On butterfly roofs, xeroscaping, diamond-pattern concrete block and more: Palm Springs Stephan gives us a tour of mid century modern Palm Springs

Grab another cup of coffee…or a Mai Tai, if it’s that time of day…and sit back for a nice virtual ride. Today Palm Springs Stephan is treating us a to a guided tour of some of the most wonderful midcentury modern homes in his fair city — with his wonderful commentary.

This first is one of my favorites. It is an original Alexander house. (Wikipedia, which is notoriously unreliable, has an uncharacteristically accurate description of the Alexander Construction Company.) It has the “butterfly roof” so sought after by mid century preservationists locally. And a stunning view from the front yard!

Next, we have a tour of El Rancho Vista Estates. El Rancho was built in the late 1950s by Roy Fey, a former accountant from Chicago who came to PS and began a small real estate development empire. He worked with some of the most prominent architects of the Southern California Modernist movement, especially Donald Wexler. This little subdivision is carved into what is now the northeast corner of the Palm Springs International Airport property, giving it significant noise issues. But back in the day, it was out in the middle of nowhere. It remains largely intact, to the extent that some of the houses are falling into decay. Others have been purchased by preservation minded folks and been significantly rehabilitated. The better preserved homes carry enormous price tags, even with the current real estate market “reversal,” as the real estate flyer above indicates.

El Rancho Vista offers several different roof lines styles to choose from. The butterfly roof is still the most common and most sought after as quintessentially “mid-century modern.”

3551 East Avenida Fey Norte offers the clearest example of butterfly roof design, though the owner has chosen to downplay the effect with a washed out color scheme. The landscape design, called xeroscaping, consumes little valuable water and is appropriate for our desert environment.

This second butterfly roof, also on East Avenida Fey Norte, tops a west-facing facade containing large expanses of glass to maximize views of the mountains. It also has a wall constructed high-relief diamond-patterned concrete blocks enclosing a side garden. These diamond blocks were used extensively throughout the Palm Springs area during the 1950s and 1960s and are emblematic of SoCal MCM design.

Just across the street from the house with diamond bricks we find a different but equally common wall treatment: square blocks protruding out of the wall, creating a more aggressively textured effect. The homeowner here has maximized the effect through careful color choices and accents. The xeroscaping is still eco-friendly but more lush appearing. Even the bouganvillea at the left end of the house consumes minimal water while offering intense Mamie-pink color.

Flat roofs are also common in Palm Springs. When originally built, they were often generously covered with 1″-2″ pieces of white chip rock to reflect the heat, since many of these homes were not originally air-conditioned. With summer temps regularly into the 110s, every measure was taken to keep cool! Most are now covered with thick layers of sprayed-on expansion foam and
over-painted with reflective aluminum paint. The plexiglass and aluminum wall enclosing the front garden is a popular modern interpretation of mid-century design.
Note the conflicted landscaping … half water-consuming manicured grass and half white chip rock (perhaps scraped off the roof?).

This house is actually one of my favorites because its owner has remained mostly true to the house’s original aesthetic. The west-facing facade is largely windowless to prevent afternoon overheating, though the back wall is almost certainly largely glass. Note the string of white globe lights! Barely visible in the front window next to the door is a curtain of strings of beads in a pop-art flower design. Unfortunately, the owner fell short with the garage door … a modern aluminum design that could still be “mid-century-ized” with some color accents.

Peaked rooflines are also seen in El Rancho Vista and in Palm Springs, though the slope is very shallow. This example also has a variation on the diamond-patterned facade blocks, with the diamonds recessed rather than protruding. The ubiquitous “carport” of the 1950s is also nicely highlighted in this photo.

3573 el rancho vista – Another peaked roof in El Rancho Vista, with a trim color choice that accents the roofline. The concrete block mailbox support is a nice touch, too.

1673 Roberto Miguel As we leave El Rancho Vista Estates, we encounter an example of a MCM house that has been entirely re-interpreted in 21st century terms. Its owner retained most of the basic MCM design elements but camouflaged them with greenery and plexiglass walls. This house makes me sad.

But rejoice! Screamingly authentic mid-century design thrives just a half-mile away on North Monterey Road! The neighborhood, bordering the western edge of the airport property, is an enclave of high-end MCM design, most of which are well-preserved and carry price tags above $750,000. This is the area of town where many of the Hollywood elite of the 1950s built or bought homes.

This first house offers a startling interpretation of the diamond-patterned facade, accented by vivid color choices.

Back to the high-relief diamond patterned block wall, but this time the current owner has placed a pair of standing rocks in front of the wall to add interest. The ochre frame to the entryway adds some needed color. This is a million-dollar property.

334 N Monterey is one of my favorite houses in all of PS. The new driveway plays nicely off the original open lattice garden wall. The tall thin cedars give it a Hollywood effect, while the house numbers have an authentic MCM look to them. If only the owner would replace that Early American coach lamp with a brushed aluminum hourglass wall sconce!

***

And voila – here is a photo of Stephan with Tony Curtis (who once owned Stephan’s condo building) at an event in Palm Springs last fall. So that mystery is solved, we now know what you look like, PSS!

What is there to say for this great post — but THANK YOU, Stephan!

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Comments

  1. Sumac Sue says

    WOW! Thank you, Stephan, for this great neighborhood tour. Your descriptions are as interesting as the photos. These types of posts are ones my husband, the architect intern, also enjoys, so thanks, Stephan and Pam, for your efforts.

  2. wbondsteele says

    Stephan,

    Great post. I’ve always thought that Palm Springs housed (no pun intended) the greatest concentration of mid century modern architecture in the country. These houses are fantastic to look at, and they seem so native to the environment as well. Were they built for a middle class income, or more toward a higher end clientele? Have you noticed a difference in the quality of materials used? Anyway, thanks for including hi-res pics, especially of you and Tony Curtis. Now that’s REALLY cool.

  3. says

    All of the houses pictured in this posting were built specifically as second homes, which suggests an income level of at least “upper middle class.” Many of the houses along Monterey Road and throughout that neighborhood were built specifically for the Hollywood elite. Very nearly every house in the area was once owned by a “star.” There is even a neighborhood known officially as “Movie Colony,” though it dates to the 1930s and 1940s. Back in the old studio-system days when actors were under long-term contracts with individual studios, they were often contractually forbidden to travel more than 100 miles from Hollywood without explicit studio permission. Palm Springs is exactly 99 miles from Hollywood. Thus Palm Springs became a very fashionable destination to which actors could “escape in secret,” without informing their studio bosses. And as a result, a significant proportion of the single-family residential architecture built in the Palm Springs area in the late 1950s and early 1960s was intended for “Hollywood types” as seasonal vacation homes. And the large numbers of famous actors hanging around drew in other wealthy people seeking a small quiet town in an area that was also warm in winter. Thus people such as Walter Annenberg, the founder of TV Guide and Seventeen magazine, built a massive estate here, and Presidents Eisenhower and Ford kept homes here for golfing in winter. That has changed, of course, and the area has become significantly less affluent, though huge chunks of the area are still very “hoitey-toitey.”

    As for the quality of the materials used, I have seen some differences, but they have more to do with regional resources than with the affluence of the purchaser. The woods used for studding and joists, for example, are sometimes rock-hard California redwood and fir rather than softer southern pine. But even in the poshest of the 1950s-era houses, one still often finds the same Columbia metal kitchen cabinets and American Standard bath fixtures that are found in 1950s-era “middle-” and “lower-class” housing. In fact, when taking one of the local tours of movie-star homes, one is struck by how very modest some of them are. No surrounding walls, no gated drives, all close to the street, all single-story, often just 2 bedrooms, no outbuildings … just very average looking modest houses. I have the impression that the Hollywood types saved the glitz and glamour for their Beverly Hills residences and came to Palm Springs when they wanted to once again be “average Joes” for a few days or weeks.

  4. lovethedesert says

    Stephen,

    I enjoyed reading your article about Palm Spring modern homes, particularly the homes in Rancho Vista Estates. I did note an error though. The first picture of a butterfly-roofed home is identified as an Alexander home–it is not. It is actually a Jack Meiselman butterfly home. Meiselman was a competitor of the Alexanders. Palmer and Kriesel were the architects who designed many of the Alexander homes, including the butterfly, flat roof, and A-frames in the Twin Palms, Vista Las Palmas, and Racquet Club Estates neighborhoods. I remember reading an article where William Kriesel dismissed Meiselman’s homes as cheap imitations. Anyway, here is a link to the Racquet Club Estates neighborhood website. It is really cool, and I think you will like it.

    http://www.racquetclubestates.com/

  5. mitejoe says

    It looks like there’s been some restoration going on in El Rancho Vista estates since this article was written. May be worth your while to drive through…you may wind up revising this article with some new favorites.

  6. says

    As I sit here dreaming of a long PS weekend looking around at MCM homes, enjoying the sun on my face at the same time feeling sorry for myself as it snows outside, I am grateful to you for taking me on a “virtual tour”. (I did get to view a beautiful log home today to hopefully sell). Thanks Stephan.

  7. Joshua Way says

    I just wanted to share a few things about the house you dismiss as “sad”. One, it is “reinterpreted” by the same people who have “reinterpreted” several of the other houses you are highlighting. Two, would you have preferred it in it’s former state with it’s bad 80′s adobe facade with logs jutting out the front? Three, there is no plexi involved in any of it’s design elements thank you. And four, I think most would agree when they see it, there is nothing hidden or sad about it. Many thanks to the these people who have so lovingly and skillfully restored so many houses in the area, I only wish the same could be said for so many others.

  8. jonny says

    I bought into El Rancho Estates a year and half ago, and in that time, I have seen several homes completely restored. There’s definitely a revitalization going on, and this is quickly becoming a sought after neighborhood to live in. Although, my mid century home has been completely updated, I love being able to walk my neighborhood and enjoy the homes that have been completely restored to its original glory of the 60′s!

  9. Paul Tanber says

    Wow! I was shocked to find my home on this site today! I just bought the Wexler in El Rancho Vista Estates at 3573 E. Camino Rojos. I found your site because I m searching for architectural cement block that is the same as the houses in the neighborhood because as you can see, in a previous renovation the former owners built a small frosted glass wall outside the dining room sliders. I would like to build a larger enclosed space for a garden and water feature to be enjoyed from the inside of the house but it is important for me to use the correct materials. As you may know, there were very specific block designs used by Donald Wexler in the houses here so if you know where to find them please let me know.
    Thanks and great site!

  10. says

    In November 2010 we purchased your “favorite’ house from the tour. We love it (as well as Palm Springs) and yes the view from the front yard is stunning!! Thanks for having it featured and we love, love your website :)

  11. Mike Bullock says

    John, buying the house on 265 sunset dr. in the sunrise park district. I’m a little confused. They are calling it a meiselman house, but it looks to me as an Alexander. Do you know by
    Looking at it.
    Reply.

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