A final curtain call for the Guthrie's architect

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 21, 2008 - 11:20 PM

Family, colleagues and friends remembered Ralph Rapson at his memorial service as a "rock star," a raconteur and a prankster.

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Tales of Ralph Rapson, the "rock star of Minnesota architecture," delighted 600 friends and colleagues who gathered Monday at the Guthrie Theater for a memorial service.

Rapson, 93, died at his Minneapolis home March 29. His most famous building, the original 1963 Guthrie Theater, was demolished in 2006 and replaced near the Mississippi River by a new theater designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. The memorial was held in Nouvel's reinterpretation of Rapson's colorful thrust-stage auditorium, where a portrait of the architect stood, stage right, on his drafting table.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak spoke of Rapson's fight against billboards and poorly planned freeways and of his belief that "architecture could literally change lives by bringing us together across races and incomes."

Recalling Rapson's international career, architectural historian Jane Hession dubbed him a "rock star" in the field. The Guthrie was the building that most resembled Rapson himself, "strong, energetic and playful," she said. It was also the project "over which he suffered the most gastric distress," given his struggles with the theater's imperious founder, Sir Tyrone Guthrie.

Colleague John Cuningham remembered Rapson delivering critiques so deftly that "when he told you to go to hell, you looked forward to the journey."

The architect's son, Rip Rapson, said his father loved all-star wrestling, epic movies, women, jazz, race tracks, sports and pranks. Most notoriously, his dad sawed almost through the legs of the marriage bed of his pal, architect Eero Saarinen, and then waited outside on the wedding night to hear the bed's noisy collapse and its occupants' screams of outrage.

In a lifetime of world travel, the debonair Rapson was flummoxed only once, said Rip. Heading an architectural delegation to China in the early 1960s, Rapson was served monkey-head soup and offered the eyeballs, a great delicacy. He blanched. His wife, Mary, tactfully murmured thanks in Chinese, slipped the eyeballs into a napkin and tucked it into her purse, "thereby averting a diplomatic incident," Rip said.

Comparing his long-lived father to the legendary pranksters Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Rip Rapson said his father "went out at a gallop; an exuberant dance."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

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