Q&A: Hugh Kaptur, One of the Last Living Architects From Palm Springs’ Golden Age
When did you arrive in Palm Springs? How did you get started?
My wife and I arrived in Palm Springs in 1956, and I went to various architects’ offices and showed them my work. First I went to Bill Cody, but he was gruff, and barked, "Well, what the hell good are you!?" I was only 23 or 24, and had always been a quiet kid, and he scared the hell out of me. Next, I went to E. Stewart Williams, I was very impressed with his work. But I ultimately went with Wexler & Harrison because they were my age.
What do you consider the highs and lows of your career?
Well, the low point came early on. After about six months at Wexler & Harrison, there was a recession and I got laid off. Everyone was looking for work, no one was hiring, and here I am with a wife to support and a baby on the way. That was the bottom of the pit. I went to Howard Lapham, an architectural designer, and asked him for work. He had none but said I could do renderings for him, $25 each. I started doing them for him, Wexler & Harrison, and others. Then, I started working with developers designing spec houses. Soon I was making more than the $325 a month I ’d made at Wexler & Harrison, so I just figured I would stay in business as a building designer.
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How does your style compare to that of your contemporaries like Donald Wexler or Albert Frey?
I learned the post-and-beam style from Wexler & Harrison. When I was young, I did the Steve McQueen house. That was my experiment in steel and concrete. But when I was in school I was an avid admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright. I always felt that in Phoenix the architecture was more in tune with the desert than it is here. The architecture of the Southwest, and the pueblos, with deep-set windows and spaces providing shelter—that was my inspiration. Now, I can look at Neutra’s Kaufmann House, and, of course I respect it and am impressed by it, but it’s not my style.
Is there a project you’re most proud of? What about an unbuilt project you wish had been built?
My favorite project was the house I did for William Holden. He was a real gentleman. Bill was one of my superstars, and I was anxious to meet him. When I went to his house and knocked, he came to the door and said, "Oh, hi, Hugh, come on in," like we were old friends. Right away I relaxed. I took him hunting, had him on my boat. We became good friends.
On the other hand, I designed the Caballeros Tennis Club for Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, with developer Roy Fey. They were not like Bill Holden. They were young, very successful movie stars, and they let you know it. They were impressed with themselves, but to be honest I wasn’t impressed with them. I liked the design of the tennis club, but in the end, it wasn’t built.
Now that your work has been "rediscovered" somewhat, what do you want your legacy to be?
When I was working as an architect, I was making a living, trying to support my family. I never thought of ever having any recognition. I’d rather have my buildings get the recognition than me personally. I find it embarrassing. Now, of course, there’s this recognition, I still don’t understand it, but it is very humbling.