Fragile Legacies

American art in the post-World War II period is generally considered by scholars to represent a high point in recorded history. In the '50s, '60s and '70s, American modernism dominated the world, and the greatest painters, sculptors, designers and architects were working in this country. This cultural dominance is still true to a great extent, but clearly the golden age was a generation or two ago.

Coincidentally, during that same time period, the Denver suburbs were greatly expanded.

You can see where I'm going with this: If a lot of things got built in Denver's hinterlands at the same time that architecture was really cooking, there must be fine examples of the most sophisticated expressions of the period. And, of course, there are.

The rarity of extraordinary buildings, which are far outnumbered by mundane ones typical of the suburbs, suggests to me that immediate efforts are needed to ensure the preservation of whatever significant structures exist before they are lost forever. What's brought this to mind is the uncertain fate of some remarkable works of architecture in the sticks.

Last week, in a vote of five to two, the Littleton City Council wisely rejected a zoning application to redevelop the now-closed Marathon Oil Petroleum Technical Center, at 7400 South Broadway. If you've never seen the Marathon campus, check it out before anything happens. Be warned, though: You'll only be able to do so from a distance, because the entire sixty-acre property is completely fenced off. Luckily, the building is so large and sits so high up that it's visible from Broadway and from Dry Creek Road, which runs along the south side.

Marathon has a park-like setting that's been sadly neglected since the facility closed. The main building is a sleek, exaggeratedly horizontal composition that looks like a dash written across the horizon. Made up of a series of rectangular volumes arranged cubistically in a long strip, it's constructed of rusticated red sandstone, lending the walls a marvelous sculptural quality. The high-style Marathon sports a number of wonderful bells and whistles, including those stunning cantilevered aluminum eyebrow sunshades and those gorgeous ribbon windows of aluminum and glass. The crisply detailed trim and fenestration provide precisely the right counterpoint to the rough-hewn look of the stonework.

The Marathon campus, originally called the Ohio Oil Company Research Laboratories when it was constructed in 1956, is credited to Wilbur Smith, about whom little is known. One thing I'd say about the complex is that it bears a good resemblance to the contemporaneous work of Temple Buell, and I wouldn't be surprised if future research reveals that he played a role in the design.

Whoever did it, did it right. Is it too much to ask that future plans for the place also be done right? The main building and a few related structures, which are still owned by Marathon, take up so little of the site; couldn't they be creatively reused in some way? Well, we can always dream.

That vote by the Littleton City Council isn't the only glimmer of hope for architecture emanating from down there. Even more heartening is the dinner on May 19 honoring Eugene Sternberg, one of the region's greatest architects, sponsored by Historic Littleton Inc. with the support of the Englewood Historical Society. In an event titled "MODERNism in Littleton and Englewood, 1950 to 1975," Sternberg is to be given a Lifetime Achievement Award. (There is limited seating at the Inn at Hudson Gardens; call 303-730-2639 for information.) The program includes presentations by architect Curt Fentress, preservation consultant Diane Wray, and attorney Martin Miller, a client of Sternberg's.

Sternberg designed buildings throughout Colorado and across the country, but since he maintained his office in Littleton, many of his buildings were constructed right in the town. In nearby Englewood, he created the site plan and designs for the oldest houses in Arapahoe Acres, the first modernist neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The sweeping changes wrought by the Second World War encouraged the growth of modernism, and it's this epic event that provides the backdrop for Sternberg's early life. Born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in 1915, Sternberg earned a degree in architectural engineering from the Technion in Dejvice near Prague. In the late 1930s, the budding architect entered graduate school at Cambridge University in England and was fortunate enough to be there when the war broke out. In 1945, right after the war, he accepted a teaching position at Cornell University in New York. Then, in 1949, he became the first faculty member at the University of Denver's short-lived School of Architecture. From the time he moved to Denver, Sternberg supplemented his meager professor's salary with private design work, such as his plan for Arapahoe Acres, which was initiated the year he got here.

Sternberg, who is now long retired, approached his practice as an intellectual, infusing his work with progressive politics and deeply felt moral imperatives. He believed in buildings that would enrich people's lives physically and spiritually. Stylistically, he was a modernist through and through, and he never compromised his goal of achieving rational and responsible architecture.

Old downtown Littleton provides a perfect introduction to Sternberg's vast career; within the span of 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 Littleton Community Center (originally the Littleton Clinic), from 1951, made of red sandstone and stucco. The building, at 1950 West Littleton Boulevard, has been popped a story, but the addition has been handled well, and, thankfully, much of the character of the original still shines through.

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 on the grounds of the quaint Arapahoe County Court House, at 2009 West Littleton Boulevard. This building was recently endangered by a proposal to demolish it, but that threat has passed -- at least temporarily.

The finest of the group is the Littleton Law Center, 1901 West Littleton Boulevard. This building, which was commissioned by keynote speaker Miller and built in 1972, is a masterpiece and in absolutely mint condition despite being more than thirty years old. The proportions are perfect and harmonious, and those 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, 5500 South Santa Fe Drive, just south of old Littleton. The main entrance has been lost to an addition -- an unvarnished tragedy -- but the rest of it is mostly original. The monumental whitish-gray cast-concrete building sits back on its generous lot, and the interior abounds in theatrical details, in particular the incredible coffered ceilings and hanging staircases.

Other Sternberg projects worth seeing are the very severe-looking Bemis Public Library, 6014 South Datura Street, from 1964-65, and the even more severe Heritage High School, 1410 West Geddes Street, from 1972. Heritage is a set of dark-brick sculptural forms in the center of a large landscaped lot.

I think it's great that preservationists in Littleton are starting to recognize the accomplishments of Sternberg, the city's most important architect -- ever. I've got an idea: How about a proper survey of Sternberg's work and the other modernist buildings in town? After all, they play a big role in creating the wonderful ambience that is so rare in the suburbs but is found in spades in old Littleton.

The good people in the Aurora city government would love to achieve even a modicum of the character of Littleton, but that's easier said than done. Aurora's downtown isn't charming; it's dumpy. This shabby district is located on and around East Colfax Avenue, emanating several blocks in both directions from the intersection with Dayton Street.

Last week the new Martin Luther King Jr. Library, at 9800 East Colfax Avenue, opened its doors. The library, designed by Denver's Michael Brendle, is the best thing by him that I'm aware of. The neo-modernist building is clad in gray brick and sheets of ethereal blue-tinted glass. The combination of materials is very luxurious, so it's really out of place here.

The new library is close to the Aurora Fox Arts Center (9900 East Colfax Avenue), a Quonset hut with a moderne facade and a fabulous neon sign. It's scheduled for a big expansion. Across the street, the entire block has been cleared, and Florence Square, a mixed-use development that will include shops, offices and residences designed by Denver's RNL, is now under construction.

The planners behind the revitalization of what's called Original Aurora have left out one obvious thing -- and it's something the city already owns and no amount of money could replace. I'm talking about the former Aurora Municipal Center from 1955, one of the finest works of architecture in Aurora.

The AMC exemplifies a then-new building type: a single complex that included a city hall, police department, fire station and library. Built in red brick with concrete details and painted brown wood trim, it exemplifies both in its plan and its details the Usonian style of Frank Lloyd Wright. As it turns out, the AMC was the work of Wright's premier follower in Colorado, the late Victor Hornbein, an acknowledged master of local architecture. For these reasons, the unified set of interconnected buildings is certainly eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and would thus also be eligible for the grants and other benefits that accrue with listed properties.

Last month, the Original Aurora Renewal agency issued a request for proposals for a new use for the old library portion of the AMC, which the city is also consider selling. I'm not going to respond to the RFP formally, but informally I'd say the answer of what to do with the place is obvious. First, the RFP should be withdrawn. Then, Aurora officials need to realize that the AMC is not something to be thrown away, because the diamond in the rough could be a centerpiece for a revitalized downtown. It's a gorgeous mid-century period piece with appropriate stylistic flourishes that give it plenty of arty associations. (Isn't the city trying to attract artists and galleries?) Maybe they should use it as an art center; for heaven's sake, the city already owns it. Think of the attention Aurora would get in the region if they took the bold step of taking advantage of a stupendous opportunity that is right under their noses.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia