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.
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.
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.
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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