How the Alexanders Brought Design to Palm Springs Tract Housing



The Twin Palms Estates were the George Alexander Construction Co.’s first residential tract in Palm Springs.

Julius Shulman

“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.

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!

Add your comment:
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Related Articles

McCallum Theatre Schedules 'Imaginative' Slate of Acts

The Underwater Bubble Show is just one of the remarkable acts planned for McCallum Theatre’s 2016-17 season.

Midcentury Modern Mystery

Palm Springs might be a small town, but it’s chock full of historic buildings with stories to tell, including the new home of Harcourts Desert Homes.

Highway to Heaven

NASCAR racer Kyle Petty will launch his motorcycle caravan fundraiser, Charity Ride Across America, on April 30 from the Riviera Palm Springs.

Village People Sure to Ignite Palm Springs Event

Village People will likely have people out of their seats and onto the dance floor during the AIDS Assistance Program's "Evening Under the Stars" gala on April 30.

Modern Meets 
The Vintage

Club Member and developer Elizabeth Benton has launched a new era of fully automated and architecturally distinct homes within The Vintage Club.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Promotions + Contests

Palm Springs Life's Women in Business

Palm Springs Life's Women in Business

Celebrate the Coachella Valley’s most dynamic women in business at the May 12 luncheon featuring keynote speaker Laura Schwab, President, Aston Martin The Americas. The luncheon takes place at The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage.
Fashionista Friends

Fashionista Friends

Experience the glitz and glamour of Fashion Week El Paseo 2016.
Food + Wine Festival Grand Experience

Food + Wine Festival Grand Experience

Enter for a Chance to Win a Food + Wine Festival Palm Desert 2016 Grand Experience
Cartoon Caption Contest

Cartoon Caption Contest

Each month, we provide a vintage 1950’s cartoon illustrated by Alice Rovinsky. You are invited to submit a caption or vote for your favorite caption.
Edit ModuleShow Tags