Moritz Kundig, prolific mid-century architect behind Spokane Civic Theatre, several iconic homes, dies at 98

Renowned architect Moritz Kundig, one of Spokane’s most prolific midcentury modern champions, died last Saturday at the age of 98.

With a keen eye for form and light, and a knack for inviting the outdoors in, Kundig rose to prominence in the ’60s and ’70s as a versatile designer capable of taking on a wide variety of projects.

His works include the Spokane Civic Theatre, the original Greenacres Elementary School, the chapel at the prison on McNeil Island, the old Unitarian Church chapel near Glover Mansion, the current Unitarian Universalist Church in northeast Spokane and the Covenant United Methodist Church in Hamann Corner.

He was also the mind behind a number of residences in Spokane, each with a distinctive Kundig air about them.

Kundig achieved acclaim during a unique time for Spokane’s development, said Megan Duvall, history preservation officer for the city. A number of midcentury architects were working furiously on projects all across the city, and Kundig quickly rose to the top as one of the preeminent designers in the region.

He received a number of awards from the American Institute of Architects for his designs, and received their highest honor, the designation of fellow, in 1984.

Duvall said Kundig and his legacy have left an indelible mark on the city. She fondly remembered having him out to his Wallmark House on Oxford Road in Nine Mile Falls, built in 1963, when it was named to the Spokane Register of Historic Places in 2016.

“It would surprise me if in the future, we don’t have five more properties that Moritz designed that get added to the register,” Duvall said. “The legacy of his work and his contributions to Spokane will definitely stand the test of time.”

In his memoir published for family members and close friends, Kundig said each project he took on should be honest: in its construction and form, in the surrounding landscape and in its function. He cared deeply about designing each structure to the site it sat on. He believed materials should be locally sourced when possible and blend with the surrounding landscape. He found inspiration in the natural wonders of the world around him and never added unnecessary elements to a design.

Kundig is survived by his three children: Tom Kundig, Henry Kundig and Sylvia Kundig, seven grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren. He is preceded in death by his wife of 58 years, Dora Kundig, whom he met at an athletic club in Switzerland as a young man.

“We dated, took long walks, went to dances, and one thing led to another,” the elder Kundig writes in his memoir.

Born in 1925 to a teacher and stay-at-home mother in Winterthur, Switzerland, Kundig developed a love for the outdoors at an early age and instilled that love in his children, Henry Kundig said.

Henry Kundig said his father grew up skiing, hiking and admiring the meadows and forested peaks of his surroundings, and wanted his children to have the same experiences, even if it was only just in the backyard.

“He made sure we all started skiing when we were about 5 years old, but that’s something that we all loved,” Henry Kundig said. “His dad was quite the gardener, and I picked it up. I do it because it becomes a sense of peace for me; it was taught to me by my relatives and my father.”

Henry Kundig said his father was a quiet man, but had a great sense of humor. He enjoyed hosting him at his home in Montana, where the two would take in the scenery of the nearby Mission Mountains and Flathead Lake.

Moritz Kundig decided to pursue architecture because it seemed a perfect marriage for his rational style of thinking and his artistic talents, according to his memoir. He earned his degree from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where he heard from guest speakers like renowned Finnish architect Alvar Alto and Frank Lloyd Wright.

He left Switzerland for Salt Lake City at 26, after a distant uncle living in Utah persuaded him to try American life for a little while and sponsored him to obtain a visa. Moritz Kundig landed a job as a young designer with an architecture firm in Utah, and quickly found he “wanted to see a lot more and needed more time,” he writes, so he invited Dora to join him in the states.

The couple wed in 1952 at a Unitarian Universalist Church nestled in the Mormon citadel. Kundig was not a man of faith, but spent much of his life as a member of the church, even designing the church at the Spokane congregation’s former location at the Glover House and the current building near Spokane Community College.

He was a humanist and an intellectual, and the church’s teachings and community resonated with him, his son Tom Kundig said. In his memoir, Moritz Kundig said he and his soon-to-be wife were driving around looking for an appropriate church for their wedding and stumbled across the Unitarian Universalists.

“Of course, most of them were Mormon; we knew we would not fit there, and we found the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches much too conservative,” Kundig writes. “One day we drove by a nice New England style church which had a sign: ‘Closed for the summer.’ We thought that this must really be a different kind of church, and we were interested.”

It was through the Spokane congregation that he met many lifelong friends and colleagues, including the late acclaimed artist Harold Balazs. The two would go on to collaborate on several projects, whether it be a custom door frame or the installation of a few of Balazs’ pieces in a Moritz Kundig home.

Balazs made a custom porcelain-enamel-on-steel panel for the Kundigs’ Perry District home, which he designed himself. Moritz Kundig told The Spokesman-Review in 1990 that the pattern “appears abstract at first, but when you look at it a little longer, you discover two figures that represent my wife and myself. We are greeting the visitor.”

His daughter, retired Federal Trade Commission attorney Sylvia Kundig, now owns the signature home on East 20th Avenue.

The growing family found their way to Spokane in 1955, after a brief stint in Merced, California. Moritz Kundig had spotted an advertisement in an architectural magazine that a firm in the area was hiring, and there was a vibrant artistic community that he felt compelled by, said his oldest son, Tom Kundig .

“After the war, there was a lot of work happening in towns that had bases around them,” Tom Kundig said. “Where he found employment, and other interesting architects, oddly, were around these cities. He went to Spokane, he saw that the architecture culture and the art culture was actually terrific, and there was a lot of stuff happening.”

Moritz Kundig and his wife never strayed far from the mountains, whether it was the Rockies in Utah or Yosemite National Park in California. Spokane became their home partially due to the access to the Idaho Panhandle, southern British Columbia, the Cascades and other natural wonders in the region.

The elder Kundig’s affinity for the great outdoors greatly influenced his work, as well as the work of Tom Kundig, who is an internationally renowned architect with projects on every continent but Antarctica. Tom Kundig said his father influenced his own entry into the field, and their shared love of the natural world influenced several of his designs over the years.

“With both of my parents coming from Switzerland, of course the mountains were extremely important,” Tom Kundig said. “And their influence for me personally, I would say as large as architecture in some ways, was their love of the mountain landscape. We spent a lot of time in the high desert mountain landscape hiking and traveling.”

Kundig would go on to start his own firm in Spokane, later to be merged with Ron Tan and Dale Brookie’s office into Tan Brookie Kundig, Architects. Like many of his contemporaries during the ’70s, the newly merged firm was tapped to design some of the structures for Expo ’74, including the Iranian Pavilion.

TBK would later merge with another large firm to become Northwest Architectural Company, which now has offices in Seattle and Los Angeles, in addition to the original office in Spokane.

In the latter years of his working career, Moritz Kundig helped spearhead a movement to preserve Spokane’s historic buildings. He was instrumental in establishing the Historic Preservation Office at City Hall in the Montgomery Ward building, which his firm remodeled, in addition to adding the city council chambers.

“Spokane had a great number of beautiful old buildings, having been a wealthy city at the turn of the century, and it disturbed me that many of them were being destroyed,” Moritz Kundig writes.

While he was responsible for a wide range of structures, he had a special affinity for designing homes, whether for prominent business owners, doctors, farmers, scientists or members of his congregation. His designs hit the market occasionally, and they fetch high prices.

Josh Hissong, founder of HDG Architecture, purchased a home designed by Moritz Kundig in 2018 totally by surprise. Hissong said he has admired Moritz Kundig’s work for years, and was grateful to have developed a friendship with him through a small renovation to the home in which he sought his input.

“Not very many designers or architects actually pay such close attention to how to get natural light into a space, and the sightlines,” Hissong said. “He was so incredibly thoughtful in how he put together a space plan. There were so many times in my house where I would just catch myself stopping and staring at something.”

Hissong said he spent many afternoons with Moritz Kundig since the project, driving around the city to admire buildings old and new, discuss the craft and lament over new trends that seemed to take the art out of architecture.

Tom Kundig said it is those types of conversations, where the two would sit down as fellow architects, that he will miss most.

“Because, of course, it was colleague to colleague,” Tom Kundig said. I’m an architect. He’s an architect. It was great to talk about what I’m doing and what I was doing in the past, and he was particularly interested in what’s going on in my life in the architecture world.”

Tom Kundig said although his father may not have been very expressive, he was proud of what his children have been able to accomplish, which is important to him as a fellow architect who admires his dad’s designs.

He is in the process of restoring the Coeur d’Alene lake cabin that his father designed more than 50 years ago, which will be featured in his upcoming book, Tom Kundig said. The book will include stories of his father and the influence he had on him . When he met with his father recently to discuss plans for the cabin, Tom Kundig said the elder was as sharp as ever, able to tell him exactly what problems existed from when he first constructed it decades ago.

For Sylvia Kundig, it will be the time spent exploring the outdoors with her father she remembers most. She said Moritz Kundig loved spending time with her daughter, Sophia.

Sylvia Kundig splits her time between Spokane and San Francisco, and her daughter lives near her grandfather’s ancestral home in Switzerland.

“During his visit to San Francisco a few times a year, we would always see an art installation at the museum and seek out nature,” she said. “This could have been chasing wildflowers at Pt. Reyes, taking a bird watching tour in the Bay Area environs, walking in the Redwoods or by the ocean. Our common love of both art and nature further enhanced our bond.”

Henry Kundig said his father was often a man of few words and never was much of a drinker. However, a week before his death, Moritz Kundig greeted Henry from his bed in the Rockwood retirement community with a wry smile.

“He goes, ‘Why aren’t you getting me some wine?’” Henry Kundig said. “I said OK, and I have a picture of me toasting him in bed and we had a glass of wine. I’m grateful for that time with him.”

Moritz Kundig ends his memoir lamenting the state of the world when it was penned in 2005. He disapproved of the rapid developments popping up across the country that seemed to neglect any artistic elements. He worried about the political turmoil at the time, the state of the environment and foreign policy that focused more on confrontation than cooperation.

Still, he reflects on the joy he feels as a grandfather, the success of his children and his passion for life.

“The world is so outrageously beautiful that it will be hard to leave,” Moritz Kundig wrote. “I am not particularly afraid of death, but the slow deterioration of body and mind is nothing pretty, and I hope to find a proper way to the exit.”


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Article and Photo by Nick Gibson