The Stephens House: a model of modernist design in Palm Springs

Palm Springs Modernism Week is all about mid-century design and no where is that better illustrated than in the architecture of homes and businesses found throughout the city. The Stephens House is just such a jewel but it is not readily seen by casual passersby. It is hidden on the front side of the house with massive landscaping and hidden from the back by a silent wall. The only telling features from the street that anything exists behind that small desert forest is a mailbox and a modest, winding sidewalk leading up to the home.

The backyard of the Stephens House opens up to an oasis.

The backyard is where the sky opens up and reveals evidence of human inhabitants. A gorgeous pool and hot tub, a large, expansive patio, and manicured, green grass all point the way to the home at the property’s center. It is a home designed in 1949 by the famous Palm Springs modernist architects, John Clark and Albert Frey. The home was built in 1951 and is considered iconic modernist design because of its flat roof, large glass windows, and the mixture of glass and concrete block. It is situated and covered by eaves such that it is warmed by the winter sun and shaded from the summer sun. This particular home was featured in the September 1955 issue of House Beautiful as an introduction to the idea of a “family room” to post-war America.

The notion of a family room was introduced with this house.

As much as I appreciate the angles and form of such a home, I realized in walking through it that I could never live there. The exposed, painted masonry blocks within the home reminded me too much of military barracks–very stark and utilitarian. The paint around the frameless windows can’t help but chip as the weather seeps in through unseen cracks and works its destructive magic. And hanging anything on the wall is not only permanent, it becomes a job for a masonry expert since everything must go through the brick. Perhaps with the original carpet I might have warmed up to it, but I doubt it.

Large windows look out on a massive ficus tree.
The wood-paneled walls and the built-in clock created a warmth that was harder to find in other rooms clad only by masonry bricks.
Small block windows dotted the walls inside and out, bringing in light, enough for a small plant to be grown indoors in the floor. I'm not sure if that is part of the original design to the home since all the original flooring has been replaced.
A picture of happy lady bugs danced merrily in a framed alcove along the hallway wall.

For me, the warmth of the home was best felt outdoors, wandering under the massive ficus tree, which the experts on site agreed must have been planted in 1951 when the home was first built. It is a wonder that the winter frosts, even in the desert, did not kill it off. Happily, however, it has grown so large that its canopy covers one half of the backyard. The other half meanders back over an expanse of inviting grass, past the pool and its made-for-cocktail-party patio. Tucked beyond the pool, trailing smaller and smaller through the foliage on a grassy (and sometimes mossy) path, is what seemed like a magical forest. A table and chairs sit behind a giant palm tree, under the countenance of citrus trees. A sitting buddha reminds all who enter this triangular nook to respect the space with quiet joy and appreciation.

A ficus with stories to tell.
Looking toward the pool and mountains from the ficus tree.
A small brook hops through the brush and trees. No one seemed to know where it started or where it drifted off to.
A secret nook hidden behind and under large palm and citrus trees.
A path that sparks the imagination and leads to another part of the backyard.

How thankful I am to the Palm Springs Preservation Society and to the current owners of this home for making it available to the participants of Modernism Week. Even though I could never live there myself, I can appreciate its place in Modernist history and feel the fond memories of the first family that lived there in the walls and under that ficus.

Below is a slideshow with all the images taken on today’s tour, including some of the buildings encountered along our walk to and from the Stephens House.

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