Each year, Modernism Week pays tribute to remarkable architects for their contribution to Palm Springs modernist architecture, design, and culture. This year, the esteemed honoree is architect Hugh Kaptur. Though he was born and raised in Detroit, Kaptur lived and worked in Palm Springs for most of his adult life and his work is an essential part of the Post-Modern era. Modernism Week sat down with Mr. Kaptur at his home, a lovely hidden oasis in a canyon not so far away to get his perspective on his life’s work and much more. Please join us for part one of a two-part series with Hugh Kaptur, From Mid-Century to Our Century.
From his run-ins with Bill Cody to building for Bill Holden, let’s start with the mid-century.
What brought you to Palm Springs?
I was born & raised in Detroit. The Korean War was heating up. I didn’t want to get drafted halfway through the semester so I bit the bullet and joined the Marine Corps. I got shipped out to South Carolina and then took a train to Camp Pendleton. The orange blossoms were blooming and I thought, “Wow, “this is paradise.” That was my first experience of California! We’d pull liberties and I met my first wife in church. We got married and about a month later, I got shipped overseas and left her pregnant. I got back and we had our first child. I went to work for a nursery. After doing that for a while I thought, this is not what I want to do. So I called my father, who was an executive at GM Styling, and I said, “Is there any chance you can get me a job?” And he said, “Get your butt back here and you got a job.”
So back to Detroit we went. I took engineering classes at night at Lawrence University. Being a California girl, my wife didn’t like Detroit. Plus she was an only child and her parents were just devastated having her so far away. So, anyway, we were out here in Palm Springs on vacation in 1956 and I went around to the architectural firms to see if there were any jobs and I found one with Wexler & Harrison. So we drove back to Detroit and I put my house, that I’d bought under the GI Bill, up for sale and we sold it and we packed up and we moved to Palm Springs and that was in September of 1956. And I went to work for Wexler & Harrison. We noticed people coming in, looking for work, because we were going into a recession and then, pretty soon, the axe fell on me. That was March of 1957. So I got laid off. I had no place to go, so I started working out of my garage. And I started doing renderings and pretty soon I started doing some work for contractors and, after about six months, I was making more money on my own than I’d been making working for Wexler & Harrison!
What was Palm Springs like then?
There were probably about 8,000 people living here. Cathedral City was nothing, just a few buildings, and 111 was just a narrow two-lane road. Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, there wasn’t a lot there. If we took a trip to Indio, ‘cause it was quite a thriving community, it was the last city before you crossed the desert to Blythe. You’d take a water bag ‘cause if you ran out of water, you were in trouble. But Palm Springs was a bustling but small resort village. There were a lot of movie stars then. And then the tourists came in and the movie stars left.
What were the first houses you built?
I did some houses for the Ranch Club Estates down at the north end for a builder who was building spec houses. And then I did some work for builders in Palm Desert and Deepwell. But the first house I built for myself was in 1959 and I lived in that for 30 years. It was contemporary house with sliding glass doors. When they renovated they took those out and put French doors in. It was awful. And one of my first individual clients was the Impala Hotel, it’s now called the Triangle Inn. They just destroyed it.
But you weren’t yet a licensed architect? When did that happen?
No, actually I was working as a building designer. So, after about 9 years, I had developed a good business and I had a secretary and drafts people. And I got a contract from the city to design the North End Fire Station. Well Bill Cody [William Cody was another prolific Palm Springs architect, who designed, among other projects, St. Theresa’s Church, The Horizon Hotel, and the Palm Springs Library Center] got upset that the city would give the project to a building designer who wasn’t even licensed and he reported me to the Architectural Board of California. So, one day a guy comes to my office and shows his badge. He was an examiner for the State Architectural Licensing Board. And I thought, “Oh my God.” We were operating on a wing and a prayer. As building designers we were only legally allowed to do certain types of work — single family residences under a certain square footage and with a span under 25 feet. If we got a project that was bigger, we’d hired a structural engineer. They didn’t care if we were licensed or not. So, anyway, I sat down with this inspector and he said, “Hugh, from your work it’s obvious you’re qualified to be an architect. So why in the world don’t you take the exams and get licensed?” So I told him that the reason was that I didn’t have two years experience with a licensed architect, which was a requirement to take the exams. And he handed me an application and he said, “Hugh, you fill that out and I’ll take it back and I guarantee that you’ll be approved to take the exam”. So he did and I took the exams and I became an architect and joined the AIA. And wouldn’t you know it, after that Bill Cody became my best friend. One thing I’ve learned is that out of every adverse condition, you come through and life is better than it was before.
It must be exciting seeing something you’ve conceptualized go up!
At first it’s quite exciting but, after a while, it gets to be routine. But every so often you get a client that you’re able to do something special for and that’s exciting to see that built. Probably one of my favorite experiences was working for Bill Holden. [The property that Kaptur designed for Holden, with its post & beam construction, gorgeous views, expansive glass windows and sparkling windows, is in the gated community of Southridge.]
Hugh Kaptur, who designed more than 200 residences and 40 commercial projects locally, will be added to the famed Palm Springs Walk of Stars with a special ceremony and reception during Modernism Week.
Please join us in honoring this esteemed architect on February 14, 2013 at 2pm, on the corner of Baristo and Palm Canyon Drive. There will be a public meet & greet reception immediately following the ceremony at the Palm Springs Historical Society (221 South Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs).
By Abby Stone