spanish architecture

Thrill of the Old

A peek inside our romantic homes from the 1930s, and what to know before falling head over heels.

Lisa Marie Hart Real Estate

spanish architecture
A pool behind this five-bedroom home at Smoke Tree Ranch listed by Keith Markovitz of HK Lane | Christie’s International Real Estate belies a California lodge interior.
PHOTO BY DAVID BLANK

For those who have lived on the East Coast or explored the Old World’s nooks and crannies, California can feel a bit new-ish. “Antique shops” teem with relics we actually remember from our grandparents’ living room and flatware our mom laid on the kitchen table. You don’t have to be a Luddite to crave more past in your present.

Trouble is, early Palm Springs isn’t so early. Pioneers sought the valley for health reasons starting in the early 1900s before Hollywood discovered the desert as its resort playground.

Somewhere in between, casual-chic winter cottages began to dot the landscape. Their Spanish Baroque design elements combined with Italian and even Moorish influences, says Realtor Dick Sakowicz of RE/MAX Consultants. Those blended with the adobe building traditions of Native Americans and influences from Mexico in a new style of American domestic architecture. “The result is variously called Spanish, Spanish Revival, Spanish Colonial, Spanish Eclectic, Tuscan, Mediterranean, or sometimes Mission Revival,” he says.

These little boxes from the 1930s have never heard the word “passé.” Eighty-five years of charm and grace sustain them as an old-fashioned extravagance in a decidedly modern town. Within our lifetime, they’ll become legitimate antiques — even if you can’t find the furnishings locally to faithfully complete them.

Their red tile roofs, arched doorways, painted brick walls, exposed wood beams, and courtyard fountains have a sticky allure that’s hard to shake. The thrill of the hunt, the stories they hold, the way the clock seems to move slower once you’re inside evokes a visceral response that can be counterproductive in the house-buying game.

spanishranch

PHOTO BY JAMES BUTCHART
Set on a private cul-de-sac in Little Tuscany, this Spanish ranch-style home was promoted in the Los Angeles Times when built in 1937 by Alvah Hicks. Douglas Turold of Bennion Deville Homes has the five-bedroom listing, which features a pool, large outdoor fireplace, and casita priced just under $1.9 million.

A two-bedroom bungalow with 80-year-old windows and no air conditioning, no pool or hot tub, and minimal storage might seem an illogical and impractical choice. Yet those 1,100 square feet can create a deep longing that foments some real gut-wrenching for an unlikely dream home. What’s a plumbing, electrical, roofing, and structural overhaul for the chance to live in an enchanting refuge built before synthetic rubber tires, Silly Putty, and Elmer’s Glue?

These historic structures have been standing nearly as long as the Empire State Building. Many bear almost a century’s worth of hit-and-miss design choices. Some wear their rehabs like battle scars — awkward misinterpretations of the period or exaggerations of the style. “They’ve either been owned by stewards who have taken care of them and maintained their integrity or they’ve been modified over generations,” says real estate consultant Scott Lyle. “It’s much easier to redo a modern home than an old Spanish. It’s hard to go back and build interior block walls. And you can’t build an old Spanish home like these. You can replicate it, but you can never pull it off. The materials aren’t the same. It’s like having an original 1950 Buick.”

Lyle’s own office has a Class 1 Historic designation, tucked inside a small Spanish house with a big tree in front. It was the farthest home out of town when it was built in 1926. “Nobody has sold more old Spanish homes than I have,” he says. “I love the quirkiness of them. As the original architecture of Palm Springs, they’re timeless. You look at The Plaza, one of first outdoor malls in the county, that’s what Palm Springs looked like.”

PHOTOS COURTESY OF NELSON MOE PROPERTIES
In another Spanish Colonial, built in 1936, a sleeping loft above the kitchen is an unusual feature.

spanishcolonial
NelsonMoe

It recently sold by John Nelson and Cat Moe for $1.85 million.

WHERE THEY RESIDE

Start your search in Old Las Palmas or the Movie Colony, advise Cat Moe and John Nelson of Nelson-Moe Properties. “While you can find old Spanish-style homes in The Mesa, Movie Colony East, Tahquitz River Estates, and the Historic Tennis Club neighborhoods, Old Las Palmas and the Movie Colony feature more estate-like properties on larger pieces of land,” Moe says. The homes’ proximity to downtown and rich celebrity history add to the attraction.

On the other hand, you might favor the Wild West flavor of Smoke Tree Ranch. Set on 375 rugged acres, this enclave of residences has been an exclusive retreat for the elusive and famous since the 1930s. Natural flora and unobstructed vistas surround 93 homes built in the early Californian ranch style. “In all that acreage there will be no more future developments,” says Keith Markovitz of HK Lane | Christie’s International Real Estate. He has the only Smoke Tree listing currently on the market. A major renovation and a swimming pool have brought the 1935 home up to date, ready for the next family to enjoy. “Homes at the ranch either get passed down to family members or traded privately among friends of owners,” says Markovitz. “There have only been two public sales in the last year and a half.”

DETAILS OF DAYS GONE BY

Agents are often as smitten as their buyers. Opening the door to a new listing, one never knows what he or she will find.

“I love the character of an old Spanish home. They feel warm and inviting,” says Douglas Turold of Bennion Deville Homes. He appreciates the unusual handcrafted metal manual doorbells, the ambiance of multiple fireplaces, and the privacy of guest casitas. One of his current listings is an original Spanish ranch-style home built in 1937 by Alvah Hicks. Hicks moved to Palm Springs in 1915 and became one of the area’s first builders and contractors. His is the esteemed name behind the O’Donnell House and the Ingleside Inn.

IrisCherry

PHOTO BY PEAK PHOTOGRAPHY
A high, slanted living room ceiling is a trademark of Spanish Colonial homes with pitched roofs. This one, built in 1935, is listed by Iris Cherry of Leaskou Partners. Steps from Ruth Hardy Park, the home exudes vintage charm.

Single-pane crank windows and wooden beams that follow the pitched roofline of the main living area appeal to Moe. Layouts vary, he says, but there is usually very little wasted space in the original designs. Most 1930s homes started off small. New master suites, expanded kitchens, and porches that have become part of the interior have increased the traditional size. “Fortunately, most have been done so well that it takes a very careful study to identify where the original structure ended and the addition began,” Nelson says. Nelson-Moe’s recent sale, a 1936 Spanish Colonial in the heart of the Movie Colony, has a new guest/pool house with original Saltillo tiles, vintage hand-blown light fixtures, and Batchelder tiles in the bathrooms, kitchen, and on the fireplace surround.

Bungalows that have kept their original footprint are a modest 1,000 to 1,100 square feet, says Iris Cherry of Leaskou Partners. Don’t expect walk-in closets. “For a single person or a couple, there’s enough closet space. One could take the closet in one bedroom, and one could use the other bedroom’s closet. For part-timers, the master bedroom closet is definitely enough.” She says her current listing from 1935 doesn’t feel cramped. Its large bedrooms, vast living room with fireplace, and cozy den are enhanced by an outdoor patio that feels like another room. “When you’re sitting on the porch and the fountain is on, it’s so relaxing,” Cherry says. “To me, this house has everything you need.”

Lyle’s new listing is one of the oldest in town: Suzanne Somers’ French estate, staggered on five levels of elevation. Construction began in the 1920s. The first owner’s contractor employed mules to haul up materials. Its 1,500 square feet have ballooned into 10,000. “They did a masterful job,” Lyle assures. “It took them a year just to get delivery of the windows because they were being made just for them.”

POPULARITY’S PRICE TAG

Even without a Spanish Colonial Week on our calendar, beautiful examples of Spanish architecture call out to second-home buyers and full-time residents alike. “When an early Spanish home comes on the market they go fast,” says Turold. “Especially when they are mindfully restored.” Depending on location, the list price can be upward of several million dollars. 

Cary Grant’s Movie Colony compound is a storybook Spanish Andalusian farmhouse designed by Spanish Colonial revivalist John Byers and completed in 1930. Last May it sold for $3,400,500. A Wallace Neff–designed estate built in 1933 was once a neglected Spanish Revival version of a Grey Gardens set. The recently refurbished 10-bedroom home designed for Arthur K. Bourne, heir to the Singer Corporation sewing machine fortune, is on the market for $3.2 million.

“One reason they’re expensive is that they’re on the choicest lots,” Lyle says. Location sells. “These were the first ones built. First-come, first-served.” Since he started selling homes in 1978, the old Spanish styles have been in great demand. “There are thousands of modern homes; there are only hundreds of vintage homes. They’re extremely rare. The ones that have original windows, tile, floors, and ceiling wood, those are even rarer.” Steady interest and slim inventory always drives up price. Lyle estimates there are less than 200 true old Spanish homes that haven’t been modified. “They’re some of the most sought after; they’re just beautiful. These were homes not about being perfect, but about being pretty and serene.”

Moe agrees buyers are unlikely to score a bargain. “We sold an old Spanish estate in the Movie Colony for about $2.2 million, then sold it again two years later close to $5 million. We sold another across the street a couple of years ago for just under $900,000, then resold it recently for almost $1 million more,” he says. “The closest going price range I can give is based on two old Spanish homes: one in the Movie Colony, another in Old Las Palmas. Offering similar square footage they sold in the same week after being on the market for less than a week for $1.8 and $2.5 million.” Several more modest homes from this architectural heyday were listed under $600,000 at press time.

THE FINE PRINT

Cherry says serious browsers realize some work is in order. “The quirkiness is the charm of the house. That’s what sets it apart from midcentury and other styles. If you’re looking for perfection in home inspection reports, this is certainly not the type of house for you.” She says she sold her current listing to the owner four years ago. The buyer has been lucky to skate by without any major issues — despite its spotty report. “She knew if something came up she would take care of it. You’re getting a lot when you buy a 1935 house,” Cherry says. “Forget the little things that are wrong. Those things are fixable.”

But even when you want to fix them, your new old home was built with bygone construction methods and levels of efficiency. Aside from its lack of dual-pane windows, you may encounter HVAC, roof, electrical, or plumbing nightmares. One of Lyle’s sellers recently installed air conditioning. Buyers couldn’t get past its absence. “These are funky houses. They represent a different era, a simpler time,” he says. They were built with thick walls, cool floors, lower ceilings, smaller rooms, and more overhangs. Their pitched tile roofs could survive a brutal summer with an evaporative cooler. “This was a community of winter homes back then. Very few people stayed year-round.”

Markovitz ensures his clients understand exactly what they’re buying. “Even beyond a home inspection,” says the successful realtor, “you need to investigate the plumbing quality and electrical work so you go in eyes wide open.”
Even then, Nelson notes, the challenge of remodeling a 1930s home is finding replacement parts that don’t ruin its integrity. “You also need a real estate professional who understands the architecture and history — one who can identify any upcoming homes for sale and be prepared. We all know that timing is everything.”

LAYING ON THE CHARM

Vintage charm is the unifying factor among these unassuming 1930s homes. Every agent has a spin on the properties’ magnetic pull.

“From a Realtor’s point of view, we like selling these homes because they are so desirable to our clientele. But from a personal point of view, no other architecture makes me feel more warm and at home,” says Moe. He has noticed that in modern homes, personal belongings such as pictures can detract from the architecture’s clean lines. In contrast, the same items in a 1930s home seem to make it all the more welcoming.

Cherry can’t help but affix a sameness to midcentury properties. “The bungalows are all different. They’re magical. I really feel that way,” she says. “There’s something about them. They’re inviting; they’re charming; they’re calming. They have this zen feeling when you’re in them. I remember when I walked into my current listing for the first time; I didn’t want to leave this house. It has such a good energy. When my seller is in town, she likes to sit on her backyard patio and read books. It’s so relaxing and stress-relieving.”

Markovitz believes those who respect the period should allow each charming specimen to be what it is, without trying to change it too much. “Their authenticity is what makes them special,” he says, “which carries over into the greater opinion of what makes Palm Springs special.”