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Restoring a neglected tract home to Midcentury glory in Palm Springs

As fans of midcentury modern design, Keith Zabel and husband Randy Shemaitis were drawn to Palm Springs and its wealth of Modernist architecture.

“My passion for midcentury modern started in my 20s,” explains Zabel, 45. “I was drawn to the Atomic and Sputnik style that came about after World War II as the Soviets launched their first satellite in 1957, kicking off the space race. A lot of design efforts, from furniture to buildings to tchotchkes, were created with a space theme. I started collecting anything that had a starburst or orbital design.”   

Based in Chicago, the couple vacationed regularly in the desert until 2011, when Shemaitis had an opportunity to move West for work.

“We joked that we should move to Palm Springs so we can vacation somewhere else,” says Shemaitis with a laugh.

In their search for a Modernist home, the couple struck out bidding on short sales and foreclosures, so they revisited their fourth choice — a 1960 tract home built by developer Jack Meiselman in the Sunmor neighborhood. 

“It was an ugly duckling that sat on the market for a long time,” says Zabel.

The 1,350-square-foot, three-bedroom house featured ceramic tile and dated kitchen and bathrooms. “And cockroaches” and shag carpeting soaked with dog urine, adds Zabel. Because the house was not designed for year-round living, the house had little insulation, which left the interiors uncomfortably hot.  

But it was also located on a large lot on a quiet street with other Meiselman homes and offered breathtaking views of the San Jacinto Mountains.

When the home’s price dropped to $325,000, they decided to buy it and create their own Modernist dream home. 

From the start, they knew they wanted to maintain the home’s post-and-beam construction and tongue-and-groove ceilings while brightening and expanding the interior living spaces.

“We wanted to try and find a balance between representing the period while creating something more clean,” says Zabel, who documented the renovation process online.

To achieve this balance, the couple moved into the home’s 250-square-foot casita and oversaw the remodeling process, doing some of the demolition and work themselves.   

They took the house down to the studs, removed the drywall and added insulation, a foam roof and Low-E glass windows and sliders to comply with California energy standards. They also installed new electrical and plumbing, as well as rooftop solar panels.

Although enamored of Meiselman homes, the couple admits the original floor plans are not ideal. “We wanted to update the bathrooms and kitchen to be more modern and less midcentury,”  Zabel says. So they demolished the narrow galley kitchen themselves and installed new walnut kitchen cabinets with pegboard panels (a detail they borrowed from Alexander homes), white Porcelanosa tile and a convenient kitchen bar counter.

They reconfigured the floor plan by moving the side-by-side bedrooms and adding 450-square feet to create a new master bedroom and bath.

Out went the ceramic tile, which Shemaitis, 56, removed, and in went elegant white 24-by-24-inch terrazzo tile. They painted much of the interiors ultra white to make their colorful furnishings pop and added clerestory windows to bring in more light. The white walls also provided a blank canvas for their art collection. Exceptions include a living room wall, painted light gray, and a pale blue dining room wall that sets off a series of vintage silk screens of birds by Charley Harper.

Outdoors, they kept the original pool and added an outdoor shower, which they use regularly. They also installed a circular water feature inspired by a fire pit they spotted in the lobby of the Parker Hotel.

“Who needs Pinterest?” says Zabel. “We just drive around Palm Springs for inspiration.”

To make the front of the house more welcoming, the couple added concrete pavers, a decorative wood screen and drought-tolerant plants, including two palo verde trees they bought at Home Depot for $30 apiece.They also added a diamond block wall from Orco to add privacy for the pool and backyard.

In the most dramatic change, the couple disassembled the home’s original curving block screen and reassembled it to frame the front door, which they painted “poolside blue.”

Now that they are done, the couple have opened their home for two Meiselman tours to benefit the Palm Springs Animal Shelter and will open their home on Feb. 19 and 20 as part of Modernism Week.

As Midwesterners, they have fully embraced the West. And at a time when many people are buying homes in Palm Springs to rent as vacation homes, the couple plans to stay year-round.

Adds Zabel: “I’d much rather take a Palm Springs summer than a Chicago winter.”  

 

What: “Restoring or Renovating Your Midcentury Modern Home” seminar and tour

When: Feb. 19 and 20. Seminar runs from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Self-guided tour times: noon, 12:30, 1, 1:30, 2 and 2:30 p.m.

Where: Addresses and directions provided following the seminar. For tour only, addresses will be emailed to ticket buyers in advance.

Cost: Seminar or tour only, $30; both, $50. 

Info: modernismweek.com/event/249713/

lisa.boone@latimes.com

Twitter: @lisaboone19 

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