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Middle-Age Modern

Oh, the America of the 1950s. In the nostalgic mind's eye, the era is all poodle-skirts and roller skates, malt shops furnished with chrome dinettes and jukeboxes filled with Elvis. It was a time when, according to the late career civil servant W. Averill Harriman, the whole country "drank Coca-Cola...
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Oh, the America of the 1950s. In the nostalgic mind's eye, the era is all poodle-skirts and roller skates, malt shops furnished with chrome dinettes and jukeboxes filled with Elvis. It was a time when, according to the late career civil servant W. Averill Harriman, the whole country "drank Coca-Cola and went to the movies."

But it was also a time when the United States established its worldwide dominance in economics and in military power--and in the realm of culture, too.

In the fine arts, abstract expressionism was in full flower, and it changed the nature of painting around the world. In design, organic modernists were reinventing furniture with a similar international influence. And in architecture, Fifties America saw the construction of modernist buildings that were the finest and most advanced on earth.

This period, in which modern art, design and architecture became widely established, marks the cultural high point of American civilization. But nearly a half-century later, the artifacts left by those groundbreaking artists, designers and architects have met with varying fates. Some are highly valued, some respected, some absolutely reviled. The work of the abstract expressionists falls into the first category; today when those paintings change hands, they bring millions, even tens of millions, of dollars. Fine organic furniture falls into the second classification; although some rare examples are valued in the tens of thousands of dollars, most are available for a few hundred.

And the buildings? All too often, they're seen to have no value whatsoever--and fall to the wrecking ball. That was the fate of Denver's fabulous 1958 Zeckendorf Plaza on the 16th Street Mall, a three-building complex that was the work of renowned architect I.M. Pei. Today only one element, the tower, survives; the rest has been replaced by an expanded Adam's Mark Hotel.

(Speaking of Zeckendorf Plaza, Susan Powers, director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, announced this month that she's stepping down after eleven too-long years at the agency's helm. More than anyone else, Powers is responsible for the chain of events that replaced Pei's hyperbolic paraboloid and department-store box with the formless pile of glass and stone that is Fred Kummer's hotel. Rather than making the monstrosity possible through a $25 million DURA subsidy, she could have nipped it in the bud, since DURA's guidelines proscribe making grants to projects that endanger "landmarks or potential landmarks." Instead, Powers went so far as to ridicule the historic Pei complex and its champions in the preservation community--right to their faces. But surprise, surprise: Today, as Powers sums up her DURA career, she seems to be suffering from amnesia concerning the key role she played in the loss of Zeckendorf.)

A few blocks away from Adam's Mark, Temple Buell's 1950 travertine, terra cotta and aluminum Denver Post building is being reduced to rubble. The structure, a rare downtown example of art moderne, has been sacrificed so that the property's current owner, Denver developer Bruce Berger, will have a cleared site to offer to someone--anyone--who might be interested in building a convention center hotel there. (Hey, wasn't that why Zeckendorf had to go?) In the meantime, a parking lot will grace the space, lined by a ludicrous "memory wall" made from salvage from the building and designed by local architecture firm Klipp Colussy Jencks DuBois.

And then last month, Sears announced that its buff-colored, brick-and-limestone 1954 International-style department store in Cherry Creek, another Temple Buell building, will soon be replaced by a new store and a shopping center that will include the city's first Whole Foods. (Just what we need, another gourmet grocery store.) Since Sears hasn't mentioned a timetable, there's a small hope that financing will fall through, as it did the last time this wonderful building was threatened.

After all, financing troubles saved Roger Musick's modernist 1958 Bankers Union Life Insurance Company building across Second Avenue from Sears that a Phoenix developer wanted to turn into a luxury hotel and shops. The deal fell through last year after the gray granite, concrete and aluminum building had been vacated by the Archdiocese of Denver; it's currently being remodeled by the local real estate company Sullivan Hayes to accommodate mixed use. So far, no major exterior changes have been made to this wonderful building: Keep your fingers crossed.

Other important Fifties buildings are endangered not by redevelopment, but neglect. The gorgeous 1959 Daly Insurance Building by Denver notable James Sudler is crumbling before our eyes. The empty structure, with its distinctive polka-dot sun-screens and Edgar Britton waterfall fountain, stands--for the time being, at least--at 16th Avenue and Sherman Street. In better shape, but also recently vacated, is another Sudler, the 1957 Columbine Building, just a couple of blocks up Sherman Street between 18th and 19th avenues. This avant-garde triumph features a front facade that zig-zags with alternating horizontal bands of glass and metal.

A few--too few--Fifties landmarks have been embraced. After a contentious political struggle, Burnham Hoyt's 1955 Central Library was preserved and the Denver Public Library built a new, Michael Graves-designed structure next door. More recently, a group of investors including architect Josh Comfort and businessman Ken Wolf has been breathing new life into the elegant 1958 Tremont Center on West Colfax Avenue at Tremont Place, a cream-colored aggregate and bright-yellow metal-clad International-style building by Alan Fisher of the famous Fisher and Fisher firm.

The news is even more promising on the residential front. In spite of years of scrape-offs and remodels, most of the important Fifties houses on Hilltop survive, and almost all of them are in tip-top condition. The neighborhood features the only post-war house in Colorado listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the 1951 International-style Josel Residence by visionaries Joseph and Louise Marlow, on South Dahlia Street between Alameda Avenue and Cedar Street.

But the Denver area could soon top that with the country's first Fifties housing development to be entered in its entirety on the National Register.

Englewood is not the first--or even the fiftieth--place you think of when the topic at hand is national-class architecture. Nonetheless, this suburb is home to Arapahoe Acres, a remarkable neighborhood located between Bates and Dartmouth avenues from Marion to Franklin streets that's filled with more than a hundred modernist homes.

The continuing value of Arapahoe Acres as a cultural asset is owed to many factors, not the least of which are the series of owners--some original buyers, some enthusiastic newcomers--who keep up these homes. With only a few exceptions, these modest yet magnificent houses have been preserved, cherished and maintained over the decades. When one resident recently tore out landscape elements, greatly expanding the driveway and erecting an obtrusive fence, a score of neighbors signed a protest letter. And just last week Arapahoe Acres residents met at Charles Hay Elementary School to discuss how changes can be made that are "neighborhood-friendly." This on-going, positive peer pressure is one of the main reasons the development retains much of its original character and will likely receive historic designation.

There were many gifted people who brought Arapahoe Acres from the realm of ideas into the northern reaches of Englewood. First and foremost was Edward Hawkins, a builder who conceived of the project and became its developer, designing many of the neighborhood's finest houses and much of the unifying landscape plan. Also important was Eugene Sternberg, architect and professor at the now-closed School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Denver, who designed the oldest houses in Arapahoe Acres and laid out the original site plan. Other architects (notably Jerry Dion) and landscape designers (notably Stanley Yoshimura) also made substantial contributions to the character of Arapahoe Acres.

The Arapahoe Acres history on which the National Register nomination is based was put together by Diane Wray, a historic-preservation consultant who's become the neighborhood's de facto historian. Since she moved to Arapahoe Acres in 1990, Wray has interviewed scores of original residents as well as surviving designer Sternberg and original construction foreman Clyde Mannon; she's researched the neighborhood both through the city of Englewood's records and in the national architectural press. (Arapahoe Acres houses were often featured in magazines; the first article appeared in 1950, when only a few had been built.)

Wray is working with other residents to establish a historic preservation committee for the neighborhood that will be "an information- based-thing," she says. The few insensitive changes that have been made to the neighborhood over the years, she explains, were more the result of misunderstandings about the nature of the houses than willful attempts to destroy the overall character. "Everyone who lives here was attracted in the first place by the distinctiveness of the area," she says. "So to own a home in Arapahoe Acres is to have an obligation to preserve it."

Wray is right. Fine Fifties architecture--whether downtown, in Cherry Creek or in the suburbs--represents a valuable equity that we have inherited and have a duty to preserve. Unfortunately, those worthy souls in Arapahoe Acres and in Hilltop notwithstanding, all too often we in the metro area have failed as caretakers of our local architectural legacy. And shame on us for that.

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