Resurrecting the Desert - Page 2

Staying true to mid-century ethos, remodelers return to 'home bones' for a fresh, new look
exterior before and after

Working on classic mid-century homes has influenced his own designs, O'Donnell says. But that doesn't mean copying details of windows or doors, or trying to reproduce the mid-century look. "It's not a bag of tricks," he says. "It's looking at the projects holistically."

Working closely on mid-century buildings, he says, has "driven home the sense that there is an underlying structure to the building, there is a harmony in the parts."

"Those guys were well-grounded in Modernism and rational thinking," O'Donnell says of such mid-century architects as Palmer & Krisel, Don Wexler, and Cody. "They were not paralyzed by style."

Fans attribute some of Palm Springs' newfound embrace of modern architecture to one particularly noticeable remodel job, what Marmol Radziner + Associates refer to as their "five-year archeological dig through the strata of Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House."

kitchen before and after

The Kaufmann house, built in 1946 for the man who also commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, is one of the most famous modern houses in the world. Its restoration in the late '90s helped rekindle the city's pride in its modernist heritage, convinced other architects they could make similar contributions, and helped instigate the city's preservation movement.

Marmol Radziner + Associates, which restored the Kaufmann house, later restored the wonderful Streamline-styled Ship of the Desert. O'Donnell + Escalante helped restore the Tramway Gas Station, an Albert Frey design that was slated for demolition but was saved by Palm Springs' newborn preservation movement. Many iconic, and not-so-iconic, structures have been saved and restored since, including the Orbit Inn (O'Donnell + Escalante) and Neutra's Grace Miller house (architect J. Kent Walker).

Restoring a landmark often requires following regulations (like the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Restoration). Rules are looser for renovating modern tract homes -- but if you want to do it right, rules do exist. First, Escalante advises, strip away whatever Spanish or Tudor additions have been made And remove any paired concrete lions by the front gate.

Alexander houses, among the most elegant and best known of Palms Springs modern houses, are models of open planning and easy access to the out of doors. But not all of the city's modern houses are as open. Savvy remodelers, like Steichen Lewis, often remove interior walls and turn windows into walls of sliding glass. Pay attention to materials, modernists advise. Standard cabinets and granite countertops don't fit the stripped down, easygoing aesthetic. "It devaluates a mid-century home," Kaplan says, "putting in Saltillo tile floors." Tony Merchell, a historian with the Palm Springs Modern Committee and among the city's more discerning critics, shudders when he sees "P.F Chang stonework," which he named for the chain of Chinese restaurants, "stacked stone that is completely not Palm Springs. Yet people are doing that a lot. "And lately, in the last year or two, there has been a craze for fences, walls and garage doors done out of corrugated aluminum. I guess people see this as a kind of homage to Albert Frey, but that bright finish is something that Albert would never do."


Recently Merchell watched with approval as an Alexander with a folded plate roof was remodeled. Then, he says, "They just went insane with finishing every wall with paint of a different color."

"In Palm Springs," he adds, "there is a tendency to use too many materials. I don't know why, because it's not minimalist.

Steichen Lewis, regarded by some observers as among the best of the "sequential remodelers," have been buying, renovating, and selling modern houses in Palm Springs since 2000, when the dot-com crash convinced Lewis a new profession was in order. Since then Lewis, who supervises the building - and does some of it himself -- and his wife Jane Steichen Lewis, the firm's architect, have redone more than 20 houses.

They often live in the houses while working on them, and their young daughter gives each a name. "Fishy pool house," she dubbed the one with fish tiles in the pool.