Memory Lane

A farewell to architect Eugene Sternberg and landscape architect Jane Silverstein Ries.

At the beginning of this summer, Eugene Sternberg, one of the greatest of a generation of Denver architects who came to prominence in the post-war period, died at the age of ninety.

Sternberg approached the practice of architecture as an intellectual pursuit. He was a utopian who believed in an ethical architecture that responded to social and economic forces as well as functional considerations and aesthetics. He infused his work with progressive politics, and he was guided by deeply felt moral imperatives. He believed in buildings that would enrich people's lives, both physically and spiritually. Stylistically, he was a modernist through and through, and he never wavered from his goal of achieving rational and responsible architecture. Despite this radicalism, he had a very successful career right here along the not-so-radical Front Range.

Sternberg was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in 1915. In the early 1930s, he earned an architecture degree from the Technion in Dejvice, near Prague, and in the later part of that decade, he moved to England, where he met and married Barbara Edwards, who survives him. He'd gone to England to study at Cambridge University, which was lucky, because it meant he was on the right side of the English Channel when the Holocaust began in 1938. His father, mother, grandparents and two of his sisters were not so lucky, dying at the hands of the Nazis.

Arapahoe Community College, by Eugene Sternberg.
Mark Manger
Arapahoe Community College, by Eugene Sternberg.

During the war, Sternberg taught at Cambridge and worked designing replacements for bombed-out housing. In 1945, he and Barbara immigrated to the U.S. so he could take a job teaching at New York's Cornell University. He was unhappy at Cornell, however, because the administration didn't want him practicing architecture in addition to teaching. In 1949, he became the first faculty member hired for the University of Denver's short-lived School of Architecture.

The year he arrived in Colorado, Sternberg laid out Arapahoe Acres, the modernist residential development in Englewood that's nationally famous for its high-style design. It was at Arapahoe Acres where I first met Sternberg, who was to lead me on a tour of the neighborhood, an outing arranged by Diane Wray, a preservation consultant who wrote the Historic Denver guidebook to the neighborhood.

Sternberg became involved with Arapahoe Acres as part of a plan aimed at improving housing design. The effort was sponsored in part by Revere Copper and Brass Company. Edward Hawkins, a Denver designer and builder, was about to develop thirty acres in Englewood, and he elected to participate in the Revere Quality House Program. Though Hawkins was an extremely talented designer in his own right, he wasn't a board-certified architect, which was something Revere required.

Sternberg, who was certified, designed the show home, the Rickard House, which was the first of nine he did for the Revere program; most of these are located on South Marion Street. The radical houses featured the latest in design theories, garnering extensive local publicity that led thousands to flock to the grand opening in 1950 -- in a snowstorm!

As these first houses were going up, another developer was building nondescript ones across South Marion Street. Sternberg wanted to give the other builder some design tips, but Hawkins told him not to, because he felt that the ugly houses were the best selling point for the beautiful ones in Arapahoe Acres.

The success of the show home ultimately led to the failure of Sternberg's professional relationship with Hawkins. The two had agreed that the house would sell for $11,500, but Hawkins realized that he could squeeze out another couple of thousand and it sold for $13,500. Highly ethical, Sternberg quit the project and, as a consequence, Hawkins designed most of the other homes in Arapahoe Acres. When I spoke with Sternberg about it during the tour, he laughed at his youthful idealism.

Sternberg designed buildings throughout Colorado, but since he maintained his office in Littleton, many of his buildings were constructed there. Old downtown Littleton provides a perfect introduction to Sternberg's career, because within a few blocks are several of his key works, ranging in date from the early '50s to the late '70s. The earliest of the group is the 1951 Littleton Community Center, originally the Littleton Clinic, made of red sandstone and stucco. The building, at 1950 West Littleton Boulevard, has been popped a story, but the addition is sensitive to the original character of the building.

Sternberg's office was in Denver then, but he relocated to Littleton when he built the Court House Building in 1961. The handsome little gem with a distinctive folded-plate roof is at 2009 West Littleton Boulevard, on the grounds of the quaint Arapahoe County Court House. This building was endangered by a proposal to demolish it a couple of years ago, but that threat, hopefully, has passed.

The finest of the group is the 1972 Littleton Law Center, at 1901 West Littleton Boulevard. This building is a masterpiece, and it's in absolutely mint condition. The proportions are perfect and harmonious, and the surface finishes of rough cast concrete, tinted glass and treated wood are out of this world.

The Littleton Law Center is closely related to Sternberg's greatest masterpiece, Arapahoe Community College, at 5500 South Santa Fe Drive. Sadly, the main entrance has been lost to an addition, but the rest of it is original. The monumental whitish-gray cast-concrete building sits way back on its generous lot; the interior abounds in theatrical details, especially the incredible coffered ceilings and hanging staircases.

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