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Art, Architecture and Design

Farewell to the Future: Iconic “Sleeper” House is Foreclosed On

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December 13th, 2010 at 5:47 pm

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Charles Deaton's Sleeper House

Charles Deaton’s “Sleeper” House

On November 10, the Sleeper House in Genesee Colorado was sold at a foreclosure. Now, according to the New York Times, the new owner is embroiled in a dispute with the former owner, who will not vacate the property. It’s the opening in yet another uncertain chapter for an architectural icon that seems to embody a future that never quite arrived.

More formally known as the Sculptured House, the mountaintop structure is best known for its starring role in the 1973 Woody Allen film, Sleeper. Other Denver-area structures featured in the movie can be seen here and here. Designed by architect Charles Deaton and built in 1963, the residence — which has almost never been occupied — is also known as the “clamshell house”, for its distinctive shape. As a child I always referred to it as the “flying saucer house”, and made a point of watching for it when we drove by on I-70. Its curvilinear white walls, perched atop a round stem, enfold a wall of windows facing north towards the distant peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park and east over the great plains. It has always had the look of the future – that gleaming, distant future in which we would all drive hover cars.

But the future, as they say, is not what it used to be, which is why the news of the foreclosure auction seemed both bittersweet and apt. That radiant midcentury vision had begun to lose its luster almost as soon as the house was built. Though it doesn’t seem that Deaton intended the house to be specifically “futuristic” in that sense. “People aren’t angular. So why should they live in rectangles?” said the architect, when asked about his curvaceous design. Of the building’s relationship to its site, Deaton said “On Genesee Mountain I found a high point of land where I could stand and feel the great reaches of the Earth. I wanted the shape of it to sing an unencumbered song.”

Far from designing a coldly rational machine a habiter, Deaton utilized the same curving organic forms that inspired Alvar Aalto, and (less respectably) Morris Lapidus. On a more domestic level, these same forms show up in the celebrated ceramics of Eva Zeisel. And the animators at Warner Brother applied them to the red rock desert through which Wile E. Coyote endlessly pursued the roadrunner.

At midcentury, these voluptuous shapes were embraced as a reflection of nature itself, yet as the years passed they have become almost the trademark of Cold War futurism, of the dawning of the atomic age and the space race. The landscapes through which the coyote chased the roadrunner looked very nearly extraterrestrial to me, and Deaton’s Sculptured House would have fit right in. This is the vision of the future that Woody Allen satirized in Sleeper. For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, the movie begins with the thawing-out, two hundred years in the future, of Miles Monroe, a jazz clarinetist and part-owner of the Happy Carrot health food restaurant, cryogenically frozen by accident in 1973.

Sleeper: Woody Allen passes orgasmic orb

Woody Allen as Miles Monroe passes along the “orgasmic orb” in Sleeper.

Miles awakens in a world in which people happily submit to dictatorship by the Leader in exchange for a life made easy by technological marvels. Author Thomas Hines describes Sleeper as “a seventies send-up of the dreams and designs of the previous decade…It showed a world where people lived in buildings that looked like concrete eggs, in which life had become so completely artificial that humans had lost connection with one another and had to retreat into a machine – the orgasmatron – to have sex.”. The “real” orgasmatron was the elevator in the Sculptured House, but there’s no word on whether the mind-altering disco-like ball partygoers pass around has a real-life counterpart.

By 1973, the “technological faith, confidence, and competence” Hines sees embodied in the modernism of the early sixties had already taken a battering. Deaton’s Sculptured House stood empty, its interior still unfinished, when the makers of Sleeper came looking for locations. (Apparently Allen originally wanted to film in Brasilia, the ultimate architectural expression of otherworldly organic modernism, which Sylvia Plath envisioned as populated by “people with torsos of steel/Winged elbows and eyeholes,” but that proved unworkable.)

The high point in the house’s life so far came in the 1990s, when the stock market was booming, tangerine iMacs sat on every desk, and “midcentury modern” shook off its nostalgic-diner associations and once again became a paradigm of good design. Software entrepreneur and investor John Huggins, who’d also been fascinated by the house while growing up in Denver, purchased it in 1999. “By the time he bought it, after nearly 36 years of neglect, the windows had been smashed in, the plaster was coming down, and there was snow inside the house.“ Huggins restored the house, completed an addition as envisioned in the architect’s original plans, and commissioned custom furnishings from Deaton’s daughter. He sold the house in 2006 to Michael Dunahay, who fell behind on his mortgage payments – a familiar story these days – leading to this November’s foreclosure. Once again, we have entered an era of lowered expectations, of paradise postponed.

For the filming of Sleeper, the interior of the house was ironically furnished with elegant and ultra-traditional antiques – colonial, regency, Louis-whatever, the damask and the mahogany almost outshining their monochromatic surroundings – as if, in the 22nd century, “modern” will be just another historicist style, like Spanish Colonial or Beaux-Arts. As the 21st century advances, there’s no reason to believe that won’t be the case. I find it rather sad to think of Deaton’s bold vision of a new harmony between nature and culture becoming just another historical landmark.

Let’s hope it will experience fewer ups and downs than Redstone Castle, another Colorado landmark. The “castle”, a gilded-age mansion in the Crystal River valley above Aspen, landed in the hands of the IRS a few years back after a financial scandal that earned one owner a 330-year prison sentence.

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