Feature

The House On Downing Street

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

January 2009

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.

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