Jetsons in Jeffco

It's hardly news that a multimillion-dollar house has been put up for sale in the suburbs of Denver. What makes this particular offering newsworthy, however, is that the big-ticket property in question is not a stucco monstrosity with a design that recalls some imaginary past (unlike most others of its type), but rather one that conjures up an imaginary future. I'm talking about the most famous example of residential architecture in all of Colorado: the Sculptured House, just west of Golden, by the late Charles Deaton.

When I first heard, this past spring, that the house was on the market with a price tag of just over $10 million, two things crossed my mind: First, why would anyone who owned such a magical place ever let it go? Second, I couldn't stand the fact that I couldn't afford to buy it myself. This not being the Robb Report, I'll guess that the vast majority of readers couldn't afford to buy the house, either -- but, so what? Because of its highly visible site, sitting on the crest of Genesee Mountain in Mount Vernon Canyon, close to, but high above, Interstate 70, the house -- figuratively, at least -- belongs to all of us.

This proprietary attitude of the public is best expressed by the plethora of nicknames the house has engendered. It's almost never called the Sculptured House, which is the official moniker given by its creator, but is probably best known as the Clamshell House, or the Flying Saucer House, or, in reference to its appearance in the classic 1973 Woody Allen movie, the Sleeper House.

As befitting a house that looks so unusual -- and one that has captured the imagination of the architecture community and the general public, as well -- the Sculptured House has a ripping yarn behind it.

The house's story begins on January 1, 1921, with the birth of Deaton in the backwater town of Clayton, New Mexico. The Deatons moved to Oklahoma in the 1920s, and Charles spent most of his childhood there. With the Great Depression, times were hard, and for a two-year period the family lived in a tent on the prairie.

Because of poverty, Deaton never attended college, and his education ended after he graduated from high school (though he would eventually become a licensed architect). But while he was in school, he took a drafting class that encouraged his natural design talents. By the age of sixteen, Deaton was earning a living as a commercial artist.

During World War II, Deaton worked at a Lockheed aircraft plant in California, using practical engineering and design to translate sheet metal into aerodynamic shapes. With no formal training, he began his architectural career in the 1940s in New York City, doing minor work as a freelance designer. In 1949, Deaton moved to St. Louis and became in-house designer for the Bank Building and Equipment Company. In 1955, he moved to Denver, and he lived in the area for the rest of his life.

Deaton's architectural aesthetic was based on the use of shapes found in nature, as opposed to rectilinear shapes. In this way, Deaton was doing work that was formally antithetical to the main current in modern architecture. Deaton was fascinated by the graceful curvilinear shapes of caverns, potholes formed by water, river rocks, plants, hills and mountains, and he translated these shapes into architectural volumes.

Deaton's architectural career took off, at least to some extent, after he came to Colorado. He received his first major commission in 1959, designing a circular motor bank for Central Bank and Trust in downtown Denver, which was completed in 1960. It was Deaton's first expressionist-style building -- and the first one based on his highly idiosyncratic design method. Deaton originally conceived of the bank as a sculpture, expressed in model form, and he then drew out the design based on the dimensions of the model. This is exactly the opposite of the approach taken by most architects, who draw plans first and then base the model on the plans.

His interest in bank design led Deaton to develop equipment intended for use in financial institutions, including a series of security mechanisms, security doors and vaults, a line of office furniture and a ceiling lighting system called "Squiggle," a jigsaw pattern of hanging plastic panels that diffused light. All told, Deaton held over thirty patents on his designs, and an estimated one hundred products were manufactured -- which produced the royalty checks he later needed to bankroll the Sculptured House.

Denver's Central Bank and Trust commission led to Deaton's most important bank design, and from 1961 to 1964 he created the highly sculptural Wyoming National Bank in Casper, which became fairly famous -- especially considering its isolated location. In the Wyoming National Bank, Deaton had his first chance to use the security mechanisms, security doors and vaults, office furniture and "Squiggle" lighting system, which were already in production. Though none were originally conceived for the Wyoming National, the bank clearly provided the perfect context.

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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