Palm Springs Comes Alive in the Dark

Desert plants
Desert plants do double duty, as sculptural objects and as shadow casters, at this El Rancho Vista Estates home. Photos by Dave Weinstein

Eichlers and other mid-century modern homes are often accused of turning their backs on the street, providing little more than a blank wall to the eyes of passersby. In Palm Springs, though, the opposite is true: it is the grand, old Spanish Revival villas from the 1920s and 1930s that are impossible to see, and the modern marvels are dolled up for display.

Who needs a large front porch equipped with a swing or a giant plate-glass window staring out at the street to offer a welcoming sight to neighbors and tourists alike?

Another home in the neighborhood takes on a tinge of blue.

Anyone who visits the varied residential neighborhoods in this charming desert city that claims more than 44,000 residents quickly discovers this:

There is really little or no point in walking through classic neighborhoods like Old Las Palmas or the Movie Colony hoping to see the grand, old homes where movie stars once lived because views are blocked by walls and foliage, sometimes both.

On the other hand, in the mid-century modern tracts filled with homes -- designed by Palmer and Krisel for the Alexanders, or by architects Don Wexler and Rick Harrison, or the builder Jack Meiselman -- walls are there to guard backyards and swimming pool, but the homes themselves are in clear view.

Pendant lights
Pendant lights beckon to people passing by this home in the same neighborhood, which was developed by Roy Fey with designs by Don Wexler and Rick Harrison.

Remarkably, when you do find a home in Old Las Palmas that is easily admired from the street, it is often an example of modern infill from the mid 20th century. The Dinah Shore house, designed by Wexler, is one example. (You can also stay there, starting at $3,750 per night.)

A more economical way to enjoy Palm Springs’ splendid modern showoffs, though, is to stroll on an evening through El Rancho Vista Estates, a neighborhood developed by Roy Fey with homes designed by Don Wexler and Rick Harrison.

Along with several neighboring cities, Palm Springs has policies to discourage light pollution, and residential neighborhoods do not, generally, have streetlights. A nighttime walk is illuminated instead by the often joyous lighting effects that homeowners provide.

A strange purple glow illuminates the plastic grass in this house in El Rancho Vista Estates.

During the day these homes are entertaining enough. Various shapes of concrete breeze-block screens and textural projections on concrete walls produce varied shadow patterns when sunlight hits during the day. At night, interior and exterior lighting produce very different effects. Plantings too add to the look, as does the occasional bit of desert lawn sculpture.

Many of the architects who designed homes in Palm Springs played up the carefree atmosphere of the desert. From the start in the mid-1950s, architect Bill Krisel realized that he could have some fun with the homes he was designing in Palm Springs, and could get away with things his homebuilding clients would not have allowed him to do in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, where Palmer and Krisel first designed for the Alexanders.

Breeze blocks
Breeze block provides interest when artificially lighted as well as when they are hit by sunlight.

That’s why the mid-century modern homes in Palm Springs generally have a more playful, even fantasy-like air, than the more workaday Eichler homes in the more workaday Bay Area. The Palm Springs homes were designed largely as vacation homes, after all.

“When we did the houses up here [the Los Angeles area] we were just breaking into tract houses. We couldn’t do what we really wanted to do. We had to do what you might call a transition type of modern so it wouldn’t scare people,” Krisel said in a 2006 interview.

This facade takes on a ghost-like, almost foreboding look, don't you think?

“When we got to Palm Springs and I was showing Bob [Alexander] what I would like to do, he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We felt that down there people would be more open to the more modern, which would be a butterfly roof instead of a gable. We did butterfly roofs and flat roofs, all things we wouldn’t do up here.”

In recent years, Palm Springs’s once-sleepy downtown along Palm Canyon Drive has filled with lively bars and restaurants, and even with a 'social cycle,' a giant picnic table on wheels so folks can drink and carouse while a driver pilots them along downtown streets.

But for real nightlife, what can beat the lights on a mid-century modern home?

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