“Tract House”, according to Webster's Dictionary is, “any of many similarly designed houses built on a tract of land”.
East Coast desert dwellers know the name Levitt as well as their own from nearly 20,000 homes built in hamlets in post-World War II New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and beyond.
- See last month's column: Modernism is All Around Us
Starting in 1947, “Levittowns” supplied housing for a growing middle-class offering an option from city living someplace entirely new…a suburb. Efficient subdivisions changed America’s landscape and lifestyle on woven grids of parallel roads and interconnected cul-de-sacs, with Levittowns often credited as bringing shopping centers, schools and sylvan parklands to a sprawling nation. Sparkling electric kitchens and built-in appliances, radiant heating, BBQ patios and tailored lawns spawned industries…and the rest is history.
So what connection do Levittowns have to the Coachella Valley?
Our mid-century modern neighborhoods share little resemblance. In the 1940s, George Alexander was a successful Los Angeles builder and land developer. Son Robert attended the University of Southern California with a young architect named William Krisel. If you know desert modernism, you’re already steps ahead of us.
Among the young designers with fresh architectural ideas, Bill was in like-minded company with friend Bob. Assembly line construction methods and imaginative features such as indoor-outdoor living, atriums and breezeways, “butterfly” and vaulted roofs, no attics and rooms with high clerestory windows and exposed beam ceilings, an open carport instead of a garage swirled around in their heads to the chagrin of George, who considered them insubstantial.
Who would want such a house? He gave Bob land in the outreaches of the San Fernando Valley to teach him a lesson: build some and nobody will want them. That Granada Hills subdivision built more easily and sold more quickly than anything before, so dad learned the lesson and brought the concept to the desert where The Alexander Construction Co. built almost 2,000 analogous houses over the next decade.
More than simply quantity, “The Alexanders” (and Joseph Eichler, primarily in northern California) were the first in any measurable account to bring real architecture and real design to tract housing…and it swept the country.
Efficient, adaptable floor plans trimmed with decorative wood and concrete block screens, flush casement windows, rustic rock walls and soaring rooflines over broad patios were innovations Krisel took from his fashionable Palm Springs tracts to more than 40,000 housing units nationwide. Boomers from the East and Midwest may recall hometown mid-century subdivisions with regional styles and brick colonials…and that peculiarly wonderful model called, “The Californian”.
A topic too huge for this column, explore Coachella Valley’s countless tracts from Palm Springs to Palm Desert and don’t miss the fantastic new Alexander documentary, “Mid-Century Moderns: The Homes That Define Palm Springs” available at the Palm Springs Visitors Center or www.TheAlexanderDocumentary.com.
Join me next month again, on the modern road!