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.