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10 Feb 2014

The Star of Modernism Week: Showing Off the Work of Architect Hugh Kaptur

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Hugh Kaptur. Hugh Kaptur.

Renowned local architect Hugh Kaptur will be, in many ways, the star of this year’s Modernism Week, which kicks off this Thursday, Feb. 13.

At 2 p.m., Friday, Feb. 14, he’ll be honored with a place on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, at the corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Baristo Road. This is just one of several Modernism Week events focused on Kaptur.

Hugh Kaptur was born in Detroit in 1931. His father worked as a designer for General Motors and Packard—so you could say that he had some design inspiration from his father. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, he moved to Palm Springs in 1956. He interned with Wexler and Harrison before being laid off; he then decided to strike out on his own and went on to design homes for the Ranch Construction Company. He designed the Palm Springs Fire Stations No. 3 and 4, as well as numerous homes, apartment complexes, office buildings and hotels, including the Casa Blanca, now known as the Musicland Hotel.

Matt Burkholz, a local Modernism historian and tour guide, will be giving a free lecture on Kaptur at the Palm Springs Library at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 22.

“Kaptur is the man for not only residential architecture in Palm Springs, but also commercial architecture in Palm Springs,” Burkholz said. “His most famous residential structures are the Steve McQueen house and the William Holden house. In terms of his commercial work, that would be pretty much everything on Tahquitz Canyon, which includes the 600-700 building right across the street from the Regal Cinemas, and the Fragen Building, which is a really early geo-berm building where the lawns go right up to the roof line. In fact, he even wanted grass on the roof.”

Burkholz says that the tour he will be doing at 1 p.m., Friday, Feb. 21 (tickets are $50 and available at www.modernismweek.com) will include the Ranch Club Estates, now known as the Desert Park Estates, and Racquet Club South, north of Vista Chino.

“In the ‘50s and ‘60s, (the homes) were really considered out of town—literally in the middle of Saharan-style sand dunes,” Burkholz said. “When the houses were finished, each homeowner was given a shovel to shovel blown sand away from their front doors, because it was that far out of town. Because the houses were out of town, and Kaptur is the kind of architect who is very aware of the area he’s designing for, the homes are extremely substantive and well-insulated—actually, much more so than the resort-style homes that are closer within town.”

While Kaptur’s work is considered part of the Modernism movement, elements of his work put Modernism to the test, and incorporate other architectural designs and a great deal of geometric inspiration.

“He’s not a purist Modernist architect,” Burkholz said. “He is interested in several different aspects of life here. A lot of the other local Modernist architects, like Albert Frey and William Cody, were influenced by Los Angeles architecture. Kaptur realized Palm Springs was an entirely different ecosystem and environment than Los Angeles. A lot of the things that were modern and stylish for L.A., aspects of them could work here. But we are more of a desert climate than a coastal climate, so he looked east of here to Arizona and New Mexico—things like … Santa Fe centennial architecture, and adobe architecture. They’re more substantive, and they can take the great heat, the wind, and can take the super-extreme conditions of our ecosystem here.”

There are some recognizable patterns and elements to Kaptur’s work. For example, he didn’t use that much steel.

“He didn’t think that steel heating up to 125 degrees baking in the sun was quite the right material,” Burkholz said. “He preferred stone, thick wood, and he did incorporate glass as well. He really looked around the area for his inspiration when it came to the mountains, to the east, to the Native American cliff dwellings, and caves. His style is not as sleekly futuristic. He lived so long and worked so long that as fashion and style changed, he moved from Jetsons futurism to more of an organic quality.”

Kaptur’s work is still relevant today, Burkholz said.

“He and his wife, Helen, are kind of an advertisement for life in the desert,” Burkholz said. “They’re older folks, but they’re great-looking; they live a fabulous life; they have a great home off Bogert Trail in the Southern part of town. Pretty much everyone involved in Palm Springs planning and Palm Springs politics knows him, because he’s been here since 1958. He’s part and parcel to the residential and commercial texture of the whole city.”

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