Charles Deaton was an influential western American architect best known for his Sculptured House (better known as the Sleeper House) in the hills around Denver. Deaton is remembered as a pioneering Colorado artist whose work was an example of architecture’s shifting visual aesthetic in the mid- to late 1900s.
Born in Clayton, New Mexico, on January 1, 1921, Deaton spent most of his childhood in Oklahoma. His mother, an artist, had lived in a dugout as a young girl, and living conditions for her own family proved just as challenging. The Deatons lived in a tent on the Oklahoma plains for two years and then moved into a one-room house. Deaton had one sister, Serma, and one half-brother, Harold Coffman. Deaton’s father worked as an oil geologist. Growing up in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, Deaton only completed his high school education. The one high school drafting class he took revealed his natural design talent, and he indulged his passion for engineering by taking apart a Model A Ford to figure out how it worked. By age sixteen, he was supporting himself as a commercial artist. He also created a drill-for-oil board game called Gusher, somewhat similar to Monopoly. Gusher was marketed nationally and has since become a fairly popular collector’s item.
When the United States entered World War II, Deaton, by then in his early twenties, went to California and took a job in aircraft engineering and design at a Lockheed defense plant. His work involved translating aerodynamic forms into sheet metal. He built upon those experiences after the war, spending a productive period of years as an inventor and designer. Deaton first created a furniture line for the Leopold Company of Burlington, Iowa. Called the Template Group by Leopold, it included desks, tables, and credenzas. Deaton next created a ceiling lighting system sold under the name Squiggle by Luminous Ceilings of Chicago. Squiggle was a plastic jigsaw maze that screened glare out of ceiling neon. Moving on to Diebold Inc., Deaton invented new security mechanisms and then crafted them into elegantly designed vaults and doors. His knowledge of bank operations eventually helped him secure architectural commissions to design bank buildings. A prolific creator, Deaton held more than thirty US patents by the end of his life, and an estimated 100 products of his design were manufactured.
Finding His Style
His success during the 1940s and 1950s gave Deaton the freedom to pursue his architectural career more seriously. He did his first work as an architect in New York City in the 1940s, then moved to St. Louis in 1949 and spent four years as chief designer for the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America. His St. Louis projects included remodels of the Jefferson Hotel and First National Bank buildings. In 1955 Deaton moved to Colorado, making his home in the Denver area. Deaton and his wife, Ida, had three daughters: Claudia, Charlee, and Snow. Deaton also had one son, Robert, from a previous marriage.
Deaton never received a college education. Free from the constraints of academic definitions, he worked across what most contemporaries saw as distinct fields: art, engineering, inventing, and architecture. He saw himself as an innovator who could artistically conceive a big idea, create the design, and employ other specialists in its execution while relying on his own hands-on problem-solving inventiveness when called upon. His work exhibited a clear reaction against the national housing trends that followed World War II. The rapidly growing economy and baby boom of that era created an enormous demand for fast, affordable housing. Throughout the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, developers built block upon block of indistinguishable, straight-lined structures all over the country. These postwar residences revealed the effects of two trends left over from the 1930s—the memory of the Great Depression and the development of the Modernist movement—both of which tended to suppress Americans’ appetite for fancy architectural details.
But Deaton’s philosophy asserted that curves are more natural than straight lines and that people are happier when surrounded by curves. “I have come to believe that sculptural architecture predates angular and rectilinear architecture by many centuries,” he wrote in a 1966 article for Art in America. “Man lived in the rolling hills and curvilinear caves, rounded thatched roofs, and molded mud huts long before Euclid’s geometry squared up our cities. We are so accustomed to our square cities that fully rounded forms in buildings look new to us again. . . . The question today is not to ask whether sculptural architecture is new, but to ask how far it can grow as a major art form.”
His approach was so far outside conventional thinking that his designs initially generated little interest. His first opportunity to build one of them came in Casper, Wyoming, when the Wyoming National Bank commissioned him to design its new headquarters. Deaton created a wood model incorporating a shell structure designed as a circle of petals. He then worked with the structural engineering firm KKBNA to bring the project to completion. This collaboration would be the first of many between Deaton and KKBNA.
Two other Deaton projects were built in the Denver area during this period. One was Key Savings and Loan, on Broadway near Hampden in Englewood. Another was the round annex to the now-demolished downtown Central Bank. Although Deaton designed a number of residences, the potential costs and radical stylistic departures were simply too much for most clients to accept. As a result, his ideas never culminated in actual construction. The Sculptured House would be the only residence among Deaton’s lengthy list of credits that was actually built.
One of the most distinctive and widely discussed buildings ever erected in Colorado, the Charles Deaton Sculptured House conveys its elegant, artistic quality in the geometry of ellipsoids and curving surfaces. Built between 1963 and 1966, the 2,500-square-foot residence stands on Genesee Mountain, about fifteen miles west of Denver. Motorists passing below on Interstate 70 instantly recognize the structure, also known as the Flying Saucer House, the Clamshell House, or the Sleeper House (for its appearance in Woody Allen’s 1973 film Sleeper). Deaton conceived the design around 1960 and originally fabricated it as a plaster sculpture before translating the model into blueprints—a remarkable feat in the era before computer-aided drafting (CAD) software. The building’s pedestal-like base and white, ellipsoid shell were completed in 1966, but the interior remained unfinished until 2000, when it was completed with a 5,000-square-foot addition also designed by Deaton and completed after his death.
Adapted from Nancy L. Widmann, “An Unencumbered Song: Charles Deaton and His Sculptured House,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 21, no. 4 (2001).