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Modernist Ideals Thrive in Suburban Denver

The first National Register–recognized Modernist suburban development is in the Rocky Mountain West

By Mary Voelz Chandler

In an age when the word “suburb” often elicits downright scorn in design circles, there is a Modernist suburban enclave near Denver that has not only survived, but has made a lasting mark. Attendees to the 2013 AIA National Convention in Denver will have the opportunity to visit this neighborhood, Arapahoe Acres, located in the city of Englewood just south of Denver, the first post–World War II suburban development to be listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places.

Homes in Arapahoe Acres were built beginning in the late 1940s, some designed by noted Denver architect Eugene Sternberg, but most were conceived by designer/builder/developer Edward Hawkins. Both men took on the promise of Frank Lloyd Wright—that homes could be affordable, functional, practical, bracingly modern, and still attractive—and carried it to a worthy conclusion.

Other suburban builders may have started with this philosophy but then churned out cookie-cutter interpretations; an easy task when a postwar population was crying out for instant new housing. But Sternberg and Hawkins created a suburb notable for its fine Modernist architecture, honest materials, and a cohesion inspired by a flow of expressive landscaping.

Preserving Arapahoe Acres

Together, Hawkins and Sternberg worked to plot a neighborhood that eventually grew to more than 120 homes. But eventually the duo parted ways for economic and creative differences: Hawkins wanted to charge more for the homes than originally agreed to, and dropped plans for a park. Still, their planning demonstrated that homes could vary in size from small to expansive, yet never lose sight of Wright’s Usonian ideals of space and composition.

Horizontal planes are accented, with rooflines that range from butterfly-shaped to rectangular, often with overhangs that shelter upper levels or carports. Rather than present a fixed selection of repetitive designs, a home’s footprint was wedded to the site, allowing for individual appearance as well as landscaping that continued from lot to lot. Driveways exist, but are grouped to downplay the interruption. Sun and shade both play a role, as the homes showcase a public face, and a recognition of the need for privacy. 

As the original owners moved on, Arapahoe Acres attracted people with a love of design. Among them is Diane Wray Tomasso, co-author of The Mid-Century Modern House in Denver, an inventory of homes and discussion of design that became the underpinning of the nomination that landed Arapahoe Acres pioneering historic status in 1998.

“I felt that the neighborhood merited recognition for its sterling qualities, and hoped the book would spur interest in preserving the historic character of the neighborhood,” Tomasso says. 

But after these new owners moved in, followed by another wave of less historically attuned buyers, preservation of these homes has faced challenges. Although some of the homes originally had second levels, others now sport pop-tops that do not maintain the integrity of the home’s original Modernist massing. Some interiors have been gutted or retrofitted to reflect more contemporary tastes. Several owners have filled yards with river rocks, replacing landscaping that required maintenance and a commodity—water—that is more heavily regulated today because of Colorado’s ongoing drought. The Arapahoe Acres website continues to list covenants devised by Hawkins, but they have not been renewed.

Other intriguing mid-century/postwar residential neighborhoods that dot the Denver area include Arapaho Hills, whose construction was spearheaded by Hawkins but which follows a gently adjusted grid. (Through Tomasso’s efforts it was listed on the National Register in 2012). Just as Hawkins moved on to Arapaho Hills, Sternberg sought other projects, including the co-op–style Mile High Housing Association in southeast Denver, developed by a group of University of Denver professors. As for “imported” styles, there are Krisana Park and Lynwood in southeast Denver, where developer H.B. Wolff borrowed designs popularized by Joseph Eichler in California; a few blocks of Harvey Park, in southwest Denver, contain Modernist homes that were shipped there in sections and assembled.

Still, Tomasso says that Arapahoe Acres is different from other Modernist neighborhoods popular in the Denver area. For one thing, its streets aren’t planned along a conventional grid, and instead follow the topography and grade of the land. Also, “Arapahoe Acres and Arapaho Hills were both designed and built by local professionals with a high level of training, knowledge, and expertise in Modern residential design,” she says.

A suggested tour

A tour of Arapahoe Acres can proceed from street to street, or by focusing on thematic elements that help define the neighborhood:

    Continuity through landscaping and other elements: Homes at 1421, 1431, and 1441 East Dartmouth Ave. are different in terms of style, but appear to flow together because of the fences between them, while the homes at 2980, 2970 and 2960 S. Lafayette Drive maintain cohesion through the landscaping that links them. 

    Topography: Homes at 2930, 2920, and 2910 S. Lafayette Drive appear to hug the land as they flow downhill into each other, demonstrating the reliance of the natural grade to create cohesion. (Lafayette “Street” in Denver becomes Lafayette “Drive” in Arapahoe Acres, while East Cornell Avenue is joined by East Cornell Place and South Cornell Circle—off the prevailing city grid.) 

    Materials and colors: The home at 1441 E. Cornell Place finds unity through a gray wooden-slat facade. The home at 2960 S. Lafayette Drive uses the same material (in a darker gray) to express horizontal and vertical lines, while camouflaging the garage doors and integrating them into the facade. Meanwhile, homes at 2970 and 2980 S. Lafayette Drive utilize splashes of color to enliven the essentially neutral palette that dominates Arapahoe Acres. 

    Distinctive signage: Unusual street signs mark the way through Arapahoe Acres as a neighborhood logo, where the “A’s” were turned into arrowheads to reflect the source of its name, the Arapaho Indians.

Denver resident Mary Voelz Chandler has written about architecture, preservation, art, and design for more than 20 years. She is the author of the Guide to Denver Architecture, and was formerly the architecture writer at the Rocky Mountain News. She was also a writer at Fentress Architects, where she completed two books on the firm’s work, and is currently a business development communications specialist at GH Phipps Construction Companies. Chandler received the AIA Colorado 2005 award for Contribution to the Built Environment by a Non-Architect, and was honored by the Denver Art Museum in 2012 with the DAM Contemporaries DAMKey Award.

 



The home at 2960 S. Lafayette Drive uses a dark gray wooden-slat facade to express horizontal and vertical lines, while camouflaging the garage doors and integrating them into the facade. All images copyright 2013 Alan Golin Gass, FAIA.

Some houses, like this one at 2970 S. Lafayette Drive, utilize splashes of color to enliven the essentially neutral palette that continues to dominate Arapahoe Acres.

The homes on S. Lafayette Drive maintain cohesion through the landscaping that links them.

   
     

Recent Related:

A Story to Tell: Washington, D.C.’s, Mid-Century Modernist Core

The Dynamic District: New Washington, D.C., Architecture

Curious Capital Architecture: Unusual Buildings of the District of Columbia

Reference:

Go to the AIA Convention Website

 

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