Everything Old Is New Again: Touring the Palm Springs Eichler House

February 25, 2015 § 2 Comments

Steven Corley Randel at the new Palm Springs Eichler House/All Photos Hope Anderson Productions

Steven Corley Randel at the new Palm Springs Eichler House/All Photos Hope Anderson Productions

Last Tuesday I went to Palm Springs for Modernism Week, an annual festival of modernist architecture and design that now occupies ten days. (It goes without saying that “modernism” now refers to the mid-twentieth century, when houses and products looked to the future rather than to some never-was past.)

Wednesday was Eichler Day, in tribute to the developer Joseph Eichler (1900-1974), who built some 11,000 glassy post-and-beam homes in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly in California. Though Eichler houses were mass-produced for middle-class buyers, they were beautiful and forward-looking. At a time when most tract developers were building simple ranch-style houses, Eichler hired the modernist architects Robert Anshen, A. Quincy Jones and Raphael Sariano. The homes they designed had exposed rooflines and glass walls, interior garden courtyards, open kitchens and easy transitions between the indoors and outdoors.
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It wasn’t just the homes that were different. Eichler tracts had shared open spaces and pools that fostered a sense of community among their owners. (To this day, Eichler communities have annual block parties; Eichlerites march in groups in local parades.) Unlike other developers of his time, Eichler refused to discriminate against non-white buyers, selling to anyone who could afford one of his houses. His color-blind policy struck a blow against the prevailing segregated housing practices and seems even more significant in retrospect.
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The highlight of Modernism Week’s Eichler Day was a brand-new Eichler home, the first in Palm Springs, built on spec from plans licensed from his estate. I toured it with my friend Steven Corley Randel, a residential architect who lives in Palm Springs and works all over California and Hawaii.

There were various updates to the original design, both in materials (such as insulation and glass) and style. The exterior was jazzed up with an orange front door and trim; inside the roofline was painted white, a glaring change from Eichler’s unpainted wood, and one that highlighted every imperfection. Still, the house was Eichlerian in spirit: the open plan made it seem more spacious that its 2,500 square feet, as did the soaring glass walls. The only claustrophobic feature was also original–the extremely narrow hallways. As Steve pointed out, they didn’t meet today’s building codes; “I wonder how they got away with it?” he said.

Outside, things were considerably less Eichlerian. The yard was fenced and featured an inauthentic round pool–why not a kidney-shaped one? But the most discordant feature was the one-bedroom guesthouse, still under construction, an addition that never would have occurred to Eichler and his architects.

All in all, the new Eichler seemed to go over well among those who toured it. Despite my quibbles about the updates, the biggest problem was its listing price of $1,290,000, an astronomical sum for a house that cost $12,000 (about $90,000 in today’s dollars) in the mid-1960’s. While it’s true that Eichler houses have much more cachet today than they did when they were popping up by the thousands (a fact that has led the builders of the Palm Springs house to plan several more), the difference in cost is astounding. However fancied-up, in the end it’s still a tract home, meant to be mass-produced for very little money. For $1,290,000, you could have a custom-designed house by a living architect. The fact that someone preferred to spend that amount on a budget house by a long-dead developer says nothing about Eichler’s times and a lot about our own.

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The Unspoken Literary Truth of “Other Desert Cities”

February 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Every so often it’s nice to get out from under the Hollywood Sign and go somewhere else–in this case, New York. Beyond the usual fun with friends, I wanted to see “Other Desert Cities” on Broadway with its current cast: Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Rachel Griffiths, Judith Light and Justin Kirk.

The play concerns the Wyeths, a wealthy retired couple living in a Lautner-esque stone-and-glass mansion in Palm Springs. Like Ronald Reagan, who gave him an ambassadorship, Lyman Wyeth (Keach) began as an actor and used his Hollywood fame as a springboard into Republican politics. His wife Polly (Channing), an impeccable blonde given to hilariously brittle observations, used to be part of a screenwriting team with her sister Silda (Judith Light), but quit Hollywood when it stopped being “fun.” The Lymans have two grown children–a troubled writer daughter named Brooke (Griffiths) and a TV producer son named Trip (Kirk). We soon learn there’s another Wyeth son–Henry, the eldest, who got mixed up with a radical group that bombed an army recruiting center in the early 70s, committed suicide by drowning, and is rarely spoken of by his family.

The play takes place during Christmas (naturally), when Brooke, home from the East Coast after a lengthy self-exile and nervous breakdown, unleashes her new manuscript on her unsuspecting parents. Called Love and Mercy, it deals with Henry, the long gone and strenuously unmentioned brother. Much drama ensues, along with a surprise I won’t reveal here. But what I can talk about without spoiling the plot is Brooke’s stubborn insistence that the book be published right away, with a lengthy excerpt in the New Yorker no less, and as a work of nonfiction. Her distressed parents beg her to withhold publication until after their deaths. But no one suggests the obvious: to publish the book as a novel.

After all, that’s what it is–an imagined account of a boy the author knew only when she was a child, and whose last, troubled months were unknown to her. There’s no more objective truth in Brooke’s book than there is in the most imaginative work of fiction, even if she can’t see it. Yet this option is never broached. The reason, I suspect, is that Brooke–for all her insistence that she doesn’t care about money–is well aware that the commercial prospects are far better for memoirs than novels. As a memoir, Love and Mercy is a sure-fire success; as a novel–well, who cares? Literary fiction in general challenges readers more than memoirs which, however “true,” tend to be more straightforward in style. But I would bet money that any novel, if presented as a memoir, would be more likely to be published, and more lucrative for the author. (Hence James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a roman a clef published as a memoir.) In her strident argument for publication, Brooke Wyeth proves as canny at business as she is at writing. If only her parents recognized it.

Note: “Other Desert Cities” will play in Los Angeles, with the same superb cast, in August. I highly recommend it.

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