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In Palm Springs, a record $9-million sale showcases the Midcentury craze

In Palm Springs, a record $9-million sale showcases the Midcentury craze
Originally built by Buff and Hensman, the estate recently traded hands for $9 million – the second priciest home sale in Palm Springs history. (Roger Davies)

A great migration is underway in Palm Springs. More than 100,000 people are flocking to the desert city Feb. 14-24 for a celebration and exploration of all things Midcentury Modern.

It’s called Modernism Week, and it has helped drive renewed interest in the chic style from the middle of the last century.

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What began as a weekend with a few hundred attendees in 2006 has grown into an 11-day experience that drew 126,000 people and generated $47.25 million in revenue for local businesses last year. But they’re not the only ones feeling the festival love; Midcentury homes across the city are shattering price records.

The latest record-breaker came in Old Las Palmas, where a Midcentury post-and-beam originally built for actor Laurence Harvey recently traded hands for $9 million. It’s the most expensive home ever sold in the historic neighborhood and the second-priciest in Palm Springs history — behind only Bob Hope’s Modernist home that sold for $13 million three years ago.

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“It’s a perfect storm,” said listing agent Keith Markovitz of TTK Represents at HK Lane, an office of Christie’s International Real Estate. “Everyone wants to be in Old Las Palmas and live in a Midcentury Modern.”

Designed by Buff & Hensman in 1969 and recently renovated by Marmol Radziner, the stylish home sits on a 1.5-acre lot, which is unusually large for the area. Clean lines, stone finishes and walls of glass fill out the one-story floor plan.

The renovations added desert-colored terrazzo floors both inside and out, blurring lines between spaces and helping the home blend in with the region around it. In addition, the floor plan was simplified, swapping a four-bedroom layout for two spacious master suites.

“When somebody spends the money and hires the right design firm, there’s always someone who sees the value in what’s presented,” Markovitz said.

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At $9 million, the dwelling sets an entirely new standard for what a Midcentury home can fetch in Palm Springs. The rise of Modernism Week has corresponded with price records in previous years.

The record once belonged to the Elrod House, which sold for $5.5 million in 2003. Designed by John Lautner, the dramatic compound is anchored by a circular living room topped by massive concrete triangles and clerestory skylights.

Then, entrepreneur and designer Marc Ware set a new benchmark in 2016 when he paid $5.75 million for an airy abode surrounded by nine infinity-edge swimming pools. The Elrod home reclaimed the record a few months after, selling to fashion designer Jeremy Scott for $7.7 million, before the Hope house closed for $13 million at the end of the year.

“There’s always an uptick in sales activity during Modernism Week,” said Gary Johns of the Paul Kaplan Group. “The interest in architecture translates to sales.”

Johns, who has sat on Modernism Week’s board of directors for eight years, helps plan and lead the festival’s popular bus tours. Over the course of the week, 84 double-decker buses wind through Palm Springs, stopping by the city’s most architecturally significant and eye-catching homes.

Names of Old Hollywood celebrities and high-profile architects are tossed around throughout the tour, reminding newcomers of the history. Elvis Presley. Frank Sinatra. Dinah Shore. Richard Neutra. Albert Frey.

One such stop is at Steel House No. 2. Built as an experiment in affordable housing, the glass-and-steel estate was part of a 37-home project in the ‘60s. Only seven were constructed, and Johns sold No. 2 last year for $780,000 — a record for the rare collection.

“Just turn on network television commercials to see Midcentury’s current appeal,” Johns said. “You’ll see a family sitting around in Eames dining chairs. No one’s sitting in a colonial rocker selling me Excedrin.”

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With direct flights from New York to Palm Springs, Johns said that many of his recent clients are coming from the East Coast — people familiar with Cape Cod and clapboard homes full of French doors. The indoor-outdoor lifestyle, complete with sliding glass doors and sleek terrazzo floors, is a breath of fresh air.

John Nelson, a Compass agent, said a new generation is spurring the recent string of sales. Aided by nearby music festivals such as Coachella and Stagecoach, millennials with money are finding out that the valley isn’t strictly for grandparents.

“For people in their 30s and 40s, Midcentury style is new to them,” Nelson said. “Things are kooky and strange. The style isn’t as conforming as it used to be.”

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