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Flipping Krisels: Historic Preservation for Fun and Profit

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"If you like it so much, why don't you buy it?" This rhetorical question is often tossed off with sarcasm by a certain class of property owners. These owners are typically individuals who own a significant historic resource and discover their plans to demolish or "remuddle" the property place them at odds with government restrictions. Unfamiliar with, or unsympathetic to, the public benefits associated with historic preservation, such owners reveal a profound lack of understanding of the value and benefits of preservation for property owners as well as for the larger community.

Historic preservation emerged as an important land-use movement in the 1960s - growing out of the demolition of New York's Pennsylvania Station. Since that time, emphasis has shifted from a site-specific, limited application and toward a broad-based popular movement with wide community support. Yet the financing of preservation projects is still borne primarily by private investors -- individuals wise enough to see how an investment in integrity can also turn a profit.

Twin Palms Estates Development - Model A2 Residence at 992 East LaJolla Drive (1957, Palmer & Krisel) | Photo: Hank Connell.

In Palm Springs, the rehabilitation and resale of historic properties is accelerating; the town's reputation as the epicenter of all things modern is expanding worldwide. An oft-repeated story has the casual first-time visitor becoming so smitten with the town's beauty and architecture that he buys a midcentury home on his way out of town, and eventually returns to live full time in Palm Springs. The financial benefits to the town are immeasurable: While some buyers are attracted to "original" unaltered buildings from the 1950s, others are drawn to impeccably restored versions that are move-in ready. The beautifully restored home pictured above is a perfect example of the latter. A virtual cottage industry of home restorers has emerged in Palm Springs in recent years, comprised of individuals who understand the local building stock and know how to treat it appropriately. One recent restoration team combined the skills of local residents Chris Menrad and J.R. Roberts.

Friends for years and sometimes business partners, Menrad and Roberts each have extensive experience in the preservation world. Both are officers in the Palm Springs Modern Committee (PSModCom), a nonprofit that advocates for preservation and appropriate treatment of modern architecture. Additionally, each owns and resides in a designated Class 1 Historic Site in Palm Springs: Menrad's home is a classic Twin Palms design by Palmer & Krisel while Roberts' is an early project of local master architect E. Stewart Williams. Menrad, a former stockbroker, now works as a realtor, while Roberts' background is in architecture and design. As preservationist developers, they put their money where their mouths were with the purchase and impeccable restoration of the house at 992 East LaJolla Road.

Their project was located in the first residential subdivision built by the Alexander Construction Company in Palm Springs. The three-phase, 90-home tract was constructed between 1957 and 1958. Situated in the south end of the city, the homes were both elegant and efficient. When built, these homes were priced at around $30,000. Each home came with two palm trees in the front yard, and the trees gave the subdivision its name. "To mitigate the appearance of similar or identical elevations, the architects designed alternate rooflines including flat, butterfly (short and long) and gabled. Despite the use of identical floor plans -- variations included plans that were flipped and/or rotated 90-degrees to ensure that no two identical configurations were located close to one another. While a wide spectrum of exterior materials were used -- concrete block, stone, stucco, conwood panels and wood board and batten siding -- the result was a custom look for each of the homes. The project garnered national attention for both the architects and the Alexanders."1

Menrad, Krisel, an unidentified Boston terrier, and Roberts observe the construction. | Photo: Patricia Peterson.

To assure the authenticity of their project, they utilized original plans available through the William Krisel Archive at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Krisel consulted on the project "...pro bono just because he is excited about what we're doing," Roberts says. "He wants to see his work shown in the best possible light."2 Walnut cabinetry was created anew from Krisel's original plans; so too was the landscape. The home was repainted in the original color scheme based upon archival information. The original signature stonework, built by second-generation Italian master stone mason John Gallerano, survived intact and needed no refurbishment. Guided by the Secretary of the Interiors Standards for the Rehabilitation of Historic Properties, the team correctly rehabilitated the home while protecting the original architecture and materials. By virtue of its rehabilitation, the house continues to contribute to Palm Springs' architectural heritage.

Left: Restored Living Room. Right: Reconstructed Walnut Bathroom Cabinetry | Photos: Hank Connell.

The completed project was then successfully marketed to a couple, both software executives, whose San Diego home is also an historic property. The new owners have commissioned a study to pursue designation of the home as a local Class 1 Site. If approved by the local preservation board, the owners will then be eligible for a reduction in their property taxes through California's Mills Act. To qualify for both designation and tax credits, a building must reflect a high degree of architectural integrity, and for this building, that won't be a problem.

Perfectly restored midcentury houses have proven to hold their value extremely well and are considered a good investment. But it should be noted that not every homeowner has an appreciation for a perfectly restored midcentury home. In fact, there exists in Palm Springs a number of midcentury homes upon which an owner has grafted his own personal aesthetic, as demonstrated by the following examples.

In this example, the good news is the house is a largely intact Alexander. Can't help wondering if it was 'enhanced' by the addition of statuary and pottery? | Photo: Patrick McGrew.

This classic Krisel 'Butterfly' house was extensively refurbished. The original carport was filled-in and a garage was added. Class 1 Historic Site designation was turned down by the Preservation Board due to the structure's loss of architectural integrity. | Photo: Patrick McGrew.

Another alteration and addition to a Krisel 'Butterfly' house. Unsympathetic additions eviscerate the integrity of original designs. | Photo: Patrick McGrew.

Barely visible beneath this 'Mayan' remodel is an original Krisel Butterfly roof home. While sympathetic alterations and additions may add value to a midcentury modern house, efforts like this one completely obliterate the original style and negatively impact value. This house sold in 2011 for less than two-thirds of the price of the LaJolla restoration. | Photo: Patrick McGrew.

As "the countess" on "The Real Housewives of New York" has been known to say (and sing), "Money can't buy you class." But it can buy the services of a preservation architect or historic preservation consultant who understands what makes an original design valuable. The desire of a new owner to adapt classic architecture to suit personal needs can be accommodated within the context of a preservation program. The goals need not be mutually exclusive, and the cost is not prohibitive. The requirement for financial and personal success in such endeavors simply involves the utilization of skills and expertise readily available in today's marketplace.

Notes:

1 Harlan, James, The Alexanders, a Desert Legacy. Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, Palm Springs: 2011

2 Kleinschmidt, Janice. "Replaying the Classics: Owners and Architects Restore Modern Houses With State-Of-The-Art Amenities." Palm Springs Life, February 2012.

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Top Image: Twin Palms Estates Development - Model A2 Residence (1957, Palmer & Krisel) | Photo: William Krisel, Architect, Getty Archive.

About the Author

Architect, author, architectural historian and photographer, Patrick McGrew received his Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1965. He has been actively engaged in the architectural profession, specia...
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