Raising the BarFifty-seven years ago, Russ Kapp built a cherry-stained mahogany bar for the grand reopening of the Stockyards Restaurant and 1889 Saloon in Phoenix. Today, the 91-year-old craftsman still bellies up to his masterpiece every chance he gets.
By Jodi Cisman
Phoenix Stroll into The Stockyards Restaurant in Phoenix, pull up a stool at the bar in the 1889 Saloon, and don't be surprised if you feel as if you've stepped back in time — about 100 years back in time.
The back wall of the magnificent bar is lined with six wooden arches, beautifully carved out of cherry-stained Honduras mahogany and aglow with light from the large custom-made crystal chandelier that hangs front and center. The bar, with its perfectly symmetrical engravings, is the handiwork of 91-year-old Russ Kapp, who still frequents the saloon bar every chance he gets.
"We drew up the bar from an old photograph," Kapp says in a deep, husky voice. "That's how we got the scale."
Kapp Cabinets — the company that Kapp owned and operated for more than 30 years with his brother Charlie — built the bar in 1954. Since then, the centerpiece of the saloon hasn't changed much, other than the three broken bar stools and the addition of a marble slab on the counter. "We do very little upkeep on the bar," says Gary Lasko, who owns the restaurant and saloon, which are located near 48th Street and Washington in Phoenix. "Because it's so well-made, we don't have to."
It's a typical report on most things manufactured by Kapp Cabinets, whose employees prided themselves on producing top-quality work for their customers. "We built almost every bar in Phoenix at one time," Kapp says. In addition, his company also created the fixtures for Ryan-Evans Drug Stores. Kapp's work was prominent around the Phoenix area, and that exposure eventually caught the eye of Helen Tovrea. Her husband, Edward Tovrea, owned an extensive stockyard near the site of the present-day restaurant.
Tovrea — or, as fellow cattle businessmen called him, the "Cattle Baron" — opened the Tovrea Stockyards in 1919 on 175 acres of land near what is now 48th Street and Van Buren. At the height of its existence, the feedlot held as many as 300,000 head of cattle. It was so busy that in 1947, the Tovreas opened The Stockyards Restaurant and 1889 Saloon, which became a popular watering hole for cattlemen, bankers and local politicians. Six years later, however, a fire destroyed both the restaurant and the saloon.
With a grand reopening date set for June 26, 1954, Helen Tovrea commissioned Kapp's team of carpenters to give the saloon an authentic Western ambience. It took the company about three months to build the bar and stools, for which Tovrea paid $15,000. Today, the bar is worth an estimated $150,000.
GROWING UP IN FLINT, Michigan, Kapp spent hours reading Talespin Tommy comic strips and building 99-cent wind-up rubber-band airplanes. He dreamed about flying a real airplane, and that dream came true during World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a call for pilots.
At the time, Kapp was working for Fisher Body Corporation, an aeronautical engineering company. After passing the military's flight program exam and officially becoming an Air Force cadet, Kapp had to break the "good news" to his wife, who had no idea he'd applied. "When I got home and told her that I'd passed, she said, 'I've always known you had two loves in your life, and I'm the second,' " he remembers.
Over the next four years, Kapp logged 268 combat hours at the sticks of various B-24 airplanes with the 8th Air Force. He survived during a time when only "one in four crews made it out alive."
In 1951, Kapp and his wife moved to Tucson so that he could attend the University of Arizona. His interest in airplanes remained strong while he dabbled in other areas, such as engineering, industrial arts and even politics, which climaxed in 1960, when he ran for mayor of Phoenix against Samuel Mardian. "Thank god he beat me," Kapp chuckles. "I would have made a lousy mayor. I would have made a good dictator, but a lousy politician."
Despite his love for flying, he landed in a more grounded line of work because of his commitment to family. Kapp's brother, Stanley, was dying of leukemia, and during a deathbed conversation, he asked Kapp to move to Phoenix and help their brother, Charlie, run the Kapp Cabinet Co.
Although the company went out of business in 1992, Kapp says he has no regrets. "It's been interesting and not as lucrative sometimes as I would have liked, but on the other hand, I'm still getting three square meals a day, so that's all I can hope for."
More importantly, he's surrounded by his friends and family and the fruits of his labor. He lives each day with a sense of humor that keeps him sharp, yet soft, and he constantly reminds himself to live each day as if it's his last. "One day, you'll get it right," he says.