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Whatever you do in Palm Springs, don't yodel. And you will want to yodel.

O ne of the prime reasons to be a tourist anywhere is to see the sights. Small wonder that architectural pilgrims come to Palm Springs for that purpose, because the sights there include goodies like Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House, built for the same Edgar Kaufmann, Sr. who commissioned "Fallingwater" from Frank Lloyd Wright. Albert Frey's house for Raymond Loewy is there too, just as advanced as anything Loewy ever designed himself.

Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House is arguably the most famous structure in Palm Springs. A private residence, not open to the public, the house's design set an architectural standard for the area that still has an effect today.

There's a lot more- and most of it nearly as mind-boggling as these two- but the Las Palmas area of town is where the enthusiasts really get enthusiastic. Any fine day makes the district resound with the screech of brakes and the wondering comments coming from top-down convertibles: "We must have entered a time tunnel! Look at all these houses- all different, yet there's a similar style between them. What's the deal?" Before anyone can answer, the style of one batch of houses in particular makes everyone's jaw drop: "Is that a car wash or a hotel? It looks like an I.H.O.P. from Polynesia!"

The houses they are referring to share an uncommon A-frame design that is both futuristic and Tiki at the same time- by way of Innsbruck, Austria. There have only been fifteen such houses in town, and one has been remodeled beyond recognition. Each of the remaining fourteen is unique, with a slightly different floor plan and façade elements. Palm Springs mavens have classifed them with the fond nickname "Swiss Miss". Whether they're sporting their original white Bermuda tile roofs or the new spray-on foam covering, their "cake frosting" appointments and Tiki-hut entries are a strange sight in a land known for sun-bleached 110-degree summer days and star-filled evenings of cool desert breezes.

In the late 1950's, tract housing had become a national phenomenon. In the Palm Springs, California area, where both tracts and housing were a bit grander than elsewhere, the father-and-son team of George and Robert Alexander became the builders of choice. Featured in an eight-page spread in Look Magazine's September 1962 issue, they built over 2,500 homes and helped to create an architectural style known as Southern California Modern. Their forward-looking designs literally appeared as though they were about to take off into the future, with soaring butterfly rooflines. Bob Alexander's own house, in the prestigious Vista Las Palmas subdivision, paid homage to Albert Frey's iconic Tramway Gas Station in Palm Springs (now the city's Visitor's Center at the north entry to town). The house is famous for two things- its batwing roof that points heavenward, and its history. In 1968, it was used as a secret getaway where Elvis and Priscilla Presley could spend their honeymoon.

This typical "Swiss Miss" house shows the main feature of the style - a chalet-style entry, roofed in white Bermuda tile.

The Alexanders' company began modestly, building starter houses of 1,200 square feet selling for only $19,500. Built on slabs with no insulation in the walls, their early efforts were located on the desert sands at the southeast end of Palm Springs, not as fashionable then as it would later become. As their success grew so did their idea of what a house should be- and how much it should cost. By the end of the 1950's they were building up against San Jacinto Mountain on the northwest side of town where the wealthy "Old Hollywood" crowd had built Spanish Revival houses. People like Donna Reed and Liberace- and later Lily Tomlin- occupied these traditionally-styled residences.

The Alexanders developed the property across Monte Vista Street as "Mountain View Estates." Many of the houses pushed past the 2,000-square-foot mark, with the largest floor plans adding another 600 square feet. A rectangular pool was included in all of these designs, priced then from the high $40,000's to the low $50,000's. The neighborhood, referred to today as Las Palmas, filled up with new Hollywood folk seeking weekend getaways from the hustle of Los Angeles. Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, Joan Collins, Marilyn Monroe, and Harold Robbins were neighbors. Frank Sinatra built his compound (by local architect E. Stewart Williams, who also designed the Kenaston House seen elsewhere in this issue) a mile east on Alejo. Another Sinatra, daughter Nancy, still lives nearby.

This house was once owned by actor Peter Lawford, and what happened here in those years is the stuff of legend and conjecture. What can't be disputed is that everyone who visits Palm Springs wants to see it.

The most famous Alexander-built house in Las Palmas is the Lawford / Kennedy house. Peter Lawford had become part of the Kennedy clan when he wed President John F. Kennedy's sister Patricia, and was also a prime member of the Rat Pack, along with neighbors Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. On one visit to Palm Springs, President Kennedy was to have stayed at Sinatra's house, but ended up at Lawford's instead. The close proximity of Lawford's house to Marilyn Monroe's supposedly gave rise to a rendezvous between JFK and Monroe which was very secret then, but is the talk of a nation today. Whether one believes the legend or not, the house is a must-see for visitors to Palm Springs.

The famed architectural team of Dan Palmer and William Krisel designed most of the Alexander houses, except the 15 "Swiss Miss" variations. Easily differentiated from the thousands of more typical flat-roofed Palmer & Krisel designs in Palm Springs, the Swiss Miss houses all have an Alpine-style A-frame living room interrupting the usual horizontal roofline seen in the area. William Krisel says flat-out: "It wasn't my design." While the Swiss Miss floor plan follows the standard P & K footprint, the houses' elevations are from another world, where huts in Fiji or Tahiti somehow collided with Heidi's house in the Alps.

As recent purchasers of a Swiss Miss house, we've started a club among the 15 homeowners to find out more. After researching the houses' history locally, we heard a story that tells of a third partner in Mountain View Estates named Dunas who wanted to do more exciting large scale houses, including an Alpine motif. As the story goes, the Alexanders were against this, wanting to stick to the Palmer & Krisel designs. Eventually they gave Dunas the freedom to do as he pleased with a number of lots in the tract. Architect William Krisel corroborates this, saying he did not want to do the Alpine design and refused. Dunas took P & K's floor plan and gave it to a draftsman named Dubois, possibly in the Alexander office, to create the elevation. He came up with the Alpine-roofed room in the center of the house - and are we glad he did!

The most unusual Swiss Miss in Palm Springs has a chalet section whose roof framing members are not carried down to the ground. Research and local lore indicate the house was built this way originally.

One of the more notable Alexander-built houses in Palm Springs is a Swiss Miss that was recently remodeled and upgraded with two gourmet kitchens. It includes a large guest wing (with a second Swiss Miss roof) pushing the house to over 4,000 square feet. It is the only one of the houses where the A-frame roof does not go all the way to the ground, and according to local lore, that's the way it was built originally. It was formerly owned by a casino operator from Las Vegas, who may have been running his business out of the house, judging by the number of telephones found in it when it was purchased. Before it was updated, red was the dominant color of the decorative scheme, including the wallpaper and carpeting. This house was recently featured in Palm Springs Life Magazine's April 2003 issue, incorrectly identified as a Palmer & Krisel design. The true origin of the design came to light only in the last year.

This Swiss Miss has rock walls enclosing part of its chalet entryway; not all Swiss Misses have this detail.

The construction of the Swiss Miss houses is post-and-beam, as is that of their peaked roofs. At the back of each house's living room, towards the pool, is an enormous stone fireplace extending from floor to ceiling with large expanses of plate glass on either side. When you enter these houses you are overwhelmed by the soaring stone façade and dramatic outdoor views. Since the area is nestled into a mountain range, views from these houses comprise a panorama of fan palms (planted, not native) and rugged, boulder-strewn mountainside. At sunrise the mountain turns a fiery red as the sun peeks over the edge of the earth. Within five minutes of sunrise, the color goes through a spectrum of burgundy, deep brown, orange, and light gray-green, eventually turning silvery-white for the remainder of the day. At sunset, the black and purple striation of the ancient mountains' stone appears.

Not all Swiss Miss designs are alike. Many have a conventional plan using only the standard 45-degree angle, but this fine example has its wings set in a "Y" shape.

Variations in Swiss Miss floor plans include garages on the right or left side, kitchen windows exposed to the street or hidden behind a stone overhang, stone entry walls or wide open. One unique variation is a double roofline that includes a clerestory window halfway back in the Alpine section. From the interior, this adds light to an overhead platform in the entry that contains the ductwork for the entire house. The window is a parallelogram that follows the roof angle and faces the street side entry.

A close look shows that this is one of the few Swiss Misses with a double chalet section; two peaked roofs are set one behind the other.

For all that the Alexanders contributed to Palm Springs, their story ends in tragedy. The father-and-son team and their wives were killed on Sunday, November 14, 1965 when the Learjet they were in crashed into the Little Chocolate Mountains near Indio, on the way to Burbank. They were survived by daughter Jill, who was 11 at the time and not on the plane. Realizing what had been lost even then, Palm Springs went into mourning: an era was over.

The "Great Alexander Weekend" of November 2001 (which had a snazzy guide book filled with Julius Shulman photos) solidified the revival of these jewel boxes frozen in time. The agents of style have been descending on Palm Springs in droves to mine the bounty of this staggering treasure trove of Modernism. Original kitchens and baths are being replaced by everything from IKEA to Snaidero, and tile and Formica are being lost to marble and stainless steel. In spite of the imprint of our times, yesterday's spirit of the future still presses on into the 21st century; the revival of Palm Springs is booming. The curb appeal police can be seen every weekend combing the open houses for a fixer-upper on an undiscovered cul-de-sac.

The Swiss Miss belonging to the authors shows that these houses' chalet sections do not usually extend to the ground on their rear elevations. The pool was a standard amenity in later houses built by the Alexanders.

Whether you live here, or you're one of those architectural pilgrims, a tall cocktail by one of the town's innumerable pools is all you need to drift back to the glamorous yesteryear that lives on in Palm Springs. As the Beatles sang in the days when they escaped here for a break on their first U.S. tour: "P.S., I Love You."

All the houses shown in this article are private residences, not open to the public. If you visit Palm Springs, please enjoy their architecture from the public sidewalk or the street. Setting foot on private property is trespassing and an invasion of the residents' privacy.

If you're interested in a detailed look at the wonders of Palm Springs' architectural heritage, contact Robert Imber for a festive and informative tour:

PSMODERNTOURS offers a fun and comprehensive overview of the mid-century architects who lived and worked in Palm Springs, and internationally acclaimed others who had commissions in the desert. Covering more than thirty miles (in a mini-van) within Palm Springs City Limits, the two-and-a-half hour tour looks at all types of buildings (residential, commercial, civic, religious, hotels) and provides an abundance of historic, biographic, and anecdotal information about the architects, their clients, materials, the neighborhoods and the era. Morning and afternoon tours are available and advance reservations are suggested; cost is $55.00 per person payable by cash or check at the conclusion of the tour. Custom and group tours are available; information on request. Some of the Palm Springs architects: E. Stewart Williams; William Krisel of Palmer & Krisel; Albert Frey; Donald Wexler; William F. Cody, et al. Some of the non-resident architects: Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Welton Becket; John Lautner; Victor Gruen Associates; Pereira & Luckman; et al.


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Copyright © 2004 Joan and Gary Gand and Joe Kunkel, www.jetsetmodern.com Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher. First posted to the Web on December 18, 2003.