The Mod Squad
Beth Edwards Harris and her husband, Brent Harris, had no intention of purchasing the Kaufmann house when they first visited it in 1992—nor could they envision the years and millions of dollars they would spend restoring it. In fact, they were not even aware that the Palm Springs, Calif., residence was on the market. “We’ve been looking at architecture together since we were dating,” explains Edwards Harris. The outing from Los Angeles was just another day trip for the couple. However, when they arrived and saw a For Sale sign posted out front, Edwards Harris, who holds a Ph.D. in architectural history and theory from UCLA, and her husband, who, like his wife, is active in a number of local and national architectural organizations, were too aware of the house’s significance to pass up the opportunity to own it.
In the tightly disciplined assemblage of straight lines, rectangles, and right angles forged from metal, glass, and stone, they recognized one of the finest examples of modernist architecture. They soon became the fifth owners of the house, which was built by noted Los Angeles architect Richard Neutra in 1946 for the same department store magnate who commissioned Fallingwater from Frank Lloyd Wright, and embarked on a five-year, multimillion-dollar plan to return it to its original appearance. “Everything in the house had to be found, invented, or reinvented. We took the time because we wanted to do it right,” says Edwards Harris, noting that their hefty investment was anything but frivolous. “The value of the house has quadrupled. In the end, if we had to sell, we would recoup our investment.” Not that they ever would. Indeed, the couple plans to ensure that their modern masterpiece will remain in pristine condition long after they are gone by creating a foundation that will maintain it in perpetuity.
The Harrises were among the earliest contributors to a growing cultural phenomenon in Palm Springs and throughout California’s Coachella Valley. Following more than two decades of decay and neglect of the Kaufmann house and hundreds of similar structures, the Palm Springs area has become a kind of haven for these architectural treasures. However, the struggle to protect and preserve them continues, in part because their value is not universally acknowledged.
“A lot of people didn’t understand modern design then and don’t like modern design now,” says J.R. Roberts, an architecture and design consultant who recently purchased and restored the Palm Springs house that William and Marjorie Edris commissioned from E. Stewart Williams during the 1950s. “The hardest part of educating people is convincing them that this is history, this is rare. The reason to care [about modernism] is it represents a moment in time when architects were bucking the trends and trying something new. These guys were pioneers.”
And so are those who seek to preserve their legacy.
Originally a village with a modest tourist trade, Palm Springs, with its perpetually sunny skies and open tee times, became a postwar playground and golf destination for the famous and the wealthy—from Frank Sinatra to Edgar J. Kaufmann—soon after it incorporated as a city in 1938. Where wealthy patrons gather, artists and craftspeople often follow in search of work, and during its midcentury golden age, Palm Springs welcomed a host of talented architects who embraced modernism and saw the growing city as an ideal location to practice it. The valley offered an abundance of open land, and its residents had the means to build extravagantly on that land. This combination of space and financial resources would leave Palm Springs with hundreds of modern structures, not only houses, but also schools, stores, banks, churches, gas stations, hospitals, the airport, and city hall. The isolated little resort town located a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles became a hothouse of modernist architecture, a swank paradise of flat roofs, crisp lines, and exteriors that bore little or no adornment.
Palm Springs modernism eventually spread to Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Desert Hot Springs, and other towns in the Coachella Valley. However, by the 1970s, modernism, which reached its peak in Palm Springs in the 1950s and 1960s, suddenly seemed square throughout the valley.
By the mid-1990s, however, the city’s modern architecture was beginning to receive its due as astute connoisseurs recognized the riches that some of these structures represented. Houses that had languished on the market for years were purchased and restored to their mid-20th-century glory. Lavish coffee-table books on Palm Springs architecture were published, and preservation groups formed to promote the modern buildings that remained and defend those that were vulnerable to being torn down.
From a preservationist’s perspective, the city of Palm Springs is a relatively progressive community because it has been conscious of its modern heritage for some time. The city has a municipal Historic Site Preservation Board, which, with the assistance of several local advocacy groups, identifies historic buildings and encourages their owners to apply for Class 1 status, a designation that protects the structures against disfiguring external changes or complete destruction. More than 40 residential and commercial buildings in Palm Springs have received Class 1 status since the first structure was designated so in 1984.
The greater threats to modern architecture have arisen in nearby communities in the Coachella Valley. In the neighboring town of Rancho Mirage, a residence on the grounds of the Tamarisk Country Club was unexpectedly and inexplicably torn down in March 2002. The U-shaped house, which was created by Neutra in 1963 for Minneapolis lawyer Samuel Maslon and his wife, Luella, was destroyed shortly after the $2.45 million sale was completed. “It was the first substantial house here [at the Tamarisk Country Club], and it made a sophisticated statement,” Luella, then Sam’s widow, said in Palm Springs Modern, a 1999 book authored by Robb Report Home and Design Editor Adele Cygelman that featured the Maslon house. “The fact that we built a house of this quality made the other residents more relaxed and confident about their design ideas.” Luella’s death in July 2001 prompted the sale.
Modern architecture preservationists do not win every battle, nor do they expect to—a recent fight to save a Palm Springs supermarket designed by Le Corbusier–trained architect Albert Frey ended in the building’s demolition—but the obliteration of the Maslon house shocked and angered them in an unprecedented fashion. They had no reason to think that the house was threatened until the day it was razed, and by then, of course, it was too late.
“What we learned from Maslon was that nothing is safe,” says Jim Isermann, the former chairman of Palm Springs’ Historic Site Preservation Board. “Of all the houses, no one thought that that one was in danger. People were fighting over [the chance to buy it]. It was absurd that the person who got it was the person who tore it down.”
Following the Maslon incident, preservationists focused their efforts on the McCulloch house, another Rancho Mirage home that they feared was threatened. Designed by architect Welton Becket for Robert McCulloch, the eccentric entrepreneur who purchased London Bridge and moved it to Lake Havasu, Ariz., the estate is an intriguing ancestor to today’s smart homes. Among its many innovative amenities is a kind of lazy Susan for sunbathers that accommodates as many as seven tanners on a circular platform, which rotates slowly to ensure everyone an even browning. This device, photographed from above carrying a full complement of comely young women clad in identical one-piece bathing suits, was featured on the cover of the May 7, 1956, issue of Life. Inside the magazine was a story celebrating the mansion as a “push-button paradise of glass, terrazzo and rare woods.”
Last year, the home’s owners applied to the city of Rancho Mirage for permission to remodel the property. Leo Marmol, an architect whose Santa Monica, Calif., firm did the restoration work on the Kaufmann house, was hired by the city to review the owners’ request and found some problems with the application. “Most of the items that made the house significant were being removed,” says Marmol.
When the city’s Community Development Department denied the permit request last fall, the owners appealed to the Rancho Mirage City Council, which at a meeting in early March unanimously overruled the CDD’s decision. Preservationists did not leave the meeting empty-handed, however. Prior to the McCulloch ruling, the City Council approved the creation of a five-member Historic Preservation Commission that will convene for the first time later this fall. It will serve in a mostly advisory capacity, but with the commission in place, Rancho Mirage will have a formal system through which properties can receive historic designations.
The formation of the commission also addresses another issue underscored by the Maslon case: the speed with which demolition permits are granted. Under the previous rules, permits that affected historic properties did not require special review. After the Maslon outcry, the city conducted a survey of its historic buildings and identified more than 100 that could face review by the commission before any alterations can be made to them. (The commission will pare down this list.) “It effectively puts [permits] through a review process,” says Robert Brockman, the director of community development for Rancho Mirage. “There was none with Maslon. We’ve plugged that hole.”
The commission’s authority is more limited than some would prefer. Homes that qualify for the National Register of Historic Places can be nominated to the city’s historic resources list without owner consent, but being listed does not necessarily protect a home from destruction. The ordinance does not empower the city to deny permits for alterations or demolition on historic value alone.
Still, the new regulations do represent progress. “It’s a small step forward,” says Brockman, “but nevertheless a step forward.”
A handicap confronting efforts to preserve the McCulloch house and other modern structures is the age of the buildings. Those who remember when these structures debuted may find it difficult to view them as architectural wonders deserving of eternal protection. At the same time, modern architecture does offer a unique advantage to its devotees: Some of the architects who created these buildings are still living. Donald Wexler is one of them.
Wexler has seen the rise, decline, and rediscovery of his works; the most prominent are the seven Alexander Steel houses he designed during the early 1960s. Many more steel homes had been planned for the area off of Simms Road at the northern end of Palm Springs, but a sharp rise in the price of the metal curtailed further construction. “The original buyers really took care of them, but time went by, and the second and third owners did strange things to them,” Wexler says. “Then the area deteriorated—not just the seven homes, the whole area. I didn’t even want to go by and see them.”
A renaissance began eight years ago, when Wexler was contacted by one of the home’s owners, GQ Creative Director Jim Moore, who wanted to restore his residence to its 1961 condition. “The best I could do was send the plans for the buildings,” Wexler recalls. “About a year later, he asked me to come look at the house, and it was like a time warp. It was back to the way it was originally.”
Today, five of the seven homes have been restored, with a sixth soon to join their ranks. “It’s very exciting for me to see it happen, to see them being reborn,” Wexler says. In addition, Wexler recently consulted on a new residential project in Palm Springs that could be called neo-modern, and he is gathering 50 years’ worth of drawings and notes for Cal Poly Pomona, which will hold them in the archives of its College of Environmental Design.
Now 77, Wexler is proud to have played a part in the modernism wave that swept through the Coachella Valley. “The era from the 1940s to the 1970s, in my mind, were the golden years of architecture,” he says. “There was a lot more freedom at that time. Styles were not forced architecturally—you were free to create and express. Because of the atmosphere of those years, wonderful things were created. It’s a good legacy to leave to my children, my grandchildren, and the profession.”
While Wexler hopes this legacy will survive for generations to come, he recognizes that the houses’ present and future residents will ultimately determine the fate of his contributions to the modernism movement. “You can only legislate so much. The best hope is for [these homes to find] buyers who are sensitive to what they have bought, who actually take care of their property, without the need for legislation and policing.”