Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Good-Bye to Steven Lowe, Cultural Preservationist

Steven Lowe, known to many in the Palm Springs area as the motilier of The Beat Hotel died late Tuesday. His list of contributions to the legacy of The Beats is unparalled. Let's just say this: he was William Burroughs secretary, a literary archivist of extraordinary importance, and a man with an inate sense of how to fan the flame of those "holy dumb saints"--The Beats.

Jane Engle, writing in The Los Angeles Times, described how "a long-shuttered mid-century hotel in Desert Hot Springs has been refurbished and reopened as the Beat Hotel, a tribute to the late William S. Burroughs and other Beat generation artists and writers. Owner Steven Lowe, who said he worked with Burroughs on the author's "Cities of the Red Night" (1981) novel and other projects, has put 1940s to 1960s furnishings in the hotel, along with memorabilia.

These include a draft of Burroughs' "The Western Lands" (1987) novel, serigraphs that Burroughs created with artist Robert Rauschenberg and photos by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

"It's like a living museum," Lowe said. The hotel, originally opened in the 1950s as the Monte Carlo, has eight guestrooms, a swimming pool and a spa fed by mineral hot springs. The Beat Hotel shares a phone line with Lowe's other lodging in the city, the four-room Desert Hot Springs Motel, in a 1947 structure designed by the late architect John Lautner, who was mentored by Frank Lloyd Wright. The motel, refurbished and reopened in 2001, has period furnishings."

Janice Kleinschmidt, writing in Palm Springs Life gives more detail to the portrait of the man:

A friend and collaborator of the Beat Generation author and artist, Lowe amassed writings, artworks, photographs, and memorabilia befitting a museum. The reception room displays original painting, including a collaborative work of Burroughs and Robert Raushenberg; glass cases with gunshot spray-paint cans; and a Burroughs adding machine (invented by the writer / artist's grandfather). Burroughs' hand-painted ties and a collaborative work with Lowe can be found in the library. There, guests may (with gloves) thumb through myriad books and original manuscripts – many signed – by and about Burroughs and the Beat Generation. Lowe even has books on flower arranging written by Burroughs' mother for Coca-Cola and the last photograph of his friend, taken by him the day before his death in 1997. Lowe could have hoarded his treasures, but he would rather make them accessible for others to appreciate.

Accessibility also lies behind his decision to open the Lautner motel (he maintains the Desert Hot Springs Motel name because that is how architectural publications have referred to it). “His work was so radical he never received public commissions,” Lowe says. Thus, Lautner's buildings were private residences experienced only through photographs. Now, motel guests – often architects – can experience the dramatic changes in lighting over a 24-hour period du to Lautner's use of glass and form. “This is like an opera of light,” Lowe says.

Lowe first walked into the Lautner structure on the anniversary of Burroughs' birthday: Feb. 5, 2000. “I was thinking about Burroughs and thought this would be the perfect place for a writer,” he says. More recently, when he was developing the Beat Hotel, a man digging a well there mentioned he had know Lautner. Lowe refers to these coincidences as the “interzone” – a term coined by Burroughs meaning where dream and reality come together.

The real connection between the to motels' subjects is “both were uncompromising, radical artists very focused on their work,” Lowe says. “The concept is identifying an event. In [Lautner's] case, that's structural; in the Beat Hotel, it's a cultural event.” He refers to both as high points in history.

“To me, it's installation art, performance art; and I kind of like the idea you can come and relax, remove yourself from the humdrum world, and empty your mind an focus on something really important.”

Lowe plans another installation in September, when another 20th-century innovator – furniture designer Charles Hollis Jones – furnishes one of the Desert Hot Springs Motel rooms with transparent furniture that includes an acrylic bed frame lit from below. Hollis Jones, who worked with Lautner from 1968 to 1975, saw the motel for the first time in 2003. “He caused me to be in love with light all over again,” he says, “so pieces I put in there have to be concentrated, and they have to float.”

Peter Moruzzi, an architectural historian and chair of Palm Springs Modern Committee, says unique examples of architecture need to be preserved because they are part of our cultural heritage. Lautner's Desert Hot Springs project exemplifies the experimentation in materials and methods prevalent after World War II. Moruzzi particularly notes the roof form and the way Lautner balanced the indoor and outdoor spaces. “It's really a work of art,” he says – and just as important as more traditionally accepted forms of creative expression. “We wouldn't have too much difficulty understanding why works of art like paintings and sculpture need to be preserved,” he says. “But the same is true of great architecture. It just happens to be large and sitting on a private piece of property.”

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