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Obituaries

Dan Saxon Palmer, 86; architect of 1950s' Modernist tract homes

January 29, 2007|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

Dan Saxon Palmer, an architect who with his partner, William Krisel, designed Modernist tract homes that provided the building blocks for Southern California's suburban boom in the 1950s, has died. He was 86.

Palmer, whose work included custom homes, apartments, commercial office buildings and large-scale design projects, died of congestive heart failure Dec. 22 at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, his wife, Shirley, said.

Beginning in 1950, Palmer and Krisel designed contemporary houses with post-and-beam construction, open floor plans in which the living room, dining room and kitchen flow together, lots of glass and clean, simple lines inside and out.

In the early 1950s, they won a commission for their first major housing tract, Corbin Palms, in the western San Fernando Valley. This former agricultural expanse was quickly being transformed into a sprawling bedroom community by an influx of World War II veterans and other transplants lured by good jobs in the aerospace and entertainment industries, low-cost housing and a sunny climate.

"They took on one of the great problems of Modernism, which was to create good, decent contemporary housing that was affordable for the masses," said Alan Hess, an architectural historian who has written several books on postwar architecture, including "Ranch House," "Palm Springs Weekend" and "Googie." "Palmer and Krisel did it, and on a large scale and keeping the inherent qualities of Modernism....

"Other architects would not deal with the realities of budgets, materials, clients' demands, the financing that was required in the nitty gritty of real-world housing development."

Corbin Palms was followed by other San Fernando Valley developments with names including Devonshire Woods and Parkwood Estates. To the east was the Valwood Estates neighborhood in Pomona, and farther south were Midland Meadows in Fullerton and Gilbert Grove Estates in Anaheim.

More than 20,000 houses designed by Palmer and Krisel would be built by George Alexander, Harlan Lee and other developers in Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas and Florida by the end of the 1950s.

Palmer was born July 5, 1920, in Budapest, Hungary. Two years later he moved with his parents to New York, where his father operated a Hungarian import business and his mother was a dress designer.

After earning a bachelor's degree in architecture from New York University in 1942, Palmer served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II as a mapmaker, draftsman and photographer in England and France.

He worked for architects Morris Lapidus in New York and Victor Gruen in Los Angeles and in 1950 formed a Los Angeles-based partnership with Krisel, who also had worked at Gruen's office.

By 1955 Palmer was overseeing work in Orange and Ventura counties, Krisel in San Diego and Riverside counties. They collaborated on projects in Los Angeles until dissolving their partnership in 1964, although they remained friends.

Palmer continued designing tract homes and also commercial developments, including the City National Bank building (1968) on Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles.

He worked with prominent Los Angeles architect Welton Becket on the 1955 Mount Sinai Hospital on Beverly Boulevard, now Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

In the early 1980s, Palmer managed residential and commercial design for a multibillion-dollar development project in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. There U.S. and Saudi contractors transformed an ancient seaport into a modern industrial city with a crude oil pipeline terminus on the Red Sea.

In addition to his wife, Palmer is survived by son Dan Saxon Palmer Jr. of Santa Monica; four children from his first marriage to Doris Palmer, which ended in divorce, William Palmer of Saratoga, Calif., Geoff Palmer of Los Angeles, Robert Palmer of Santa Barbara and Fia Richmond of Santa Barbara; and five grandchildren. Another son, Michael, died in a motorcycle accident in 1973.

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claire.noland@latimes.com

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