Memory Lane

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

There is no definitive guide to Sternberg's many buildings in Littleton or elsewhere in the metro area, and that's too bad. Many of them have suffered from insensitive changes, but there's still plenty of evidence of his genius around. We can only hope that the important architectural equity he left will be treated with the respect it deserves.

Modernist landscape architect Jane Silverstein Ries also died earlier this summer, at the age of 96. Ries was born in 1909 into a prominent Denver family. In 1929 she entered the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture in Massachusetts. When she returned to the Mile High City in 1933 with her degree in hand, she became the first licensed female landscape architect in the state's history.

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

I met Ries on the occasion of her eightieth birthday party, held at her house on Franklin Street, near the Seventh Avenue Parkway. This was back in 1989, long before I even thought of writing about art and architecture, but I was thinking about researching the aesthetic history of the city, which is how I found myself on the guest list.

Ries was an unforgettable woman. She was incredibly short, with a shock of dazzling white hair that created a striking counterpoint to her piercing dark eyes. She introduced herself to me as an "octa-geranium." She then launched into a spiel about the bad rap pansies get. A weak person is called a pansy, she explained, yet pansies are among the heartiest flowers, the first up in the spring and the last to die in the fall. She was the first person I ever saw who wore a tiny bud vase as a brooch, à la Hercule Poirot. The little silver cone was filled with water, and as I recall, there was a single tiny blue violet in it.

At her birthday party, I asked Ries if she would give me a tour of her designs. If her appearance was unforgettable, the tour I took with her was seared into my memory -- and not only because of how beautiful her gardens were, but because the trip was so hair-raising. She insisted on driving herself in her enormous old car, actually looking through the steering wheel because she was too short to see over it. She would pull into driveways in Country Club and Hilltop at full cruising speed and then slam on the brakes to the point that there were loud squeals and skid marks. Time after time, concerned homeowners would anxiously open their front doors and then say with a sense of relief, "Oh, it's you, Jane." This suggested to me that she'd done this kind of thing before.

In her long career, which lasted from the early '30s to the early '90s, she completed more than a thousand projects, including now-gone commissions at the Civic Center and the Denver Botanic Gardens. I don't know of any of her creations that are still intact, and I invite readers to share with me any that they know of. When I heard that Ries had died, I went around to the gardens she took me to -- at least those I still remember -- and noticed that all had been changed to some extent. After all, it's been more than a decade since she took me around, and there have been many dry spells and blizzards in the interim. In order to keep a landscape plan together, plants need to be replaced when they die with the exact same type and put in the exact same place -- and few go to the trouble to do this.

The gardens themselves may be gone, but Ries's concepts are still around. Many of the devices that she first embraced sixty years ago are now all but ubiquitous in contemporary landscape architecture. She liked to create outdoor rooms with walls made of trees and bushes. She used ground covers ranging from vines, such as vinca and ivy, to prostrate shrubs, including juniper and cotoneaster, for the gracefully shaped planting beds from which her living "walls" emerged. These were planted en masse in lines or groves and were accented by exotic specimen examples put here and there.

Ries was notorious for over-planting (I think it was because she loved plants so much), which left owners of her gardens saddled with the chore of constant pruning. I know this problem from experience because I copied Ries in the design of my own yard. I think I did a pretty good job, because a friend of mine, who knows a lot about these things, said, "I hope you sent a check to Jane Silverstein Ries." I didn't, but maybe I should have.

The Jane Silverstein Ries Foundation has been established in her honor to provide scholarships for landscape architecture students; Cathe Mitchell, her last partner in her landscape practice, is acting as the director.

Colorado's unforgiving environment has been hard on the landscape architect's legacy. But these losses do not diminish her considerable accomplishments and her contribution to the development of modernism in the Mile High City.

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