Midcentury shapes and colors mingle in the living room. From left: Orange Corona Chair by Poul Volther, kinetic sculpture by Jerome Kirk, hanging paperboard sculpture by Irving Harper, and a rare Coconut Chair by George Nelson, reupholstered in green.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEPHEN SCHAUER
When someone invites you over to see their “period home,” the gleam of what’s shiny and new often overpowers what can still be discerned of the original design. The studs may be midcentury, maybe even the footprint or the pool. The heart and soul of the period has, however, been renovated away in fits and starts.
Homes do require modern-day upkeep, if not upgrades. And tackling a full restoration to undo six decades of inconsistent style and questionable decisions is a noble pursuit. Yet the original recipe — a home whose bones and finishes tip their vintage hat from another era long behind us — calms and charms like little else.
David Skelley and Kurt Stell have just such a home, and it is an architectural treat for all who enter. “For the majority of its life, it remained in the hands of one owner and was never updated or messed with in any unsympathetic way,” says Skelley, owner of Boomerang for Modern in the Uptown Design District. “It was tired and needed to be loved once again” but not in a smothering way that would have suppressed its essence through a string of structural modifications.
Built in 1957, the home sits in good company in the Sunrise Park neighborhood of Palm Springs. Albert Belden Crist designed the couple’s period-perfect home along with the one next door and three more across the street. The son of a builder in Hollywood, Crist relocated to the desert during the midcentury home boom. Though he worked as a local contractor and designer after World War II through the 1970s, his name doesn’t ring many bells.
“A lot of his homes are a little more modest like this one,” Skelley says. “The fact that nothing major had ever been done is really nice. It’s still very intact. But it was the ugly duckling on the block for many, many years.”
“The house had been staged in a really wacky way, and it probably turned a lot of people off,” he recalls. “Fortunately, we were able to see beyond that.” It checked the boxes for authentic architecture, a pool, and mountain views. They didn’t get their butterfly roofline, but Crist’s late-1950s design won them over nonetheless.
Now, the home is staged for comfortable living. Period-appropriate furniture, lighting, and personal collections have restored its character without a restoration. George Nelson for Howard Miller clocks, architectural ceramics and Higgins Glass rondelays could have been here all along. Stell, retired from a career in marketing and graphic design, even has his own art studio in one of the smaller bedrooms. (His graphite drawings of notable midcentury Palm Springs architecture play well among the vintage artworks on offer at Boomerang.)
“We’re not minimalists,” Skelley shrugs. “We like the art, the sculpture, the ceramics from those decades. We like a warm atmosphere. These are collections we’ve had for many years, and we’ve loved living with them. We don’t really change it out very much.” Stell agrees: “There are things around us, but everything has its place and we have enough room to walk around and enjoy the space.”
What changes the pair made are, at least to the casual observer, undetectable. Some actually brought the structure and its details closer to the native design. They removed wallpaper and several sets of security shutters obscuring the clerestory windows. They took down a wall that closed in the dining area and instilled a visual contrast in the living area and under the overhang to accentuate the importance of the original lines. “We painted the beams dark to emphasize their structural qualities,” Stell says.
The one and only TV is tucked away in a sitting room/guest room leaving the focal point of the living room to be the signature-Crist triangular fireplace. Celebrating is shape, they added birch to the wall behind it and a second frame of slate around the original brass. Neighbors of the Crist homes nearby all enjoy a similar fire feature — some larger, extending to the floor, or surrounded by stone. Adjacent, they underscored the indoor-outdoor connection by replacing a solid wall with glass, gaining views to the mountain and pool.
To transform the gardens, “we hired a landscape architect who studied with two of the masters of the day,” Skelley says. The covered patio’s tongue and groove had been extended by a previous owner, reaching all the way to the end of the beams and blocking the views. They peeled the roof back six feet and surrounded the steel supports with wood that matched the beams. The “Neutra-esque spider legs” that emerged, says Skelley, are often mistaken for part of Crist’s 1957 plans.
In the kitchen, where drawers stuck and nothing closed flush, the gentlemen preserved the configuration, the sink, and the stovetop. Then they rebuilt the space as it was originally designed using new appliances, custom walnut cabinetry, and slate flooring.
As a textural foundation in most rooms, the quiet look of industrial carpeting is soft on the feet as well as the ears. Few pieces are not vintage from the period, and most that are, such as the new Nelson Swag Leg Desk, are authentic reproductions. The home and its contents uphold a singular point of view.
This tidy, 1,532-square-foot abode is a marked departure from the couple’s 3-story plus roof deck home in San Diego, which was custom-designed for them by the architect and proceeded to win awards. No regrets here. They traded climbing stairs for front and back yards and the camaraderie of a true Palm Springs neighborhood.
“We take long walks in the mornings and everybody says hello,” Skelley says. And when the home opens for tours during Modernism Week in February 2022, many visitors will say hello to their first acquaintance with Albert Belden Crist.