The 1920s home was among the first built in Palm Springs' Old Las Palmas neighborhood.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRANDON HARMAN
“We’re Spanish buyers,” Tom Ellicott says, smiling broadly while strolling through the shaded front yard of his Old Las Palmas home. “We’re kind of romantic.” About five years ago, Ellicott and his husband, Kevin Palmer, were living in a Spanish colonial revival in Tahquitz River Estates when they set their sights on the Old Las Palmas neighborhood and embarked on what felt like a never-ending Goldilocks-like hunt for the right property. So, when the former Atlanta-based real estate agents got word of an off-market half-acre home with obvious 1920s bona fides, they jumped at the chance to see it.
“We walked through these gates, and we saw this,” Ellicott recalls, sweeping his arm to highlight the masterful landscape that serves an ideal juxtaposition of old and new, wild and cultivated. “It was so magical.” He gestures to a trained tangle of mature mesquite trees, a feature that’s almost a century old, forming a cozy enclosure for a fire pit and a circle of chairs —instant cocktail party vibes. From the herringbone brick path, Ellicott and Palmer took in the remarkable surroundings and knew they’d found the one. “It’s an oasis,” Ellicott says.
The 4,000-square-foot house hugs the ground, its white walls towering formidably yet gently on lush grounds. The stucco, wood, stone, and clay material palette is modest, evoking associations with Spanish and Mediterranean antecedents that were adapted to the desert. Corners and angles are soft, and the terra cotta tile roof complements the craggy mountainous backdrop. Specimen trees, citrus, and other dense foliage contrast with disciplined succulent gardens and hardscape elements. The interior layout and surfaces, while altered by past owners, lend a gracious intimacy to each of the spaces. Original and period-appropriate details, such as the seven fireplaces, wood casement windows, and richly stained wood-beamed ceilings radiate warmth and character. Most rooms are connected to charmingly proportioned patios that encourage indoor-outdoor flow. Multiple fountains compose a calming ambient soundtrack.
Owners Tom Ellicott and Kevin Palmer with their dog, Barclay.
Considering the rich history that Ellicott and Palmer have since learned about their home, that immediate, visceral response befit the dignified surrounds. This house, built in 1926 and expanded a decade later, is steeped in significant Palm Springs heritage. What’s been dubbed the Alvah and Teresa Hicks Residence — among the oldest properties in Old Las Palmas — reveals stories about the city’s past.
The Rise of Spanish Colonial Revival
The plaque at the pedestrian entrance to the walled and hedged estate on North Patencio Road touts its association with Chicago-born industrialist heir Charles Richard Crane. Crane was indeed a former owner of the property, and an intriguing figure who exerted local and international influence. But the core of the story begins with Alvah F. Hicks, whose building skills and real estate instincts dovetailed in Palm Springs during the 1920s. It’s this singular figure who is largely responsible for the house’s ongoing seductive appeal.
“We didn’t know Hicks lived there,” says Steven Keylon, a Palm Springs–based historian who wrote the Class 1 Historic Resource nomination application that is currently pending review and vote by the Historic Site Preservation Board. Hicks’ connection with the home was previously understood to some degree, given his pivotal role in this historically significant part of the city. He owned much of the land that developer Prescott T. Stevens turned into Vista Acres (1923), Merito Vista (1925), and Las Palmas Estates (1926) — the three tracts that came to comprise what’s now known as Old Las Palmas.
Alvah’s grandson, Harold James Hicks Jr. (known as Jim), who owned this home with his wife, Carole, from 1969 to 2002, estimated that his grandfather built approximately 20 Spanish colonial revival houses around Old Las Palmas. Self-taught and a master carpenter, Alvah established a pattern of living with his family in a completed spec house while designing and building the next. He was a serial builder-mover-seller.
Alvah Hicks on horseback.
PHOTO COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
The Pennsylvania native homesteaded in Desert Hot Springs with his wife, Teresa, and two sons starting in 1913 until their 1917 relocation to Palm Springs. The conditions were ripe for this resourceful entrepreneur. In 1922, Hicks constructed the Spanish colonial revival buildings at Nellie Coffman’s Desert Inn that magnified the resort’s luxury factor. Through designer William Charles Tanner, other prominent local clients included Thomas O’Donnell, Coffman’s sons, and Carrie Birge, whose home eventually became incorporated into the Ingleside Estate.
“He was really the only qualified builder in town that early on,” Keylon says. Hicks and R. Lee Miller, builder of the Araby rock houses, collaborated too. Hicks was a quick study, translating certain emerging techniques and sensibilities. Spanish- and Mediterranean-inspired styles were forming their own architectural language that resonated throughout much of California in the wake of Bertram Goodhue’s designs for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
A tangle of mesquite trees form an enchanting seating area.
“In that period, architects were looking to create and establish a true native Californian style that was contemporary,” Keylon says. Designers and builders put “more emphasis on the indoor-outdoor relationship. They thought, let’s take a look at how California evolved in the post-Native American [era] and [consider] its Mediterranean climate for a design vocabulary.” The idea was “to create houses that feel like they belong here.”
Hicks envisioned and physically shaped these cultural currents into practical, pared-back, and site-specific interpretations. At his own residence, he used honest materials to shape the structure’s three bedrooms (including a maid’s room), two-and-a-half bathrooms, living room, dining room, and kitchen around a simple U-shaped plan. When completed in 1926, the Hicks family home had a mostly symmetrical front elevation facing east framed by a deeply recessed porch. A dining room wing at the northern end was covered by a shed roof.
His early residential projects weren’t grand, but Hicks’ ambitions were considerable. He bought land from the Southern Pacific Railroad as soon as he had the means. Because water access and real estate are inextricably linked, Hicks assumed ownership of the Whitewater Mutual Water Company, which he purchased from developer Stevens with financial backing from O’Donnell. This venture became consolidated into the Palm Springs Water Company. Owning and operating Palm Springs Builders’ Supply was another vehicle to support his contracting business and the growing resort village at large. Hicks kept his development streak going with founding Little Tuscany Estates during the late 1930s, and when the city was incorporated in 1938, Hicks secured a seat on the first City Council. He died in Riverside in 1944.
The Hicks family’s sojourn on Patencio Road concluded in 1929, but that move did not stop the trail of compelling residents drawn to this nook of Palm Springs. Sisters Anna Trischman Pryor and Elizabeth Trischman bought the house and sold it to Beatrice Moore, wife of diplomat Thomas Ewing Moore, two years later. Then in 1935, Charles R. Crane added what he dubbed “Villa Cornelia” to his holdings, ushering in the next key phase.
The dining room viewed through an archway.
Date Farms and a Thoughtful Expansion
Crane was not the typical well-to-do Midwesterner looking for a reprieve from Chicago winters. The idiosyncratic industrial heir and diplomat appeared on the cover of Time magazine four years before he and his wife, Cornelia, bought their home on Patencio Road. Back in 1914, Crane had severed ties from his father’s wildly successful company dealing enameled cast iron and plumbing fixtures; he sold his financial stake to a brother, funding extensive travels that took Crane to multiple continents.
“Charles Crane is unusual and distinctive in his generation for his interests in a variety of pursuits,” writes Norman E. Saul in The Life and Times of Charles R. Crane, 1858–1939. Among these were “exploration, philosophy, medical and natural science research, international studies, the promotion of universities and colleges at home and abroad, women’s education, local and national politics, settlement houses and civic institutions, and the progressive movement.” Crane’s professional reach spanned from his ambassadorship to China in 1920 and ’21 under President Woodrow Wilson to financing oil exploration in the Middle East in the early 1930s. (As is the case with many of his peers, this brand of participation in global affairs could be characterized as somewhat problematic in retrospect; documented accounts of his antisemitic remarks certainly are.) The historic resource nomination notes that Crane was described during his lifetime as “an eccentric American plutocrat obsessed with the idea of freeing the oppressed people of the world.”
A watercolor by Lynda Hill sits upon the cast concrete fireplace that was re-envisioned as part of an earlier remodel by Saxony Design Build.
An art wall in the living room displays 19th-century European and American landscape paintings.
Exposed wood beams add 1920s character in the kitchen.
Experiences and relationships he had throughout the Middle East helped catalyze Crane’s new purpose in the California desert. In 1926, he began cultivating a 200-acre date and citrus ranch near Indio, expanding his efforts two years later with 160 acres in Borrego Springs, where he planted date palm offshoots, some of which Crane directly imported from overseas. His deglet noor dates flourished, becoming a famed product still grown to this day. In the tradition of other desert denizens, Crane shared a boosterism streak and understood the power of marketing. “He wrote for newspapers and magazines about date culture in the desert — and it served his own interests as well,” Keylon says.
In part because they had five children, the Cranes wanted to alter and expand their newly acquired Palm Springs abode. They tapped notable contractors William Marte and H.L. Hansen, whose firm operated under the banner of Marte-Hansen. While Hicks wasn’t involved with this phase in 1936, Marte and Hansen applied the vernacular seen in the original builder’s work at neighboring properties. Additions included the large detached garage and the square-profile observation tower — accessible via an exterior staircase — which Keylon identifies as “an Alvah Hicks signature.” This type of sheltered roof deck became an understandably desired amenity that could not be built in the neighborhood today due to building-height restrictions.
Stewards of an Important Past
Charles Crane died in the home in 1939, and Cornelia passed away two years later. The house stayed in the same ownership from 1943 until 1969, when it came back into the hands of a Hicks descendent and his wife, who implemented their own changes. Jim and Carole Hicks turned former guest bedrooms into an enlarged open kitchen and expanded the primary suite. They built a swimming pool in 1977 and added a guest house tucked behind the garage in 1985. Another owner during the early aughts added pedestrian and driveway gates as part of a new privacy enclosure. A projecting covered portico at the front of the house was integrated into the modified entrance hall; this space was formed by enclosing part of the original porch. Alterations after 2011 included the kitchen/family room expansion and landscape design by Steve Gierke of noted firm Hoerr Schaudt.
A contemporary bust overlooks the primary suite.
The Hicks Residence opened for tours during Modernism Week 2023. Five years earlier, on another Modernism Week tour, the property was billed as the “Mary Pickford estate,” pointing to alleged ownership by the movie star and her third husband, Buddy Rogers. This claim exists, however, only in myth. “We’ve done as much historical research as can be done” and no documentation linking Mary Pickford has been found, Ellicott says.
In a city commonly associated with midcentury modernism, Ellicott and Palmer embrace an aesthetic that is nonetheless equally valid. And their enthusiasm is important given the vulnerability of early Spanish colonial revival and ranch homes in the area, many of which are humble and relatively small.
The primary bathroom features a hammered copper tub by William Holland, while a guest bathroom contains an encaustic tiled shower.
“A lot of them are getting torn down,” Ellicott says.
The couple’s lifestyle blends the best of contemporary living with respectful nostalgia. The fully equipped outdoor kitchen, for example, demonstrates that this isn’t a time capsule, but rather an example of how sensitive upgrades can make the past feel palpable and relevant. Given the layers of history, Palmer doesn’t take their role as stewards of this property lightly. “That’s the reason we really try to maintain the integrity.”