Resurrecting the Desert

Staying true to mid-century ethos, remodelers return to 'home bones' for a fresh, new look

lance o donnell alexander home

Architect Lance O'Donnell approaches his residential remodeling jobs in the Palm Springs area like a detective -- or a forensic scientist. What has happened to all too many of the valley's mid-century modern homes, after all, is a crime. They've been turned into hacienda, fake 'adobes,' or Colonials with shutters.

"We try to find out where the original bones are," says O'Donnell, whose five-person firm is called o2 Architecture. "It's almost like taking an x-ray of the building. We find out where the bones are, then we strip it back."

Another remodeler, John Lewis grimaces as he shows off one of his recent projects, a 40-year-old home with an elegant butterfly roof that had been stuccoed over and made "heavily Spanish." "We take stuff like that," he says, "and get rid of it."

Over the past decade Palm Springs has been returning to life. Modern houses, from masterpieces by internationally known architects to anonymous tract homes, are being restored. The architects and builders behind the trend are doing more than restoring individual buildings. They are giving new life to the town, which has seized on its once-forgotten image as an icon of modernity. And by modernizing the homes, remodelers have created a new style that remains true to the mid-'50s ethos while bringing to it the colors and textures of today. They are also spurring on the development of brand new housing that harks back to the spirit of the 1950s and '60s, when the father-son team of George and Robert Alexander and other developers filled block after block with modern tract homes.

Several architects and firms that have remodeled Palm Springs houses, including Lance O'Donnell and his former partner Ana Escalante, each of whom have gone on to design new houses based on the mid-century aesthetic. The market for revamped mid-century houses has spurred builders on to create new houses in a similar style.

Remodelers also seek to satisfy the modern homebuyer's desires for more space, larger bathrooms and kitchens, added storage, better cooling and insulation, and a taste of luxury, while adhering to the minimalist aesthetic that characterizes modernism. The better remodelers are also re-emphasizing such mid-century architectural values as openness to the out-of-doors, open plans, and a return to a simpler way of life. "Minimal," is a phrase John Lewis, whose firm is Steichen Lewis Designs, often uses when describing his remodels. In general, Palm Springs remodeling is not about restoring a home to its pristine, original condition. "Buyers are looking for that mid-century look, but they aren't purists," Lewis says. "They're also looking for that hipness." "A restored Alexander has more value than one with a mansard roof," says Escalante.

john lewis hands on

But there's a limit to how authentic buyers want a home to be. "The buyers like the architecture but they're not diehard preservationists who want it in the original condition," says real estate broker Paul Kaplan, who specializes in modern homes with Pacific Union GMAC Real Estate. "If I have a house that's more 'period,' it's tougher to sell. It's nice, but people want a dish washer, they want a nice walk-in shower."

A successfully remodeled mid-century Palm Springs house will retain the sleek, low-slung lines of the original, as well as its distinctive detail -- a screen of concrete blocks, textured block walls, broad overhangs -- but may add a palette of reserved pastels, a doorway of frosted glass, additional walls of glass sliders, cabinetry of natural wood, and of course high-end kitchens. Steichen Lewis Designs pioneered another contemporary touch, a concrete walkway of Mondrian-like rectangles.

In general, a remodeled modern tract home is likely to be more colorful and have a wider range of materials than when it was first built -- just a touch of 21st century style.

"We take the principles" of mid-century modernism," Escalante says, "but we don't believe in recreating something that is gone. We live in a different era. But we adhere to the same principles, honesty of materials, indoor-outdoor, pushing the technology."

O'Donnell, whose firm designs new mixed-use projects and housing, says the goal in remodeling a mid-century house is to return it to its structural roots while adjusting the house for contemporary lifestyles and with contemporary technology. O'Donnell has worked on more than a dozen Alexander homes, as well as several homes by architect William Cody.