its jumbled floor plan as eccentric. Realtors, of course, would describe the home’s unique features as charming: inlaid pastoral scenes in the staircase end post; geometric stained-glass windows; four intact coal fireplaces, each with its own decorative tile motif; and notes Ferril himself wrote on the insides of cupboard doors—things like “a dog arrived the night, he was a collie pup, 6 mo., biscuits and milk was first fed on, named Robin.”

Some of the greatest American writers of the 20th century visited Ferril and his wife, Helen, at the house: Jack London, Carl Sandburg, Thomas Wolfe, Dorothy Parker, and Robert Frost. These esteemed literary voices stopped off for a few days as they traveled from coast to coast. Denver’s great creative types—such as Horace Tureman, conductor of the Denver Symphony Orchestra, and architect Burnham Hoyt, who designed Red Rocks Amphitheatre—often gathered there for dinners served in the living room, where they sat on couches and perched their plates of food on long wood planks. The Ferrils entertained all comers with live piano and mandolin music, poetry, and engaging conversation. These gatherings were often raucous affairs, with the passionate apprehension of new ideas—and lots of drinking.

When Ferril’s daughter Anne Ferril Folsom sold the house to Historic Denver for one dollar in 1989, her wish was that it be used as a literary center and that it honor the legacy of her father, who had died the year before at the age of 92. And so, in 2005, the organization I cofounded with my wife—an independent creative writing program called Lighthouse Writers Workshop—moved into the house at 2123 Downing Street. Our hope as an organization was to carry on the tradition that Ferril had begun years before, to continue to use his house as a place in which art and ideas would be discussed and debated. It would be a salon, a literary beacon, as it had been in Ferril’s time. Indeed, Ferril himself would loom as a larger-than-life personality in the house, a ghost whose writerly success we all revered and hoped to emulate.

Thomas Hornsby Ferril, born in 1896, was the first poet to come from the Rocky Mountain region and win national recognition. In 1926, his first book, High Passage, received the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize. Carl Sandburg said of him, “He’s terrifically and beautifully American. He is a poet, wit, historian, man of books and human affairs, and so definitely one of the great companions.”

Ferril published regularly in esteemed publications like the Atlantic and Poetry, and during the 1940s he wrote a column for Harper’s. In 1979, Colorado Governor Richard Lamm appointed him Colorado’s poet laureate, and today his poems can be found on the walls of the Statehouse. In 1996, Denver named the lake in City Park after him. He’s regarded by many contemporary Western writers as a kind of sage grandfather figure because he believed that it’s dangerous for a writer to get caught up in the Rocky Mountain clichés of majestic sunsets, twinkling aspens, and austere snow-capped peaks.

I immediately fell in love with the Ferril House, not merely because it’s a lovely home, but also because I am a poet myself. I’m also transfixed by history—the mundane, often nostalgically tinted elements of one’s personal past. It’s the ideal place to practice my craft, which is to string words together in a way that carries meaning, and maybe even pleasure.

I also believed, as many writers do, that to become a published and well-respected writer all I needed was the right office. When Lighthouse first settled in, I happily ended up with Ferril’s study, way in the back on the second floor, as my office. The room is airy, with a high ceiling, built-in bookshelves, and other touches of personality—like a narrow homemade ladder leading to the finished attic loft—which give you a glimpse into Thomas Ferril, the person and poet. I bought a bunch of Ferril’s books and placed them carefully on a bookshelf. I lined up my own poetry library on other shelves. I dusted off an old glass lamp that I’d bought at a garage sale and put it on my desk, which was nothing more than a pine door painted black and laid across two low bookshelves. The desk faced a whitewashed wall where I hung motivational quotes—lines from poems and inspiring declarations like: “A brave man struggling against adversity is a spectacle for the gods” (Seneca), and, “Writing is a form of making, and making humanizes the world” (Richard Rhodes).

Everything was in place. Me, the aspiring poet, in the poet’s house, literary ghosts flitting all around, my computer on and humming nicely, the blank screen waiting. Brilliant and mesmerizing poetry was just a few keystrokes away.

There’s an old black-and-white photo of Ferril seated at his desk, forearm resting next to a manual typewriter. If I sit at my desk and turn toward the entryway, I’m in the exact same spot, the exact same position. For a long time I thought I’d be happy in that pose as a shade of the original poet, but, really, I felt like an interloper. The more I learned about his prodigious talent, the heavier the weight of Thomas Ferril’s legacy grew, eventually standing before me like a great Sisyphean boulder I was fated to push up Longs Peak. To borrow a line from Ferril’s daughter Anne: “Living with a gifted poet is not all moonlight and roses.” This is true even if that poet is no longer around.

Most days, I spent more time in Ferril’s study entering data into QuickBooks than I did crafting poetry. I’d be seized by a desire to write, wishing to clarify the various themes I always write about: boyhood and manhood, belonging and alienation, grace and luck. But then I’d sit there, paralyzed, gazing at the solemn and wistful stencil border of Native American symbols that Ferril painted by hand in the study. Sometimes I’d fiddle with an enigmatic brass key hanging on a red ribbon from a hook in the doorway, wondering what it might unlock—the key to a true poet’s life, perhaps? A life where every moment could transform into a poem?

I didn’t deserve this place. Perhaps you should quit writing, I’d think. Devote yourself to other things that are crowding in: taking care of your two young daughters, mowing the lawn, folding laundry—even weeding the front garden of Ferril’s house.

I spent day after day in Ferril’s study, yet I wrote very little. Usually, I tortured and revised old poems. To use an image from former national poet laureate Billy Collins, I beat those poems with a rubber hose, trying to make them give up their secrets.

Where does inspiration come from? I’d wonder. Where, oh where, do you hide, O Muse?

The funny thing is, inspiration is a lot like the cliché about love: Once you give up looking for it, it finds you.

In February of 2006, Lighthouse celebrated Thomas Ferril’s 110th birthday with a series of readings and book talks. To prepare, I began to seriously read his work and about him. I learned that he worked a demanding nine-to-five job as a press agent for Great Western Sugar Company. And I read this line from the poem “In the Clearing”: “Trees are for youth, but stumps for age…. A tough anvil.” Then, while clearing the tiny back yard of weeds and junk—including an old stove and remnants of a pigeon coop—I came across a rusted anvil buried in the dirt. Like a tree stump.

Occasionally, I’d take a break and wander through the house, looking for clues to Ferril the writer and Ferril the man. I snuck into the basement and found a handmade weather vane, which I planted in the back garden. In a closet off the study I discovered the wall on which he tracked the movement of the sun through a bedroom window, noting, in pencil, the exact spot a shard of light hit at sunset around the winter solstice each year, making his own clothes-closet Stonehenge.

I found that the house was even more quirky than it seemed at first glance: Screws all around the home are drilled in at odd angles, their hatched faces almost completely stripped; built-in shelves lie slightly askew; the second floor’s layout is haphazard, a product of Ferril’s sudden and impulsive decision to remodel the house sometime around 1932. My guess is that he began with a sledgehammer and figured things out later.

The more I read his work, and the more I explored his house, the more I appreciated Ferril’s sense of wonder at the Denver and Colorado landscape that’s woven through his poems. When I looked out the same windows he once looked out, I not only saw what he saw, I grasped the ideas those scenes generated, and how those ideas then became words. His poems and prose are imbued with a pragmatic yet wondrous sense of everyday life, like the circling of hawks “over the bones of hawks” and the sparkling rhythms of life on Downing Street, which included “horses in sunbonnets” and “swallowfork cattle.” They capture not only the specifics of his time but also the rambling growth of Denver, which he called “my City.”

Gradually, the specificity and smallness of all these findings spurred me to write, in fits and starts, about the mundane—and sometimes dizzying—changes in my own life. I wrote wandering odes to baby pacifiers and pocket watches, schematic poems about wildfires and funerals. I didn’t wait for his ghost, or the muse, or anything. Like Ferril, I stole a minute here, half an hour there.

And then I discovered this line from Ferril, which I taped above my desk: “What it comes down to is making something of what we are where we are.”

Somehow, that not only opened the creative floodgates, it also made me feel at home. It’s a prescription for maximizing one’s potential, to be sure—but one tinged with frustration. I read the subtext as: You’re here now and there’s not much you can do about it, so suck it up and make the best of it.

Ferril’s daughter once wrote this about her father: “All his life, I think he felt the pressure of time passing. He found it hard to reconcile the demands of a full-time job at the Great Western Sugar Company with his compelling need to write poems, particularly when Eastern editors were hounding him to quit his job and devote himself exclusively to his poetry. When I was little, I remember waking up in the night to hear my father exploding in angry frustration at not having enough time to write.”

Many writers and nonwriters can identify with that frustration. We want the time and energy to do something spectacular with our lives. We want to create a bright and impressive legacy. Like Ferril, we lament our situation: We don’t have enough freedom to do the things we love, the things that inspire us and make us feel alive, that will make others remember us. For me—and for Thomas Ferril—that legacy is poems.

“What it comes down to is making something of what we are where we are.” I recited that quote to myself at least once a day. I would stare at it, and then at a long, crazy crack in the wall. I would tell myself that Thomas Ferril’s office was a gift I could not return.

Nowadays, I look out Ferril’s window—our window—and watch the Denver skyline and the mountains beyond morph into a thousand different colors, and consider myself lucky. And then I get to work, like he did. Word by word, line by line.

Michael J. Henry‘s first book of poetry, No Stranger Than My Own (Ghost Road Press), was published in fall 2008. E-mail him at [email protected].

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