To some people, they seem wacky. To others, they're tacky. Owners love their soaring living areas and the views they get through 18 feet of glass. Like them or not, the flat-roofed homes with their boisterous, two-story A-frame gables that plunge into the ground have emerged as a Palm Springs icon, and even have a pet name -- the 'Swiss Miss.'
Ironically, however, 'Swiss' is not how the Swiss Misses' biggest fans see them. Joan and Gary Gand, who have done more than anyone to love and publicize these ungainly mutts of modernism, see their house as less Swiss Miss than Fiji Frolic. "To us," says Gary, "it's more tropical."
Truth be told, the 'A-frames' -- as those who are unwilling to argue ethnicity call them -- do resemble both Swiss chalets and South Pacific homes of poles, bamboo, and plaited fronds -- to a degree. (In Switzerland, the steep gables were designed to shed snow; in the tropics, monsoon rains. Real Swiss chalets, of course, are much more rustic and heavy-timbered. And in the South Seas, gabled dwellings usually float high above the ground on pilings.)
There is at least one thing about the Swiss Miss everyone can agree about. They are nothing like any other house in their neighborhood, the upscale Vista Las Palmas, which started construction in 1958. And, the inquisitive Gands learned soon after buying their home in 2003, therein lay a mystery. Why were these homes so different from all other homes? Their search for answers led them into the bowels of Palm Springs City Hall, and through an unnerving encounter with an indignant, and legendary, architect.
Gary, a well-known sound engineer, and Joan, who helps run the family business, Gand Music and Sound, take modern architecture seriously. In the Chicago suburb of Riverwoods, where they keep their other home, they helped found the preservation organization Chicago Bauhaus and Beyond to protect modern homes designed by the architectural firm of Keck and Keck Brothers from McMansion-ization.
In Palm Springs, they fell in love with the Swiss Misses while searching for a desert home -- even though everyone else they met "was focusing in the butterfly roofs," Joan says. But, she says of their A-frame, "This just has its own special vibe."
It may have helped, as Joan says, that "we're also into the whole Tiki thing, so much so that when they wanted a Tiki head of their own they sought out Leroy Schmaltz of Oceanic Arts, the legendary Tiki designer who helped popularize the fad for all things Polynesian starting in the mid-'50s. "We call it tasteful Tiki," she says of their home's design motif, which means a relatively restrained palette of Polynesiana, though it does include a fountain in the backyard featuring Tiki gods and flaming Tiki torches.
The Gands, to be fair, take an even-handed approach in writings about the A-frames. "Both futuristic and Tiki at the same time -- by way of Innsbruck, Austria," they wrote in an online article for JetSetModern.com. And, they added, "The houses' elevations are from another world, where huts in Fiji or Tahiti somehow collided with Heidi's house in the Alps."
They also noticed how many A-frames could be spotted in Vista Las Palmas -- they have counted 15 -- and noted that they are apparently the only such houses in town. They discovered other architectural landmarks with a South Seas motif, including the Royal Hawaiian Estates, a condo project at the south end of town, and the Caliente Tropics motel.
Vista Las Palmas, they knew, was largely developed by Alexander Construction Co., run by George Alexander and his son Bob. Bob, who was in charge of the firm's Palm Springs operations, worked with the architectural firm Palmer & Krisel, whose lead designer, William Krisel, is responsible for most of the city's Alexander homes.
The Gands assumed therefore that their home was designed by Krisel. When they met during lunch at an event sponsored by PS Modcom (the Palm Springs Modernism Committee), Joan and Gary said how much they admired his work. Then Joan told him about their Swiss Miss. "He just stopped right there," she remembers. " 'That's not one of my houses!' He was pretty gruff about it."
Krisel, who ended up enjoying the lunch, does feel strongly about the matter. Like most modern architects, he takes his work seriously. And the Swiss Misses, he says, simply aren't serious. "When you're doing Tiki and stuff like that, most architects wouldn't do that," he says. "It's not really architecture. It's like Disneyland."