Three Amazing Homes, As Seen At Palm Springs' Modernism Week

Back in mid February, when international travel and leaving the house wasn’t off the cards, our brilliant writer Amelia Barnes was fortunate enough to attend Modernism Week in Palm Springs, California – the world’s mid-century architecture capital. This annual event sees some of the city’s most significant houses open to the public, offering a rare glimpse into their interiors. 

Today, she’s giving us a tour of three of her favourite houses, from a home built around a literal boulder, to the former abode of actor Kirk Douglas!

Amelia Barnes

Photo – Dan Soderstrom.

The desert city is renowned for its mid-century architecture. Photo – Dan Soderstrom

Photo – Dan Soderstrom.

The always lively Ace Hotel Palm Springs. Photo – Dan Soderstrom.

Amelia Barnes
24th of March 2020

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Palm Springs before, but this year was my first time attending the city’s major annual event, Modernism Week. This festival attracts architecture enthusiasts from all over the globe for lectures, parties and house tours.  

While architecture lovers will benefit from visiting Palm Springs any time of year to view the iconic mid-century house exteriors, desert landscapes, and to relax by the pool (as pictured above!), Modernism Week provides the opportunity to actually step inside many of these coveted homes. 

If you plan on attending the event in future, keep an eye out for tours of these must-see homes!

The 1954 Kirk and Anne Douglas Estate. Photo – Dan Soderstrom.

The pool is in the subtle shape of a ‘K’ for Kirk. Photo – Dan Soderstrom.

Kirk and Anne Douglas Estate

While late actor Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne weren’t the commissioners of this house, they moved in just two years after its completion, and the property remained in their possession for 42 years. Kirk passed away at age 103 just days before the commencement of Modernism Week, making this house tour rather bittersweet. 

The circa 1954 house and a later extension was designed by architect Donald Wexler and is today a sprawling five-bedroom, eight-bathroom estate. The current owners purchased this home in 2016 (for US$3.5 million) and have since made some serious updates to the interiors, but these remain in keeping with the home’s mid-century style. (Sadly, photographing these wasn’t permitted.) They’ve also replaced the concrete floors with terrazzo, introducing an overall lighter aesthetic. 

The swimming pool – which adopts the subtle shape of ‘K’ for Kirk – remains perfectly intact, as does the tennis court… which backs onto Leonard DiCaprio’s home!

This Albert Frey designed house was the highest residence in Palm Springs at the time of building. Photo – Dan Soderstrom.

The 1964 Frey House II. Photo – Dan Soderstrom.

Frey House II

The undisputed highlight of Modernism Week for me was stepping inside the circa 1964 Frey House II, designed by Albert Frey. This Swiss architect was one of Palm Springs’ design pioneers, having moved to the US to experiment with innovative ways of living. 

This particular house is accessed via one of Palm Springs’ private roads, and was the city’s highest residence at the time of building. 

While the compact size (just 75 square metres) and pared back materials palette (cinder blocks, aluminium and glass) might suggest Frey House II to be a relatively simple home, its design is undoubtedly radical. The architect is said to have spent five years searching the town for an appropriate site, then a further year studying the sun’s movements across the grounds before building. 

Most prominent about this house is the granite boulder separating the living and bedroom areas. Another boulder underneath the pool creates a partially raised floor, eliminating the need for traditional stairs. Other details include the almost entirely built-in suite of furniture, yellow curtains (cut to accommodate the central boulder) reflective of the encelia plant that blooms on site, and pool reflections on the corrugated aluminum roof. 

This was Frey’s personal home for 35 years until his death in 1998, after which it was donated to the Palm Springs Art Museum for architectural learning and research. 

A boulder in the pool of the 1946 Raymond Loewy House by Albert Frey. Photo – Dan Soderstrom.

The pool extends right into the living room! Photo – Dan Soderstrom.

A curved glass pavilion houses the dining room. Photo – Dan Soderstrom.

Raymond Loewy House

18 years before Frey II was designed, Albert Frey designed the Palm Springs residence of famed industrial designer, Raymond Loewy. This French-American designer was one of the industry’s most iconic figures, having designed the Coca Cola bottle and Shell logo among major works.  

This circa 1946-1947 house was Loewy’s ‘bachelor pad’ that was extended shortly after he got married. The current owner of the house has lived here for 35 years.

Just three feet from this home’s front door is the pool, part of which extends directly into the living room. This design has proved hazardous at times, with the current owner admitting someone once fell in the pool and broke their leg while home alone, hence the wooden bench that’s been placed across the perimeter! From the living room, the house extends to a curved glass pavilion, wrapping around the pool.

All the boulders were on site prior to building, and they have been incorporated into the garden and pool as much as possible. While today the house is located in suburban Palm Springs, the pool previously offered uninterrupted views of the desert landscape beyond. 

Palm Springs Modernism Week occurs every February, with an additional Fall Preview week in October. Find out more information here

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