Architect Hugh Kaptur has been designing and building in Palm Springs for over six decades so it’s no surprise that his portfolio reads like a veritable encyclopedia. His first project in Palm Springs was The Impala Lodge, now known as The Triangle Inn. Other iconic designs include the MusicLand Hotel, the William Holden Estate, the Steve McQueen house and Fire Stations #3 and #4. With a portfolio that includes over 200 residences and close to 50 commercial projects in the Palm Springs area, Kaptur’s architectural legacy is profound. However, one of the most remarkable things about Mr. Kaptur is that he is still a practicing architect. When Modernism Week sat down with him, we had the distinct pleasure of talking with him about his perspective, from what he learned back then to what he applies today.
Now, let’s talk about our century.
What’s it like designing now?
The materials that we have to work with today are so different then the materials we had to work with then. We didn’t have things like metal studs or Caesarstone countertops with the sinks formed in.
What do you think about the resurgence of interest in midcentury modern design?
It just astounds me! People are so excited. They tell me, “Oh, you’re the architect that did my house.” I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
What are you working on right now?
I have a client who bought one of the houses I designed in the late 50s or early 60s in The Ranch Club Estates. They restored it and they invited me and my wife, Helen, to a party they were having for finishing the house. So we went and saw the house and I was much impressed. It was restored way beyond. I mean it never ever looked that good brand new! They’d brought in some of the modern materials and made some changes. Like now the big thing is polished concrete floors. We never had anything like that. It was poured concrete and you put carpet over it because to put in tile was too expensive. So about 6 months ago I get a call from them. They’ve been buying up some of my old houses, fixing them up and flipping them. They had become friendly with a wealthy family out of Canada who are backing this venture. And I guess they’d run out of old houses so they decided to contact me and ask me to design a modern house based on the midcentury designs so that is what I am doing.
So this is actually a design from that period?
Yes, but of course there are updates and new materials. The floor plan is different. Instead of a living room, it’s a great room with the kitchen open to it. The bathrooms are larger. Before the bathroom was 5 x 8 because a tub was five feet and you put that in at the end and you put the john in and the sink. Now we have dressing rooms and, instead of wardrobe closets you’re doing a walk-in closet.
What I used to do is an L-shape: there’s the garage, and a kitchen, a dining area and a living area and the entrance was at the angle, and there’d be a row of bedrooms going back. Whereas the Alexander houses were designed more on a rectangle plan: you had the living room and kitchen and garage and then it came off with bedrooms. You had post & beam construction with 2 x 6 tongue and groove sheathing that spanned eight feet and then they put roofing on top and you got that really thin look. Being from Detroit, where it was cold, nobody would ever think about building a house without insulating it. So I used 2 x 8 joists where we could put in insulation. It gave you a thicker roof line which I actually think is better proportioned. I know that thin roof line was the rage at the time but to me it looked flimsy, like it was a temporary structure. Also, and I get calls about this all the time from people who buy these houses now, is that they like that floor plan is a little larger and they like the L-shape because it gives you a nice outdoor living area. And they appreciate that they’re insulated. Now its required but insulation was something that I was doing even back then.
What’s it like to go back to something you did, looking at it with more experienced eyes?
Frankly some of the things I did then I cringe at now, “Did I really do that?” But, you know, you don’t come out of the womb as an experienced architect. You learn every day. I feel that I’m by far a better architect right now than I ever was. And there are things I don’t do anymore because I tried it and it didn’t work whereas a young architect might try it.
There are the facial materials that are available today that are amazing. But I don’t understand the homes that are built today with all the trusses. I think architecture is structure and you let the structure…you expose the structure for design. I’d rather use joists and bring it into the volume of the room.
You’ve designed so many different kinds of properties, did you ever think about specializing?
We’ve done tract houses, expensive homes for wealthy people and movie stars, we’ve done apartments, condominiums, office buildings, industrial buildings, clubhouses, fire stations. In a small area like this there wasn’t enough work in any one type of, segment of development. But it all boiled down to basic construction.
How would you describe your architectural philosophy?
Personally, I lean more towards the Frank Lloyd Wright concept of architecture, which is artistic, rather than the Mies van der Rohe or Neutra wood, glass and steel boxes which I felt was a more mechanical look. Also I didn’t think they fit much in the desert. I always felt that Palm Springs should be influenced by Tucson and Arizona, because our environment is similar, rather than Los Angeles, which is a coastal environment and totally different. In Los Angeles, you’re in the hills and your view is down at the ocean whereas our views are up at the mountains. And we put in overhangs where you have sun exposure. I also went for thicker walls like the pueblos did for strength and it’s cooler. The desert environment can be friendly but it can also be very dangerous. And, basically architecture comes down to the bottom line: it’s to provide shelter for human beings whether it be homes or business. I experimented with the Neutra style of putting boxes together in the Steve McQueen house. But I found the Frank Lloyd Wright style to be more artistic. I tried to be more artistic in my architecture. Some buildings I was able to express it and some buildings you’re doing it for a living.
You’ve done so many amazing buildings. Is there a project that you’re particularly proud of?
I would say that of the homes that I’ve done, the Seltzer House was probably the best. And a lot of it is that the proportions were good. It wasn’t 10,000 square feet, it was 4,000. And, when we did it, we didn’t have a height limit so I was able to do some pyramid roofs where it goes up the 24 feet, where Palm Springs is restricted to 18 feet. But we’re in the county here. As far as commercial buildings go, I’d probably have to say The Palm Springs Golf Course Clubhouse, the fire station here on LaVerne and several of the buildings I did on Tahquitz McCallen, not necessarily the ones that were done in the Spanish motif but the ones that were done in a contemporary motif.
Be sure to catch the premiere of “Quiet Elegance: The Architecture of Hugh Kaptur” during Modernism Week on Monday, February 17 at 3:00PM. The documentary chronicles the life and work of Hugh Kaptur, from his time working with movie stars like Steve McQueen and William Holden, to building some of the most iconic hotels and civic and commercial buildings in Palm Springs. Watch the trailer here.
Tickets go on sale December 1, 2013 at http://www.modernismweek.com.
By Abby Stone
Photo credit: “Quiet Elegance: The Architecture of Hugh Kaptur”