John Spevak: International festival fetes architect from Los Banos

September 6, 2012 

Talented architects, even after they die, live on in the beauty of their buildings. Sometimes, however, their names are forgotten, if observers don't know the buildings' designer.

Bob Beharka, who lived and worked as an architect in Los Banos for a half-century, is an example. The buildings he designed continue to please and inspire -- like the two flanking Pacheco Boulevard near West I Street, housing the Central California Irrigation District offices and the Wolfsen Co. headquarters. Yet few people know that it was Beharka who designed them.

Fortunately, Bob has an advocate. Architect Kevin Wagner, an admirer of Beharka for more than a decade, has made it a point to keep Bob's name and legacy alive.

Kevin has gathered and organized an exhibit of Beharka's work in Modesto later this month at the Building Imagination Center, 1009 J St.

The exhibit, part of the fifth annual Modesto International Architectural Festival, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sep. 15 through Sep. 23.

On Sep. 21, at 8:30 a.m., Kevin will give a talk and lead a discussion about Beharka's work. Admission to the exhibit and discussion is free.

The festival is the result of a collaboration among the Sierra Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Modesto Art Museum, the Modesto Film Society and the State Theater.

Besides exhibits of Beharka and other architects, this year's festival includes displays of photos, books, paintings and quilts, as well as films and guided architectural tours. A schedule can be found at www.modestoarchfest.com.

What would prompt Kevin, a native of Chicago and member of Bay Area architectural firms, to give all this attention to a soft-spoken architect from Los Banos?

"I've always appreciated architects who work in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright," Kevin said. "Bob followed Wright's principles but also displayed his own creativity in designing buildings that are a delight to look at and live in."

Kevin had worked in San Francisco for Aaron Green, a colleague of both Wright and Beharka. After Green died in 2001, Kevin decided to look up Beharka on a trip from San Jose to Fresno.

He found Bob's residence and knocked on his door. "Mr. Beharka," Kevin said, "you don't know me but I'm a fan of your work." Bob invited Kevin in, and a friendship began that continued until Bob died in 2010.

Since Beharka's death, Kevin has worked to preserve Bob's legacy. Kevin and his wife, Heather, now live in the house Bob designed and lived in for many years on Paradise Lane.

Kevin doesn't mind the commute to San Jose, as long as he can return to the home designed by Bob, which he calls "a jewel."

Since 2010, Kevin has kept in touch with Bob's daughters to gather more information about their father. He has visited the buildings Bob designed as businesses and residences in Los Banos and collected many of Bob's sketches and drawings, some of which will be on display in Modesto.

Kevin has also gathered examples of Bob's woodworking. "Bob was an extraordinary craftsman, as well as architect," Kevin said. "He created wooden bowls, trivets, cutting boards and vases, which are works of art in themselves." Many of these artifacts will be part of the Modesto exhibit.

Since 2011, Kevin has given talks about Beharka to the Los Banos Rotary Club and to the Friends of the Los Banos library. He also created a small exhibit of Bob's work that was displayed in the Los Banos public library earlier this year.

Kevin does all this simply for the love of architecture and out of appreciation for Bob's work. "To me," Kevin said, "Bob is the epitome of a superb architect, someone who understands his clients, connects architecture organically with nature, and creates beautiful and functional buildings and objects of art."

I can understand why Kevin does this. It was my honor to have known Bob for many years, and it was my pleasure to walk in and around his buildings.

I'm glad, thanks to Kevin, that Bob is being recognized in an international festival of architecture. He richly deserves the honor.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, an Enterprise columnist for 29 years, are encouraged, and can be sent via email to john.spevak@gmail.com.

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