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Stories of Quiet Elegance: Hugh Kaptur, AIA

A 24-year-old wunderkind set loose in the desert, Hugh Kaptur, AIA, has grown into a Southern California Modernism elder statesman

By Mike Singer

For marathon careers in architecture, Hugh Kaptur, AIA, might be living proof that an inauspicious beginning followed by a steady rise is a far better fate than a bang preceding a fizzle. Beginning his career as a designer rendering plans for tract homes, Kaptur has grown in stature to become one of the preeminent Palm Springs Modernists.

Modernism Week last month provided much fanfare for Kaptur, with the world premiere of Quiet Elegance: The Architecture of Hugh M. Kaptur, a documentary film on his life; a public library exhibit and lecture about his designs; and neighborhood walking tours of homes created early in his 60-year career. Kaptur, 82, kicked off the week with a public ceremony on the sidewalk of the soon-to-open Edwards Harris Center for Architecture and Design, where he got a star in the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. Kaptur’s star is next to the stars of other Palm Springs Modernists including Albert Frey, E. Stewart Williams, Donald Wexler, FAIA, William Cody, A. Quincy Jones, as well as Julius Shulman, and William Krisel, AIA.

Detroit-born Kaptur studied architectural engineering at the Lawrence Institute of Technology. He first came to Southern California as a marine, stationed at Camp Pendleton. After his tour with the Marines, which included stints in Hawaii and Japan where he observed various architectural styles, Kaptur returned to Detroit in 1954, working in GM’s styling division, following in the footsteps of his father, who was a designer in the Packard and GM studios.

He first visited Palm Springs for a family vacation in 1956. He chose to stay, designing a real estate office for his first wife’s family. He raised a family there, and created a portfolio of more than 200 residences and over 40 commercial and government projects. Along the way, he partnered with regional architects including Lawrence Lapham, AIA, and James Cioffi, AIA.

Kaptur, among the youngest of Palm Springs mid-century Modernists, began his long California career as an apprentice in the Palm Springs firm of Wexler & Harrison, rendering architectural drawings. It was the last time in his career when he would work for someone else. “We went into a recession [in 1957], so I was laid off. I thought I’d start working out of my garage until things improved, thinking I’d later get a job at one of the other architectural firms in town. When other firms got busy, I started getting busy, too. So I never did return to another architecture firm.”

Amongst the tract homes

In 1959, as a draftsman and designer, he rendered plans for Ranch Club Estates, a group of Modernist-style tract homes by owner and developer Noel Clarke. Kaptur designed Ranch Club homes at the same time the more celebrated Alexander Construction Company hired Bill Krisel and Dan Palmer to design their famous butterfly roof homes for new tract housing developments throughout Palm Springs.

“It was tricky working for builders--you designed a house and sent them a set of drawings,” Kaptur said. “We didn’t get repeat fees, but some of the subcontractors had the drawings and used and modified them. They would buy a lot and build a spec house. There were a lot of building entrepreneurs. You know, I was a very young man then—24-25—and always watching and observing.”

Kaptur uses butterfly rooflines, concrete block screens, window walls of glass, post-and-beam construction methods, and naturalistic elements, like rock and wood. “My home is like a cave with a glass box on the back of it,” said Matthew Burkholz of his Kaptur-designed Desert Park Estates abode. “Everything is very thickly insulated, and much more substantive than a lot of the other early architect-designed tract homes here in Palm Springs.”

“I came from Detroit, and all of our homes were heavily insulated,” Kaptur said. “So, we designed homes here so we could put insulation in. My designs had thicker rooflines. They were not as delicate. They kept the pitched roofs, using butterfly and slope designs, but they just had a thicker feel to them. They were built pretty inexpensively. They had to be built for $10 a square foot back then.”

Those houses, now all over 50 years old, have been restored by an enthusiastic new group of owners like Burkholz who extol their design virtues. “Hugh wasn’t drawn to Richard Nuetra and the Los Angeles school of coastal Modernist architecture, but looked much more to Frank Lloyd Wright and a sense of organic forms,” said Burkholz who presented a lecture on Kaptur during Modernism Week. “Hugh looked east to Arizona and New Mexico for both adobe-style architecture and native indigenous habitats and cave environments. One of the most important tenets of his architecture was structural expressionism, meaning not concealing post and beam architecture, not concealing buttresses, [but] having everything stylized with thick geometry.”

Making it official

Kaptur’s first commercial project was the Impala Lodge (now the Triangle Inn) in 1958. That project, done while he was still not licensed as an architect, was heavily influenced by the Huddle’s Springs Restaurant, designed by leading Palm Springs Modernist William Cody. Cody also designed St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, where both he and Kaptur worshipped.

“I would see him in church, we are both Catholics, and our wives both worked together in the women’s association of the church,” Kaptur said. “But Bill would never say hello--like I didn’t exist. I was a building designer, and that was lower than a car salesman.”

“As I started progressing, I made some friends on the [Palm Springs] City Council, and it awarded me the North End Fire Station 3. Bill Cody was livid. He scolded the City Council that they had given me a contract and he reported me to the board of architectural examiners [for not having a license].”

“By this time, I had moved out of my garage and I was in an office, and a deputy from the board came and paid me a visit and I thought, ‘Oh, God they are going to put me out of business.’ But as we discussed things, he said ‘Hugh why don’t you take the exam?’ And I said, ‘Well I’d love to, except I don’t have the two years required with a registered architect.’

“So, he pulled out an application and said ‘Fill this out. I’ll see that you are accepted.’ So I did. I passed the exam, and I became a licensed architect, and then of course, joined the AIA, and the rest is history.” Licensure and AIA membership seemed to make all the difference for Cody. “Bill Cody, who wouldn’t even recognize me before, called and congratulated me, invited me over to his Huddle’s Springs Restaurant for a drink, and we became very good friends.”

“An architect is only as good as his client”

Nineteen-fifties Hollywood superstar Bill Holden contacted Kaptur in 1975 to design a house in Southridge, the exclusive cliff-side enclave in south Palm Springs where John Lautner had built iconic homes for Bob Hope and Arthur Elrod. Kaptur was the second architect Holden had contacted, after the initial firm’s bids came in too high.

Kaptur’s design was a 6,600-square-foot house on nearly four acres that delighted Holden. He lived there until his death in 1981. Kaptur remembers Holden as the best client he ever had, and treasures the African art Holden gave him during their years of friendship. “I just designed him a house there, and it came in on budget, and that’s how it got built,” Kaptur said in his typical self-effacing manner. “You’d never know he was a famous movie star. He didn’t flaunt it. He was just a regular guy.”

“An architect is only as good as his client,” Kaptur said. “You get a good client and you can do good architecture. You can get a client that is very restrictive, very opinionated, and it’s difficult to design a piece of architecture for those types of people.”

Kaptur is semi-retired, but still takes on the occasional assignment in his home studio. “I look back on my career now, and I’ve had my ups and downs, but I have no regrets. I’m doing what my mother told me I would do. It’s been a great career.”

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The Inn at Bermuda Dunes. Image courtesy of Patrick McGrew/Matt Burkholz.

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Palm Springs Golf Club. Image courtesy of Patrick McGrew/Matt Burkholz.

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Tahquitz Plaza in Palm Springs. Image courtesy of Patrick McGrew/Matt Burkholz.

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The Impala Lodge (now the Triangle Inn) was Kaptur’s first commercial project. Image courtesy of Patrick McGrew/Matt Burkholz.

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A classic Hugh Kaptur tract home in Desert Park Estates. Image courtesy of Matt Burkholz.

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Hugh Kaptur, AIA. Image courtesy of Christine Kim, Modernism Week.

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Recent Related:

Modernism Week Lifts the Curtain on Albert Frey’s Desert Home

Fire Island Modernism and the Architecture of Horace Gifford

At Home with Modernism


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