Fragile Legacies

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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.

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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