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Modern's everyman

Fifty years after William Krisel shaped the Palm Springs look, a new generation revives his designs.

February 14, 2008|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

PALM SPRINGS — JENNIFER CABALQUINTO and Howard Joyce already had put a deposit on a house in a gated golf community when their Realtor steered them to yet another new home, which she said was by architect William Krisel. "We'd never heard of Krisel," recalls Cabalquinto. "We were on our way home. Our infant son was fussing in his car seat. We didn't even want to go in."

They did it to please the agent. And a few minutes later, they emerged "totally in love with the place," Cabalquinto says. "It was instantaneous for both of us." The couple made an immediate full-price offer and moved into the just-built house seven months ago.

The design that so instantly enchanted them isn't actually new at all. It's a reproduction of a 1955 home by Krisel, updated by him to current codes and filled with 21st century technology. The open floor plan, the high beamed ceilings, the walls of glass and the clerestory windows that offer glimpses of sky and swaying palms are exactly as the architect envisioned 53 years ago.

Krisel, 83, and unflappably urbane, says he's lived too long to be shocked by anything. But 20 years have passed since he retired as a practicing architect, so he was "just a bit surprised" to be asked again to create plans for the little butterfly-roofed, post-and-beam structure that became a kind of signature Palm Springs residence half a century ago. In fact, if a developer follows through, a whole new colony of reproduction Krisels could rise in the desert. Besides the one bought by Cabalquinto and Joyce, three others already have been built.

Krisel never won as much acclaim as Richard Neutra or Albert Frey, architects who designed the extraordinary custom homes that defined midcentury desert modernism. But it was Krisel who helped to popularize it, bringing that same spirit to affordable housing for the middle class.

Working with the Alexander Construction company in the 1950s, Krisel saw 2,500 of his tract houses built in Palm Springs, nearly doubling the size of that city. Whole neighborhoods of his original homes still exist, as if in a time warp.

Wide, curving streets front gardens behind which Krisel carefully angled the houses in varying positions on their 100-foot-square lots. He alternated styles of roofs, so that each house looked different from its neighbor. A casual observer still might take these streets for charming communities of custom-built homes, but all were mass-produced and have the same floor plans, Krisel says.

He helped to break the mold for affordable housing not only in Palm Springs, but also in the west San Fernando Valley in the 1950s.

"Before that, affordable tract houses were tacky, low-ceiling cracker boxes with holes poked out for windows," he says.

Though he went on to design high-rise office towers, condominiums, hotels and hospitals, those modest post-and-beam tract houses are what have become most iconic.

In the San Fernando Valley, where many of his homes had been renovated beyond recognition, young families are moving in and painstakingly restoring them to their original condition. In the desert, where his homes have been more consistently maintained, owners frequently phone Krisel for advice on how to update them without ruining their design integrity.

Architecture critic Alan Hess says Krisel and his design partner Dan Palmer, who died last year, deserve every bit of the increased attention that their work has been getting.

"They brought excellent and elegant modern design to mass-produced housing," Hess says. "That's significant because every big name in modern architecture at midcentury tried to crack into the mass-produced housing market. And they all failed. Palmer and Krisel, who weren't at all well-known, solved the problem."

Michael Stern, curator of the "Julius Shulman: Palm Springs" exhibition opening Friday at the Palm Springs Art Museum, says he has devoted an entire wall in the show to the work of Palmer and Krisel.

"What Bill Krisel did was bring modernism to the masses," Stern says. Before him, only the wealthy could build modern homes, commissioning well-known architects and the costly materials they used. "Krisel packed excellent architecture into houses of modest size, made of modest materials, and he did it on a very thin dime."

KRISEL was a young married man, fresh out of USC and stints in the studios of noted architects Paul Laszlo and Victor Gruen, when he realized he was a bit too late to compete with the likes of Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.

"I was just starting out, they were already well-established," Krisel says. "Why hire me when you could get one of them?"

He looked for a niche not yet tackled and found it in a fortuitous friendship with Bob Alexander, son of builder George Alexander, who was putting up tracts of unattractive but affordable houses for the postwar generation. "I knew homes by the big-name modernists were priced way beyond middle-class reach," Krisel says. "I also knew no one was offering affordable modernism for that market."

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