The desert’s golden age

Among the low-lying villas with their butterfly roofs and soaring concrete brises-soleil, another mid-century icon currently graces the landscape at Palm Springs: a 26ft statue of Marilyn Monroe, which was erected last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the star’s death.

During this year’s Modernism Week – now extended to 11 days, such is the demand – tens of thousands of visitors will descend upon the Californian desert town 110 miles from Los Angeles to celebrate the postwar architecture and people that put Palm Springs on the map.

“The largest crowd ever is expected this year – there were 35,000 visitors last year – and so many of the 200 events have sold out, we’re adding more all the time,” says Chris Menrad, a broker for Christie’s affiliate HK Lane, who also presides over the Palm Springs Modern Committee, a body that seeks to preserve and promote desert modern architecture.

Desert modernism is everywhere in Palm Springs. From public buildings such as the airport and art museum, to residential neighbourhoods including Twin Palms, Tennis Club and Old Movie Colony, you can’t miss the clean lines and large expanses of glass and polished concrete that make the most of stark vistas and bright light.

The desert modernist style emerged in the 1920s but was widely adopted in the late 1950s, when the Alexander tract of more than 2,000 homes in Palm Springs – said to be the US’s biggest modernist housing estate – took shape, its properties crowned by V-shaped butterfly roofs by William Krisel. They cost less than $20,000 back then and now sell for up to $1.3m.

Architects including Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Donald Wexler flocked to the town to carve their niche with this new strain of modernist architecture that was inspired by local materials, and the earthy colours and sheer scale of the surrounding desert and San Jacinto mountains.

Hollywood also decamped to this hot, dry valley in droves: Monroe was a frequent visitor, while Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and many others bought homes there.

Although desert modernism went out of fashion in the 1980s and 1990s – “when the nouveau riche came to Palm Springs and started to build in a faux Spanish, German, French or whatever style,” says Menrad – it has since enjoyed a resurgence of interest.

It’s not just original architecture that is sought after, but contemporary homes designed by the new generation of desert modernists, such as Jim Cioffi. He describes his 12 glass-and- steel houses at Pinnacle in Andreas Hills as “elegant yet quiet”. One of Cioffi’s Pinnacle houses is currently on sale for $1.63m, reduced from $2.9m (through Bruce Blomgren).

Although you can buy less idiosyncratic new builds in Palm Springs, or Spanish-style mansions in sought-after neighbourhoods such as Old Las Palmas, most property hunters want original designs.

Maurice Minno from Windermere Real Estate estimates that prices fell up to 60 per cent (with the highest falls for new homes) when the property market collapsed after 2007, but things are on the turn in Palm Springs, with Minno’s latest data showing price rises on average of 16 per cent in 2012 and the number of sales up 39 per cent.

The Pod House, designed as a series of five interlocking polygons, is on sale for $1.495m

One of the five star-shaped houses at Da Vall Estates in Rancho Mirage, designed by Val Powelson and Robert Marx (son of Marx brother Gummo) in 1961, is currently listed with Paul Kaplan for $238,000. Or there’s Krisel’s Pod House, designed as a series of five interlocking polygons and overlooking Canyon Country Club’s golf course, on the market with Tyler Morgan, Todd Monaghan and Keith Markovitz of TTK Represents for $1.495m.

Stock is in short supply, however, with properties for sale down 44 per cent – a historic low – and a new demographic is boosting demand, with more young families and retiring baby-boomers joining the Dinky (dual income, no kids yet) buyers that have traditionally dominated the market.

Many of Palm Springs’ original mid-century properties were on large estates, built cheaply with simple materials – while today’s buyers want energy-saving, green designs and high-quality construction materials. For some, that means looking at renovating old stock.

Among Paul Kaplan’s mid-century listings is a three-bedroom house in Rancho Mirage, on the market for $499,000. It was built in 1961 but now features white, contemporary interiors and a large linear pool.

“There is a cottage industry of restoration of the older mid-century housing stock that is taking place at a feverish pace,” says Menrad, who has restored his own Krisel-designed 1957 home, now listed as a Class One Historic Site. “Most homes aren’t listed, so alterations aren’t a problem,” he adds.

Retrofitting such properties can be costly, though, as they often need to be stripped back to the bare bones. The alternative is a new home that pays homage to Palm Springs’ golden age but with the added benefit of today’s mod cons: solar panels, insulated, sliding-glass walls, maybe even electric car chargers in the garage.

One such development is Alta Verde at Escena, where Windermere is marketing villas off-plan for just under $600,000. Houses in the first phase – due for completion in spring – include a solar power system, pool and spa.

At the top end of the market, Nelda Linsk is marketing 38 Sky Ridge Road. Priced at $18.5m, the 12,000 sq ft mountaintop retreat has 17ft-high ceilings, a covered terrace and a modern take on Krisel’s butterfly roof.

“In the past five years, mid-century has become very hip again and people are waking up to a great style that had been ignored and forgotten for so long,” says Menrad. “As they say, everything old is new again.”

Buying guide

● The median sold price rose 37 per cent from January to December 2012

● The number of property listings in January 2013 is 35 per cent of the amount in March 2007

● 98 per cent of international buyers in Palm Springs are Canadian

● Palm Springs has 350 days of sunshine and less than 5.2in of rain a year, with winter temperatures in the low 20s and above 38C in summer

What you can buy for ...

$500,000 A four-bedroom 1970s house in south Palm Springs

$1m A 1980s, three-bedroom house in La Quinta

$5m A four-bedroom modern house on a 50,000 sq ft plot overlooking a golf course in La Quinta

Modernism Week 2013, February 14-24

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