Virtual Home Tours Go For the Wow

Auto tour
Among the many virtual events that can be viewed throughout February as part of Modernism Week is an automobile architectural tour of Palm Springs. Courtesy of Modernism Week

There’s nothing quite like stepping inside a mid-century modern home that takes your breath away. Well, maybe we’ll do that in April. But for now, Maureen Erbe promises, the Modernism Week Online Experience in February will both inform and delight.

Erbe, a former designer who with her husband sells high-end residential real estate, is a board member of Modernism Week who has put on the event’s home tours for years.

She rushed out a virtual video home tour this past October, and for February is able to take her time. In some ways, she says, visiting a home via video is better than in-person. All Modernism Week events can be viewed online from February 1 to 28.

The October tour featured houses that had already been on live tours, she says, and, “Some people who had visited the houses in-person said, I’ve been in the house a million times, but I’d never learned so much until the video tour.”

Morse House
The Morse House has a story worth learning. It began life as a tract home but before completion was turned into a luxurious manse with sunken living areas. Photo by Dan Chavkin, courtesy of Modernism Week

Video tours “allow for more in-depth information,” she says.

Erbe’s video tours won’t be anything like video walkthroughs some realtors use. They will entertain, Erbe promises. Owners of the homes will lead the tours, sometimes the architect will be there, or a designer.

“You will also learn something about the people who own the homes. The people are our tour guides,” she says, adding, that the visits are “as much about people as it is about the homes.”

Besides Erbe’s home tours – the new tours and the October tours will both be featured – there are many other events at Modernism Week.

These include a virtual architectural driving tour of Palm Springs, a 'Hollywood Revisited Online Musical Extravaganza' focusing on “the glitz and the glamour” of the Golden Years,  'The Desert Modernists Video Series' with author Alan Hess,” movies about architects Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, the modernists of New Canaan, Connecticut, and Philip Johnson’s Glass House.

Villa Grigio is an over-the-top extravaganza, the sort of house that Maureen Erbe balances on her tour with simpler, 'classic' modern homes. Photo by Douglas Friedman, courtesy of Modernism Week

How does Maureen Erbe select tour houses?

“I like them to be very well done for what they are, architecturally interesting, and with home décor that coincides with the architecture,” she says. “I like to have a cross section of neighborhoods and types of architecture, from the classic to the fun and zany.”

Fun and zany? Consider Villa Grigio, a "wow house" in Erbe's words that was formerly the property of celebrities Roger Moore and Hugh Hefner. Current owner, famed interior designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard, has named it after a favorite color and favorite white wine.

Architect James McNaughton, who produced the home in 1962, was a movie set designer who designed homes for such celebrities and paragons of taste as George and Rosalie Hearst. Erbe says his style is “Movie set modern.”

And how about the Morse house? “This is another wow house, but it’s a wow house that is mid-century modern,” Erbe says.

Cahuilla Hills
The Cahuilla Hills home is from 2006 but was clearly inspired by and shows deep understanding of the principles and aesthetic behind mid-century modern classics. Photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy of Modernism Week

Oddly, it started out as a William Krisel design for the Alexander tract builders. But the Morse family preferred the lush look of architect Hal Levitt, who filled the LA neighborhood Trousdale Estates with ornate homes that went far beyond what Erbe calls “the clean and simple touches of Krisel.”

The Morses built the house while it was still under construction. Mrs. Morse wanted an eight-foot ceiling – but the ceiling was already in place! So instead of going up, “the floor was dug out and they put in a sunken living room and a sunken bar,” Erbe says.

“The house was for fun, partying, craziness,” she explains.

Erbe likes to balance crazy with classic and does so on this tour with, among others, the contemporary 2006 Cahuilla Hills house deeply rooted in clean mid-century style and designed by Ana Escalante, when she was partners with Lance O’Donnell in O'Donnell + Escalante.

“Even though the architecture is contemporary, it very much is designed around the ideals of mid-century modern architecture,” Erbe says.

Ship of Desert
The Ship of the Desert from 1936 shares a modern attitude with its later, mid-century modern cousins. Photo by Tim Street-Porter, courtesy of Modernism Week

Delving into an earlier form of modernism, Erbe goes for Streamline Moderne with the Ship of the Desert, a 1936 home inhabited by fashion designer Trina Turk. “It’s very unique to the desert, the only one of its kind in Palm Springs,” she says of the sleek home, whose style evokes a Fred Astaire-era ocean liner.

There are other positive aspects of virtual home tours, Erbe says. Attendance isn’t limited, you can 'attend' from anywhere in the world – and the recording can be streamed later. Erbe says the non-profit Modernist Week organization plans to build a library of these videos, and she hopes to do videos accompanying future home tours that are again conducted in actual houses.

In April, Modernism Week plans to return with actual, live events. Tickets are already on sale. Publicist Bob Bogard writes:

“The date shift to April for in-person events in Palm Springs will provide more time for the state and county health status to improve, and for organizers to plan safe and enjoyable experiences under pandemic guidelines.”

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