Palm Springs basks in the light of desert modern architecture
When Paul Kaplan moved to Palm Springs, Calif., for good 14 years ago, after having spent many a childhood and collegeage vacation there, and after having earned an architecture degree and living a good life in Los Angeles, it was, in the end, the charms of the mid- century modern house — referred to as desert modern — that proved irresistible.
It was, and is, his favourite kind of residential architecture, its spare, clean lines and inside- outside focus with soaring ceilings, glass walls and light- filled rooms appealing to his own personal sense of style and space.
And nowhere is the housing stock of a city so mid- century-centric, so much a showcase of renowned 20th- century architects like John Lautner, Donald Wexler, Albert Frey, Richard Neutra, H. William Cody and E. Stewart Williams than is the little oasis in the Coachella Valley.
Palm Springs is a small town, one of a string of desert hot spots that fill the mountain-ringed valley from end to end, but it’s here where the midcentury house made its mark in the 1950s and 1960s with the arrival of movie stars and industry titans seeking sunny weekend getaways from the busy West Coast and the cold eastern winters, all of them eager to employ architects looking to strut their mid- century stuff in a picture- perfect desert climate.
And so, Kaplan gave up his career in commercial real estate and set up shop as a real estate agent in Palm Springs. He began flipping mid- centuries, which had somewhat fallen out of favour over the years and many of which had suffered the indignities of neglect in enclaves such as the Racquet Club, Twin Palms and Alexander Estates.
“My friends said, ‘ Oh, nobody likes those,’ but I realized that people did like them. And there were no experts at that time that specialized in mid- century, so I found my niche,” Kaplan says.
So much so that his Paul Kaplan Modern Group is today a recognized leader in mid- century home sales in the area.
It was about a decade ago, Kaplan says, that mid- century modern started making a comeback.
“The renaissance and appreciation for mid- century happened really quickly,” Kaplan says. “Because so many were neglected, they were prime for buying and fixing up. When the market crashed ( in 2008), there were a lot of foreclosures, but even during the crisis people were picking them up.”
And while those buyers were from all over, from Australia to Minnesota, from San Francisco to New York, many of them were Canadians from Vancouver and Calgary, Kaplan says, taking savvy advantage of a stronger dollar and the ability to buy a lovely little vacation home, with a pool on a large lot, for less than $ 200,000.
Today, he says, that same midcentury is more likely to average about $ 500,000 and there just aren’t as many available, and “where once 75 per cent needed redoing, now maybe 10 or 12 per cent do.”
Mid- centuries comprise about 25 per cent of Palm Springs housing stock today, Kaplan says. There is also a healthy population of tract homes, Spanish and Tuscan- style houses and hundreds of condos built in the 1970s and 1980s, all of it comprising a low- slung urban landscape nestled in the lee of the surrounding mountain ranges, the big sky view broken only by swaying palm trees.
Many of the homes, especially the mid- centuries, are surprisingly humble, averaging about 1,500 square feet with small bedrooms and kitchens, a clear nod to the pull of the outdoors and the balmy weather that accounts for a shimmering swimming pool in most every backyard.
Torontonians Anna and Kim Bryson bought their contemporary getaway in Palm Springs in November 2008 and quickly discovered how special the town was.
“It’s amazing — the weather, the spectacular scenery. But it was the culture that so surprised us: the arts, the music, the architecture,” Anna says.
And once they got to know the town, they “couldn’t believe there was neighbourhood after neighbourhood of these designed homes for everyone,” she says. “You don’t have to be a movie star. The light, the elegance, the simplicity — we were drawn to that.”
So drawn that they wanted to be part of the growing culture to preserve the mid- century, and decided to try to restore mid-centuries representing each of the half- dozen or so noted architects whose work fills the streets of Palm Springs.
In 2012, they bought a 1,400- square- foot Jack Meiselman-designed house and set about not only restoring it, but modernizing it for the 21st century by installing a new pool, concrete floors and floor- toceiling windows. They took one of the three boxy bedrooms and used it to expand the living area.
The reno took a year, but the house sold quickly and they did it all over again, in early 2013, when they bought a William Krisel house on a large lot with a pool in the same Racquet Club Estates neighbourhood.
The second flip took a year, and included enlarging the doors, installing a new foam roof and enhancing the low- maintenance desert landscape of olive, ficus, agave, orange and lemon trees. The house was listed at $ 615,000 and recently sold.
In both cases, the homes were bought by filmmakers from Los Angeles.
Anna says it’s getting harder to find mid- century moderns prime for renovation, as many have already been done or are being redone by longtime owners.
Why Palm Springs, besides the great architecture?
“The one thing people overlook,” Anna says, “is that this is a real vortex for a lot of interesting people, for artists and filmmakers and techies and designers and hipsters.
“It’s a very special place.”