7 things you didn't know about iconic midmod homes
Which Palm Springs fan hasn't dreamed of lounging in a fabulous mid-century modern home, posting chic snaps of the amazing pool, stunning architecture and mid-mod lifestyle? While some of us dream about it, Donella Muzik has made it a reality.
What it’s like to live in a modern home in Palm Springs—and how you can too!
Which Palm Springs fan hasn’t dreamed of lounging in a fabulous mid-century modern home, posting chic snaps of the amazing pool, stunning architecture and mid-mod lifestyle? While some of us dream about it, Donella Muzik has made it a reality. Muzik purchased a fantastic historic home for her family and also rents it out to others who want to fully immerse themselves in the mid-mod lifestyle. In this guest blog, Muzik details what it’s like owning a mid-century home she shares with others.
I keep trying to pin down the first time I looked at real estate in Palm Springs. I think it was probably in the late 90s while in town for a conference. A friend and I stayed at the pre-makeover Villa Royale hotel and would take neighborhood walks in the morning before heading to the convention center. I was born into a family that loved all things atomic, Jetsons, and retro, so the space-age modernist vibe was right up my alley, and after staying a few times at Spanish-themed Villa, we got curious about “the other look,” what we naively thought of as “the South Beach look.” Entering the open house we found, we gasped at the smooth white expanse of terrazzo flooring, open floor plan, and jumbo glass walls overlooking the pool. We marveled. We whispered. We dreamed. We imagined shaking up martinis and twisting by the pool in capris. I remember this house being freshly renovated, and that it was a little hard to tell if other houses nearby were coming together or falling apart. They were out of our respective price ranges regardless, but somehow we had the impression that there were “good investments” to be had.
7 things we’ve learned living in a mid-mod home in Palm Springs
20 years later, my husband and I are the proud new owners of a 1964 Alexander ranch which we rent out at PS Limoncello.com and are learning a lot. Here are 7 things we’ve discovered in our first 5 months of midmod living:
- There’s a lot of history to uncover: Much of the Palm Springs modernist chatter focuses on the wave of homes built in Palm Springs from 19541962. A handful of architects get heavy credit, while others have been lost to the archives. Our home was originally listed as a Wexler-designed Alexander, but after making our offer and it being accepted, we noticed that the “Wexler” attribution had been deleted from the online ad for our house. We come to find out, that while a true Alexander, our girl is not a Wexler. Unluckily, we began our architectural forensics just as all of the public offices and departments in Palm Springs shut down due to COVID-19 — thus we couldn’t get any info from the city. Online, we found an obscure credit to the Farrell Canyon Estates development in the William Krisel papers at the Getty Museum — which gave us hope for an answer until learning that while Krisel had been contracted to continue the FCE development in 1965, the project ended before it really began due to the death of the Alexander family in 1965. We also found a lot of fun and descriptive ads that the ACC had placed in the Desert Sun about FCE. Yet it was only after reading the Racquet Club Estates neighborhood association blog that we got a real lead: a series of mid-60s Alexander ranch home designs called “All Seasons” homes had been developed for Alexander by a large architectural firm out of LA in order to fill the 31 slots left open by the cancelled Wexler Steel Houses project. I later found the founder’s July 2000 obituary in the LA Times. Several Alexander neighborhoods (more than 200 homes!) from this time period feature homes designed by this firm.
- Most of the ultra-glamorous houses that exist today were not built to be glamorous then: a lot of the homes we see in Palm Springs were designed as reasonably priced vacation homes for “every man.” If it’s got a 3 BR/2 BA layout, it was designed for modest, young families seeking the leisure home of their dreams. Many of the boutique architects of the day became popular for their innovative designs and were invited to design custom homes, but in many instances, these same architects “designed” 35 variations of their basic home designs per development and called it good. In the terrific documentary Quiet Elegance, Palm Springs fixture Hugh Kaptur says that he remembers getting paid “about $150” per drawing for the homes he designed in North Palm Springs. It’s so fun to nerd out on all of the fantastic design projects that have transformed many of these homes in recent years and see what today’s designers are doing with them. But I think it’s also important to remember that while the design motifs that have come to define today’s Palm Springs living abound, many of them never coexisted in their original timeframes. We live today in an eclectic mish-mash of Spanish, modernist, Riviera, atomic, brutalist, and bohemian influences. It makes today’s modernist interpretation unique and also means there are no real wrong answers.
- There’s a reason it’s not cheap to live in the desert year-round: We spent part of August 2020 in town and were simply not prepared for the summertime heat. The desert can be hands-down inhospitable at times, and you realize how much effort (and expense) it takes to remain reasonably comfortable when it’s 120F outside. 2020 has been the weirdest year on record for lots of reasons (!), but the number of visitors and seasonal folks in town during the hottest time of year is quite unusual. Because: IT’S TOO HOT! Even year-round residents often shutter their businesses for 4-6 weeks each summer, and take off for cooler climes. Lawns and people weren’t designed to be living normally in such conditions, and our cooling systems and watering schemes weren’t designed for it either. Summer carries with it its own special beauty, yet even a modestly sized house can’t stay cool for less than $600/month. The position of our house on our lot is excellent, and the backyard is blessedly shaded after about 4 pm. Also the low hip roof and smaller window openings also help block the harshest sunlight. But still: between water and electric bills, and replacing outdoor furnishings that had been punished into oblivion by 8 short weeks in the blazing sun, it was an expensive summer.
- Old plumbing and systems are finicky: Our plumbing was installed in 1963/64, meaning that it’s 55+ years old. Despite being hyper-efficiently designed (see #5), our home’s systems were designed for a 1960s family: 2 adults and 2-2.5 kids. There’s a grownups’ bathroom and a guest/kids’ bathroom, and the sleeping rooms are clustered together off the same hallway. There’s basically one big fat pipe that runs a straight line from the backyard to the street out front. All the bathrooms, sinks, and laundry run more or less directly into this bad boy before heading for the main city line serving our neighborhood. Today’s vacation home living is much different than that of yesteryear: far more showers, different hair and body products, more adults, etc.. We love the retro vibe and kitschy feel of our vintage home, but are fairly confident that in most remodels/updates, the main plumbing line isn’t often dug up and rebuilt. We know ours wasn’t. We are planning a regular dredging of our line to ensure that it stays as clean as it can, with as few challenges as possible. Hoping for the best, and preparing for the worst!
- Almost everything in that era was built for efficiency first: This is a super fun part of living in our house. It is SO easy and comfortable to simply “live.” I’ve lived in homes from 1926, from 1976, 2001, 1883, 1973, and 17-something, and have Airbnb’d all over the world. But this is the most logical, well-designed home ever. It just makes sense. Having seen our house only in photos at first, we couldn’t figure out what was going on with the guest bathroom. Is the only access through the kitchen? What about the two bedrooms without an ensuite? Did people have to go through the living room to the kitchen and then around? We needn’t have worried…the answer was right there: two doors! A pocket door separates the bathroom from the laundry room and pool area, and a regular door opens in and out of the hallway where the sleeping rooms are. It’s awesome! Especially great is the direct-line access from the pool area past the laundry. I’m not sure what the original flooring was, but even with tile, it sure beats traipsing through the master bath or the dining room to get to the toilet! Kids drop their wet suits and towels on their way to the shower, and a pocket door between the kitchen and laundry keeps it private. Keeping up after our family for two weeks really gave me an appreciation for this simple-but-elegant floor plan. We feel blessed it was altered very little over the years — the architect’s original logic endures. This home was designed to fit the true-life day-to-day needs of its family and not to sacrifice function in place of form. It just feels right.
Custom floor plan courtesy of Relax Palm Springs, 2020
- The iconic midmod design motifs we know and love have a grounded, functional purpose: Imagine your top five mid-mod features…maybe breezeblock, open shelving, post-and-beam ceilings, suspended fireplaces, conversation pits? There are some great historical references out there just waiting for you to discover them. Watch any film that includes interiors from anywhere or anytime without air-conditioning and you will see examples of breezeblock and screens at work throughout history. Why? Because they naturally filter light and heat during the day, and allow evening and morning breezes to pass through for cooling. Many homes today feature breezeblock as a design accent rather than function (guilty as charged), but there are just as many that feature close-to-original placements and continue their passive-solar duty.
Similarly, I just read an article the other day that provided the early rationale for why open shelving and interior screens became so popular: new building materials were invented that changed the architecture of room-building. Namely, you could build much larger spaces, with fewer interior walls needed to support the roof. What this didn’t account for was people’s inherent desire for coziness and separation of space. While it was cheaper and easier for builders to build open floor plans, the humans living in these plans preferred some boundaries. Hence screens and shelving systems became popular for their ability to offer functional separation without the solidity of walls. Conversation pits were imagined to solve similar scenarios. When you find these motifs in their original placements, you can really catch the practical vision for what, where, and why!
- Modernism is philosophical: With all of the tourist-focused products available that take the opportunity to riff on the most popular of the popular, it’s easy to lose sight of how modernism began, what it looks like today, and what it will look like tomorrow. The most basic, humanistic view of modernism includes marrying imaginative design solutions with corresponding concrete concerns. As concerns change in society, so should their solutions. One of the reasons the Alexanders moved from expanses of gorgeous glass walls and clerestory windows wasn’t that they fell out of fashion. Rather, it was practicality. Once the first flush of sales were over, they had to keep the price point of their homes down in order to ensure a return on their investment. As different building materials became more and less available, they had to adjust their designs and aesthetic to match their business model. They also adjusted their designs to keep up with the fashion of the times and responding to the clear market for vacation homes that felt like a vacation. The iconic 1961-62 Wexler Steel Houses are a famous example of when design ambition had to take second chair to economic reality (only 7 of the planned 38 were constructed). But even our relatively basic home boasted a more extensive original Mansard roofline design than the one it was eventually built with. To my thinking, it’s what makes it a perfect example of modernism in play: it’s modern to consider economics in the design process. It’s also modern to change direction when logic dictates.
Left: The original LA Times ad for showing the intended Mansard roof-line for the “Parisian” model of the All-Seasons homes. Right: As built.
As we look at Limoncello’s future, and the role it plays for us in our lives, we are facing questions about what is fair to change about the house and what would be an affront to the original design. We think it would be quite modern to make quiet adjustments to make it more livable by today’s expectations, adding an additional bath and relocating the laundry to make room for a dedicated office/work space. We’d also like to add solar panels to reduce the energy impact of year-round desert living, along with large “Powerwall” style batteries to buffer rolling power outages that seem to be par for the course these days. At what point do our adaptations override the original sentiments of the architects? At $150 or so per design concept, would the original architects have even cared? As stewards of icons, we keep our pencils sharpened and our minds churning, wanting to make the best possible choices we can.
What do you think? What does modernism mean to you, and how does it fit with how you experience life today? If you own an iconic Palm Springs home, what has it been like for you and your family? If you sold your midmod home, would you buy another? Please leave your thoughts and insights in the comments section below! And don’t forget to check out Limoncello if you are looking to try out the midmod lifestyle by renting a midcentury home in Palm Springs.