The Great Escape

Steve McQueen made Hugh Kaptur’s Southridge house his own

Allison Engel Modernism

Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw made headlines when they fell in love on the set of The Getaway in 1972 and married a year later. During their time together, they made their own getaways to McQueen’s modern hideaway in Palm Springs, part of a small development of estates perched on a private drive above the Coachella Valley. McQueen had purchased the home on Southridge Drive several years earlier with his then-wife Neile Adams, buying the lot next door as well for more privacy, but he made it clear that it should look like a bachelor pad.

Adams recalled in her memoir that McQueen gave Santa Monica decorator Peter Shore specific instructions: “Just think of it as my pad, baby, OK? Decorate it as if it belonged to a man, a bachelor. No feminine stuff.”

An August 1971 Sports Illustrated article described the house this way: “McQueen’s desert hideaway … is some decorator’s dream come surrealistically true. There are kongoni skulls and zebra skin pillows, the mounted head of a Boone and Crockett-class bighorn sheep, a gold-plated Winchester .30-30 ‘presentation model’ hanging on one wall.”

McQueen had a long history of great escapes to Palm Springs to avoid the glare of Hollywood, first living in what he called “a little shack out there in the flats” near downtown. He bragged that it cost him only $102 a month and said, “I was perfectly happy with it. It was on a wash, and you could just jump on the bike and disappear into the giggle weeds.”

The Southridge house, built in 1968, was not designed for the actor, but the steel I-beam structure, with its strong rectilinear forms cantilevered over the rugged hillside, fit The King of Cool perfectly. The three-stall carport and expansive parking area no doubt was one of the draws for McQueen, a legendary car and motorcycle buff. In 1971, the Sports Illustrated writer noted no fewer than two Porsche 911s and six motorcycles on the property.

With few major modifications over the past decades, the house remains a well-preserved example of late 1960s luxury design, minus McQueens’ trophies. There are still the original oversized terrazzo tiles, cypress paneling, black walnut cabinets and the bespoke Edward Fields sculptured carpets believed to date to McQueen’s tenure. A floating staircase and glass walls opening to wide concrete balconies define the home’s uncluttered dynamic. As its current owner puts it, “It’s an amazing space: a clean, modern, post-and-beam projecting cube with a heavy overlay of late ’60s high groovy.”

The four-bedroom, 4,300-square-foot house was designed by Palm Springs architect Hugh M. Kaptur, a contemporary of William Cody, Donald Wexler, Richard Harrison, Howard Lapham, and other desert architectural icons. Kaptur is responsible for many significant modern buildings here, going back to his 1957-58 Impala Lodge (now the Triangle Inn) and his 1964 yellow brick fire station at Via Miraleste and Racquet Club Road and continuing with projects such as the William Holden house, also on Southridge. Early on, Kaptur created renderings for Lapham and later partnered with Lapham’s son Lawrence on projects such as the Alan Ladd building.

At 77, with no plans to retire, Kaptur designs memorable buildings, with a portfolio that includes an impressive range of projects and styles. He remembers the McQueen house as being designed during his Mies van der Rohe/Richard Neutra phase. “I was pretty young then, and I was still learning by looking at other architects,” he says. “Here, I was experimenting with the Neutra look, with a lot of floor-to-ceiling glass and floating elements.”

The site was difficult, Kaptur remembers, yielding a very small concrete pad to serve as the base for the home. He cantilevered the liv-ing room off the pad in order to keep as much of the flat surface as possible for the pool and deck area. “The house is basically all steel columns, with steel beams and metal decking covered with poured concrete,” he says. “I was fortunate to be able to use the steel, since most projects at the time were wood-frame construction.” Using steel made it possible to create the one-of-a-kind structure. “Great houses come with great materials,” Kaptur asserts. In fact, the project was rare enough that Bethlehem Steel Co. sent a professional photographer to take pictures while the house was under construction. Kaptur saved the contact sheets of those black-and-white photos showing a house remarkably like the one that stands today.

The house was built as a spec design for investor Thomas Griffing, who lived down the street in a William Cody-designed house. Griffing never moved in to the new house. Shortly after construction, Broadway song publisher Edwin “Buddy” Morris purchased it and asked Kaptur to make changes. Kaptur added the carport and a covered walkway with narrow columns and corrugated decking leading from the carport to the house. The attached garage was converted to a maid’s quarters.

It is thought that McQueen kept the house until he died in 1980. The current owner — who also owns the 1968 John Lautner-designed Elrod House next door and the 1989 Boat House designed by Phoenix architect Michael Johnson across the street — bought the McQueen house three years ago.

From the street, the McQueen house looks utterly unremarkable. The entrance is sunken, mostly hidden from sight, down a flight of steps. Imposing double doors, two stories high, break a plain exterior faced in narrow, buff-colored Roman brick, which was popular in Detroit, where Kaptur grew up and studied architecture. If he does have a signature material, this might be it, he says.

Inside, glamour and dramatic views prevail. Robert Imber, owner of Palm Springs Modern Tours and an expert on local architecture, says the house provides “a disarming sense of movement and flow as one experiences the stairwell, dramatic open spaces, loft-like bedroom wing, and the balconies.” He says the steel-and-glass structure “expresses something uniquely Palm Springs and uniquely Southridge, with strong architectural forms and materials woven into carefully crafted views.”

The open staircase in the house, anchored by 2-inch-by-2-inch steel rods, is a nod to Eero Saarinen, who had a penchant for floating stairs. Kaptur knew these stairs well. At the beginning of his career, he had worked with Saarinen at General Motors’ styling center in Detroit. His original design for the staircase had a glulam hand railing, but later (believed to be during McQueen’s ownership), it was changed out for an unusual, hand-carved railing that resembles a thick wood braid.

The living room features cypress paneling, a sculptured carpet in gray and brown, and lots of brown suede and leather upholstery. Brown was reported to be McQueen’s favorite color, which the current owner found throughout the existing décor. A first-floor “rumpus room” includes a built-in bar that opens to the swimming pool. At one end of the pool, a brick planter holds a tree that arches over the water. Kaptur added the greenery to soften the architecture.

There’s a bedroom on the first floor and three more upstairs, including the master. The master bedroom has another dense Edward Fields carpet, a geometric-cut shag in brown and black, and masculine, three-dimensional wallpaper in a chain pattern — both believed to be from the McQueen era. The room opens to a second-story deck that wraps around the house and can hold multiple tables and chairs.

“You can’t really tell the structure of this house from the front,” Kaptur says. “The pools, the decks, the views — it all happens in the back. It’s one thing I couldn’t change, due to the terrain; and I guess it’s somewhat typical of Palm Springs. A house can look fairly ordinary in the front and hide an entire compound inside.”