Rigo Thurmer, architect, writer, ISHA benefactor

Passing Date: 
Monday, November 8, 2010

Rigo Thurmer, lifelong skier, influential architect and ISHA benefactor, died Nov. 8, 2010 after a long illness. He was 80.

Rigomar Thurmer was born in 1930 and raised in Bad Reichenhall, a picturesque town dating to Roman times. The town sits just ten miles and a couple of valleys southwest of Salzburg, and is in fact centered on a natural brine spring, for which it is named (Reichenhall means “rich in salt”). The spring became a fashionable royal spa after Maximilien II – Bavaria’s first constitutional monarch, brought to the throne by the Revolution of 1848 – commenced his reign by spending the summer there, more or less in retreat from the ferment in Munich.

Rigo’s father was the regional forester, and a passionate skier. For this reason, at age six, Rigo was a spectator at the Garmisch Olympics. “I had a pfennig to spend and bought a pin instead of candy,” he remembers. He watched Dick Durrance compete, and heard complaints that the kleine Amerikaner was butting in on what should have been a German and Austrian show.

The war years were a hungry time. His father – a volunteer in both World Wars – was away in France, again. The Eighth Air Force bombed the high school, so vacation was extended. Rigo turned 15 in March of 1945, and was drafted into the Wehrmacht. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, and weighing 110 pounds, he could barely support the helmet, let alone a field pack and rocket launcher. With the anti-tank rocket he was told to push George Patton back to the sea. “The 82nd Airborne Division finished their breakfast at 9:30 each morning, so we could hold our position until then and then move back.” But SS units were hanging men who retreated, so the only safe thing to do was to surrender to the Yanks.

Rigo’s version of the story is hilarious, and the question naturally arises how he came by his very non-Teutonic sense of humor.

“From the black guys,” he says. “I’d studied English for six years in school and could recite Shakespeare. They gave me a mop and pail and made me a janitor for the Third Army’s quartermaster corps, which was 5,000 black guys, all the guys who Patton thought couldn’t fight. I learned colloquial English, and jazz, and how to tell a joke.”

Bavaria, happily, remained under American occupation. Beginning in 1946, Rigo worked on the ski patrol at the Berchtesgaden Armed Forces Rec Center, then taught skiing there. He worked with some New England ski instructors, but it wasn’t his only exposure to American ski culture. “As part of the re-education program, the Army provided fuel to heat the movie theaters,” he says. “It was the only warm place you could take a date. I saw Sun Valley Serenade for 14 nights in a row, though I can’t remember the girl now.”

After working construction projects in Munich and Cologne, Rigo studied architecture in Munich, graduating in 1953, thoroughly indoctrinated in the modern Bauhaus style.

The following year he won a Fulbright travel grant to the U.S., and made good use of it. He talked his way into the School of Design at Harvard, graduating with an MA in architecture in 1955. While skiing in Stowe with the Harvard/MIT ski club, he went on a blind date with Joyce Peterson, a fine skier just back from two years in Kitzbuehel. And he found a job as a designer in Philip Johnson’s architecture studio.

Rigo was having too much fun, and overstayed his visa. The Department of State deported him. There was only one solution: Joyce followed along, and they were married in Munich. Rigo worked briefly in a Munich architecture firm, then rejoined Johnson, now partnered with Mies van der Rohe.

For the next ten years, working in New York and Connecticut, Rigo developed modern office buildings and cutting-edge industrial design projects. He did the styling for the classic IBM Selectric typewriter, a generation of computers and tape-drive cabinets.

Skiing and climbing remained a big part of his life. He taught at Big Birch, New York. He skied in Vermont and Colorado and the Alps, in Canada, in the Caucasus, in China, in Morocco, in Turkey, in Uzbekistan. He climbed in Peru, Ecuador, Africa, Alaska, Switzerland and Austria. He began writing, for Skiing and Ski Magazines, with a characteristic dry wit.

In 1966, Rigo took a job teaching design at the University of Colorado, and moved the family to Boulder, building a house alongside the Burning Tree golf course. He taught at Loveland, launched his own architecture firm and designed half a dozen houses in Vail. He put up a condo project, and when it didn’t sell out he was forced to live in it, thus becoming a local. He wrote for Skier’s Gazette and the Vail Trail.

Rigo developed strong feelings about ski resort architecture. He loved the camaraderie of small alpine-style lodges. “But rising real estate values forced developers to put up big buildings,” he complained. “Modern skiers have traded good companionship for good plumbing.” He returned full time to Boulder.

In 2005, Rigo completed a $100,000 matching-fund campaign to support ISHA, and specifically Skiing Heritage, now Skiing History Magazine. He quoted his mentor Philip Johnson, the great avatar of post-modern architecture: “You cannot not know history.”

“Skiing no longer has a core of loyalists, like the 10th Mountain Division had,” he pointed out. He wanted ISHA – and Skiing History Magazine – to play that role. –Seth Masia

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