Historical Society re-visits the legacy of architect Robert Murrin

Spend any time looking around Sterling and you’ll see Robert Murrin’s influence.

Murrin’s name, along with the names of his partners, Hans Kahn and Norman Kasch, can be found on many of Sterling’s public buildings from the 1950s and 1960s. Murrin’s legacy, much of which still can be seen around the city, was the subject of a Logan County Historical Society presentation Monday evening.

  • Colored panels aligned with windows break up the massive brick...

    Colored panels aligned with windows break up the massive brick wall of Williams Residence Hall at NJC.

  • Peace Lutheran Church. (Courtesy photo)

    Peace Lutheran Church. (Courtesy photo)

  • This home on Villa Vista was one of Robert Murrin's...

    This home on Villa Vista was one of Robert Murrin’s first commissions in Sterling. (Screen grab)

  • Neil Murrin answers a question after his presentation Monday on...

    Neil Murrin answers a question after his presentation Monday on his father’s architecture career. (Jeff Rice / Journal-Advocate)

Neil Murrin talked about his father’s career and the distinctive architecture he employed during the 17 years that Murrin, Kasch, Kahn & Associates were designing a burgeoning oil town in northeast Colorado.

A Nebraska native, Robert Murrin earned his degree in architecture at the University of Denver and moved his family to Sterling in the early 1950s. His first projects were houses on Villa Vista Street at the northern edge of Sterling, and the homes bear one of the Murrin trademark looks – dramatic, modernist lines and angles. Influenced by the mid-century designs of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and others, Murrin designed buildings to serve their purpose. He especially favored strong vertical lines, sharp angles and modern building materials like concrete panels. His preference for modernism can be seen in his earliest commercial work; Bozarth Electric on West Main, Pantall (Now Stevens) Elementary School, and the twin school buildings of Campbell and Hagen.

Limited by Sterling’s building code at the time of no more than three stories in height, Murrin found ways to express the soaring heights of classic church design by using massive, almost-vertical walls and sharp angles, especially evident on Peace Lutheran, Trinity Lutheran and First Baptist churches.

Logan County had Murrin design the new stadium and livestock pavilion at Logan County Fairgrounds, the annex for county courts, sheriff’s office and jail on Courthouse Square, and the Logan County Hospital. His clients weren’t restricted to Colorado; Murrin designed public buildings in Nebraska and Wyoming as well.

Professionally, Murrin became linked with Kasch and Kahn in the mid-1950s, but the greatest partnership of Bob Murrin’s career may have been with Erv French, president of Northeastern Junior College from 1953 until 1979. French’s presidency saw the construction of modern NJC pretty much as we know it today. But if Erv French built the college, Bob Murrin certainly designed it. From the repeated angles of the cafeteria roofline to the narrow vertical windows of the Humanities Building (now E.S. French Hall) Murrin’s stamp is all over NJC. In the 1950s and 1960s, Murrin designed Dowis, Herboldsheimer, Poole, Williams and Knowles dormitories, Phillips-Whyman and French Hall, the cafeteria and Hays Student Center.

The jutting vertical angles along the west side of Phillips-Whyman, the massive concrete panels of E.S. French and Hays, and the vertical colored panels breaking up the brick expanses of the dorms are classic Murrin features.

Murrin wasn’t all straight lines and flat spaces, however. In many of his designs he broke up the no-nonsense functionality with graceful curves like the semi-circular planter in  the Campbell School foyer, or the whimsical “waterfall” brick work on the south end of the Journal-Advocate building.

Murrin’s designs were much in demand among people wanting distinctive homes as well. Among his clients were some of Sterling’s best-known names; Pettys, Fredregill, McAtee, Vandemoer and Elliff.

And yet, Neil Murrin said, when it came to designing his own home, Bob Murrin went with a modest, one-story ranch style.

A fire in the Ben Franklin store in March 1969 destroyed the store and the offices above it, including Murrin’s. All of the blueprints, renderings and drawings in the office were lost. Murrin temporarily set up a new office elsewhere but, several months later, left Sterling to join his partners in Denver and later moved to California.

Murrin’s final Sterling project, while he was in Denver, was Centennial Square, the home of Sterling’s city hall, police department, fire station and public library. While he wasn’t personally involved in the details of building design, the design concept is his.

Robert Murrin retired in 1988 and passed away in 2012.

Not all of Murrin’s work remains intact. The unique open-air foyer of French Hall has been enclosed and the building extensively remodeled. First Christian Church has been pulled down to make way for commercial development. And Logan County Hospital was replaced long ago by Sterling Regional MedCenter.

Much of Murrin’s work lives on, however. Buildings now a half-century old and older may get occasional facelifts and modernizations, but the lines, the angles, the building materials are all still there. For the time being, Robert Murrin’s legacy is secure.

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