Modern Master

Architect Hugh Kaptur's Designs Were Among The Most Creative And Innovative Of The Era



Architect Hugh M. Kaptur

Dan Chavkin

Hugh Kaptur says that architects should follow the wishes of their clients. However, he’s willing to bend that rule once in a while. Take, for example, the house Kaptur designed for Kay and Paul Selzer in 1988. The environmental lawyer and his wife met with the architect in Kaptur’s office, then on Tahquitz Canyon Way. The Selzers asked for something in the Mediterranean-French Provincial style, featuring stucco and tile. “I know exactly what you want,” Selzer recalls Kaptur saying. “I’ll design it for you, and you’ll love it.”

Two months later, the couple returned to the office to see the model. “I almost fainted,” Selzer remembers. “Not only was it not French Provincial, it was something like Mexican Modern.”

Nonplussed, the couple set the model on the mantle piece. That night, while hosting a party at their home, the Selzers were surprised by the unsolicited admiration for the model among their guests. “They said, ‘You must build it’,” the now-retired lawyer says. The couple chose to build the renegade scheme. Today, after living in the house for more than 25 years, they say they keep getting compliments. “It blows us away,” Selzer says.

Kaptur’s design skills, which he has applied almost entirely to buildings in the Coachella Valley, have earned the 82-year-old architect a place of honor in this year’s Modernism Week. “We are delighted to honor Hugh Kaptur during Modernism Week 2014,” says J. Chris Mobley, chairman of the Modernism Week board of directors. “Mr. Kaptur is a visionary, and our community celebrates the significant role he played in the development of Palm Springs as a mecca for midcentury modern architecture. With more than 200 built projects in the area, he represents a prolific and dynamic career. Many of his designs were considered among the most creative and innovative of the era.”

The Selzer house and his own office on Tahquitz Canyon Way demonstrate Kaptur’s preference for what he calls the “desert style”: thick walls, deeply inset windows, wide overhangs that protect the house from absorbing heat, and the house oriented to capture prevailing breezes.

“I’ve always felt disappointed that Palm Springs took after L.A. in terms of architectural styles, rather than Phoenix and Tucson,” Kaptur says. The latter, he adds, were “desert communities, and that style of architecture is something I liked more for this region.”

His biggest influence, Kaptur says, is Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed many desert-style buildings, including the famous Taliesin West in Arizona. “I like form that is flowing and organic,” Kaptur says. “Organic,” of course, was one of the master’s favorite terms.

In contrast, the hard-edged International Style of steel and glass appeals less to Kaptur, who finds it “cold.” And despite the fact that the Steve McQueen house, one of his best-known designs, was built in the popular post-and-beam style, Kaptur is not convinced that the house would be comfortable to live in. “Too cold,” he says of the Modernist landmark. He prefers other buildings, such as his Municipal Golf Course clubhouse.

Like other Palm Springs architects, Kaptur has had his share of Hollywood clientele. His favorite was the late William Holden, who commissioned a house from Kaptur in the 1970s. “At the time I was designing his house, Stefanie Powers had gotten him off of drinking, and he was an interesting gentlemen,” Kaptur recounts. “He would start telling stories about his experiences in Africa or New Guinea or China or Japan. He’d be telling stories for hours.”

Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, however, were apparently less charming. “Typical Hollywood brats,” he says. Surprisingly, the architect never met McQueen; the house had been built originally for another client.

A Detroit native, Kaptur was born in 1931 into a family with practical and artistic gifts; his father was an automobile design engineer, and all of his siblings grew up to be engineers or artists. His mother, watching the 10-year-old Kaptur assemble model airplanes, said the boy “would be the architect of the family.”

If predestined for architecture, Kaptur’s route to the profession was circuitous. After high school, he attended Lawrence Technical College in Michigan, working toward a degree in engineering. In 1951, with the Korean conflict flaring up, Kaptur enlisted in the Marines rather than be drafted into the Army. The young man who had never been out of the Midwest had his first glimpse of Southern California at Camp Pendleton, as well as architecture in Hawaii and Japan en route to Korea. Japan was still devastated by the war, but he recalls he was able to see the Imperial Hotel by his hero, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Upon leaving the service, Kaptur hitchhiked from San Francisco to San Clemente to rejoin his future wife, Rosemary, whom he had met during his stay at Camp Pendleton. Soon the couple had a child, and the ex-Marine worked in a plant nursery to support his young family. Kaptur’s father invited Hugh to work at the General Motors styling shop in Detroit, and the family decamped to Michigan, where Hugh worked by day and attended classes at Lawrence Tech by night. However, California still held an attraction for the couple, and they moved to Palm Springs, where Rosemary’s mother now lived.

When they arrived in 1954, Palm Springs “was just a village,” he recalls. As for Palm Desert, “the only thing there was a hamburger stand, and Rancho Mirage was just a two-lane road to Indio.”

Kaptur first worked briefly for Wexler & Harrison but was laid off during the 1957 recession. Skilled at free-hand drawing, he made artist’s renderings of buildings for Wexler, Albert Frey, and others.

Business picked up in 1958, when homebuilders began developing Palm Springs on a large scale, and Kaptur found himself designing post-and-beam houses. “I was definitely influenced by Palmer & Krisel,” the firm that was instrumental in setting the trend for the post-and-beam style, notable for its clean lines, wood construction, and enormous windows.

Later, after opening his own office, the architect was known for an easygoing personality in a profession notable for uncertainty and frustration, according to Martha Edgeman, who worked 15 years as his secretary. “He was fun to work for,” she recalls. She also admires his design prowess. After the death of William “Bill” Cody, Edgeman adds, “Hugh was the best designer in Palm Springs.”

In his ninth decade, Kaptur maintains a busy schedule and describes himself as “semi-retired.” Working out of the couple’s home, his current wife, Helen, handles the telephone and scheduling. “She’s a perfectionist,” Kaptur says, admiringly. A hands-on architect, he knows enough about carpentry, landscaping, and plumbing to handle small jobs around the house. On a recent Sunday, the octogenarian was unable to come to the telephone because he was on the roof of his 6,000-square-foot house on a Palm Springs mountainside. “I was hosing off the roof in case embers were falling from the Canyon fires,” he says.

Despite his experience with the Selzers, who remain close friends, Kaptur says architects should respect the preferences of clients. He is less respectful, however, when it comes to the way some of his buildings have been altered or expanded by subsequent owners. In one case, he says, sounding neutral about the result, “They just took my detailing and expanded it.” Concerning a different building, however, he speaks disparagingly of decorative features added to his original structure. The fortunate thing, in Kaptur’s view, the new features that he dislikes were built on top of the original structure, which remains intact. In the future, he says, “Hopefully somebody will be able to scrape the kaka off.”

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