Plans are underway for the 10th Anniversary of the “Great Alexander Weekend” in Palm Springs, March 26-27, 2011. The Palm Springs Preservation Foundation (www.pspreservationfoundation.org ) is planning a full weekend of home tours, seminars, cocktail receptions and special tributes to one of Palm Springs’ most influential and innovative home builders.
The Great Alexander Weekends and PSPF’s tribute book, When Mod Went Mass, have garnered significant awareness of the Alexander-built tract homes by architect William Krisel, and helped leverage even more importance to the genre of Mid-Century Modern homes, commercial and public buildings which are prevalent throughout Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.
From as early as the 1920s and through the 1970s, an impressive roster of talented architects have been captivated by Palm Springs: R.M. Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Lloyd Wright (Frank Lloyd Wright’s son); young Swiss architect Albert Frey whose work profoundly influenced desert architecture; and regional modernists William F. Cody, Donald Wexler, E. Stewart Williams and Krisel.
Each made their mark with “striking custom homes, impressive commercial complexes, hotels and motels, commanding civic and educational campuses … and created an architectural treasury of great consequence and innovation in and around Palm Springs,” writes Robert Imber in his story on The Alexander Homes (www.eichlernetwork.com/desert_chron1.html. )
Imber noted that Palm Springs remained a sleepy seasonal village until postwar American affluence and growing families began to emerge with a demand for mass market housing. Coupled with the fact that Palm Springs already was a discrete playground for Hollywood’s elite, a bevy of builders and architects grew to fill the increasing demand for year round residential and well as seasonal vacation homes.
The Alexander Company, founded by George Alexander and his son Robert, was a Palm Springs based residential development company that built more than 2,200 homes in the desert between 1947 and 1965 (www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Construction_Company ). The “Alexanders,” as these homes are now known, doubled Palm Springs residential population, giving the city a whole new shape and direction.
Key to the Alexanders’ success was the talented young architect Krisel, partner in the Los Angeles firm Palmer and Krisel, Inc. (www.psmodcom.com/Architects%20Pages/PalmerKrisel ). A close friend of Bob Alexander, Krisel came to Palm Springs at his request.
The Alexanders’ foray into desert tract homes began with Twin Palms Estates, named for two palm trees included in the front landscaping of each home. Hallmarks were a single story, open floor plan with an indoor-outdoor feeling enhanced by skylights, sliding glass doors, and an interior atrium.
Three quarter walls divided the main room to provide abundant light, eliminating the need for full framed walls, molding and trim, so created a clean contemporary look. Exposed tongue-and-groove planks and beamed ceilings also enhanced the room’s soaring architectural lines. The same floor plan repeated within the housing development saved construction and materials costs.
Krisel was involved with every facet of design, planning, engineering and construction. From site and landscape choices to interior colors and trim, each house was oriented and embellished differently , making the Alexanders look like a collection of individualized custom homes.
Other Palmer & Krisel projects included the Ocotillo Lodge, Las Palmas Estates (Vista Las Palmas) Racquet Club Estates, Sandpiper condominiums in Palm Desert, and the famous House of Tomorrow otherwise known as the “Honeymoon Hideaway” of Elvis and Priscilla Presley. Robert Alexander and his wife lived in this house for a time, and were featured here in Look Magazine in September, 1962.
Another well-known Alexander house in Las Palmas is the Lawford/Kennedy house, originally built for Peter Lawford, married to JFK’s sister Patricia Kennedy. This house, in close proximity to Marilyn Monroe’s, is supposedly where JFK and Monroe rendezvoused.
The affordable Racquet Club Road Estates (www.racquetclubestates.com ) were built by the Alexander Construction Company between 1959 and 1962. The 1,225 square foot homes were designed as weekend and vacation getaways on a concrete slab with single pane glass and without insulation. Here, too, the post and beam construction allowed the soaring roofline, open floor plan, and indoor/outdoor relationship to generous quarter-acre lots.
“Space age” utilitarian kitchens were separated from the entry way with a five-foot high wall which held an oven, gas cook top and refrigerator. Wall mounted cabinets with sliding pegboard doors above a sink in a long Formica-topped counter balanced on iron hairpin legs. A double deck island separated the kitchen from dining with a “floating” upper cabinet.
At the end of a hallway, large master bedrooms featured sliding glass doors to the outside. Private master bathrooms had sunken shower/tubs and outside doors for swimmers’ use. Off the hall were two bedrooms and another bathroom. In each bedroom an entire wall of closets was enclosed by sliding doors, leaving open space above to the ceiling.
The Alexanders had five distinctive rooflines: The classic butterfly; a flat roof with side or front entry; narrow gabled roof with front or side entry; wide gable roof; and side gabled roof with clerestory windows.
While each house has the same floor plan, some bedrooms line up along the street front, while others are aligned along the side from front to back. The ceiling heights and use of clerestories and window arrangements change their appearance.
When new, the homes cost $19,000 plus additional options. A fireplace could be added in three of the five roofline designs and an optional swimming pool complemented the circular concrete backyard pads for only $950. The total cost of house and pool was below $20,000, quite affordable for middle income families and celebrities.
Citywide, the collection of Alexanders range from 1,225 square feet in the Racquet Club Road Estates at the north end to over 2,500 square feet in the Vista Las Palmas, Golden Vista, Mountain View, and Green Fairway Estates nearer to the center of town. These were originally priced from $16,950 to $50,000. Today, the Alexanders are highly sought after and refurbished sells from $400,000 to well over one million dollars.
While the majority of Alexander homes were designed by Palmer and Krisel, those with an A-frame facade, known as “Swiss Misses” (www.jetsetmodern.com/issue5/swissmiss.htm ) in the Green Fairway Estates (www.desertmodernism.com/greenfairway.html ) tract in south Palm Springs, were designed by architect Donald Wexler, who designed the Palm Springs International Airport.
Alexander built Swiss Miss homes are an A-frame construction with lava rock facades, Aztec motifs and Asian or South Pacific styles that were influenced by experiences in the Pacific Theater brought home by World War II soldiers. There were nine master floor plans that were repeated two or three times in the tract.
Only a limited number of Alexander homes were constructed at the Green Fairway Estates prior to 1965: tragically that year the Alexanders were killed in a private plane crash in the Little Chocolate Mountains while on a flight to Burbank.
The Great Alexander Weekend has fueled a revival of these treasures; don’t miss the 10th anniversary!