How Jewish architect William Krisel built a desert oasis
Thousands of residential and commercial buildings designed by modernist architect William Krisel can be found throughout Southern California. His postwar housing developments, cooperative apartment complexes and resorts stretch from the San Fernando Valley to Orange County to the Coachella Valley.
Among the buildings Krisel designed over the course of his 60-year career are Hebrew Union College at USC (1969), Camp Hess Kramer (1967), Camp Ramah (1969) and Beth Israel School in San Diego (1960). He also worked with prominent Los Angeles architect Welton Becket on the 1955 Mount Sinai Hospital on Beverly Boulevard, now Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, which was damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake and subsequently demolished.
Krisel built, by his own estimate, 40,000 individual housing units, including 2,500 tract homes in Palm Springs alone. His signature style includes post-and-beam construction, open floor plans in which the living room, dining room and kitchen flow together, large glass windows, vaulted ceilings and butterfly roofs.
During Modernism Week in Palm Springs, continuing through Feb. 21, fans of midcentury architecture are paying tribute to this prolific man, including the dedication of a street named in his honor, “William Krisel Way,” a fitting recognition of his work introducing “desert modernism” to Palm Springs. Krisel, now 91, planned to participate in the events.
The festival also includes a launch event for an illustrated 224-page book, “William Krisel’s Palm Springs: The Language of Modernism,” recently published by Gibbs Smith. The book is the first major monograph chronicling Krisel’s work and architectural philosophy. It includes architectural drawings, renderings and photographs, with essays that draw heavily from his personal papers as well as the extensive archives of the Getty Research Institute. The book is edited by Heidi Creighton, a midcentury modern enthusiast who, in 2012, purchased a 1957 Palm Springs home designed by Krisel, and by Chris Menrad, a real estate agent and founding board member of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, who also lives in a Krisel-designed home.
Krisel was born in Shanghai in 1924 to a wealthy Jewish family. His father, Alexander Krisel, handled regional distribution for major movie studios, and such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin were all guests of the Krisels in Shanghai. He moved with his parents to Beverly Hills in 1937, designed his own architectural course while attending Beverly Hills High School and went on to USC. His studies were interrupted by World War II, during which he served in China as a military interpreter. After his service, he returned to USC, graduating with honors in 1949.
Before and after the war, Krisel worked part time for modern architects Paul László and Victor Gruen, both Jewish émigrés. Assisting them in the design of homes and retail spaces gave him practical knowledge and inspiration that proved valuable when he founded his own architectural firm.
“I learned how an architect runs his office, his relationship to his employees and how to deal with diverse clients,” Krisel said in an interview with the Journal. “Prior to that I was only a student. By working for Paul and Victor, I was exposed to the real world of being an architect.”
While working for Gruen, Krisel also met Dan Saxon Palmer, with whom he would form a long-lasting partnership in 1949. Palmer was born Dan Weissinger in Hungary in 1920 (one of his sons, Geoffrey Palmer, is a prolific Los Angeles developer). During the mid- to late 1950s, Krisel and Palmer won national awards for their designs. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, architectural historian Esther McCoy described how the firm “has helped give distinction to the tract house.”
Krisel also became known for taking interest in the smallest details of his homes, including interior design, built-in furniture, paint colors, cupboard handle designs, light switch placement and more. A licensed landscape architect, Krisel also paid close attention to a building’s relationship with its environment.
“My philosophy was that the architect was in total control and therefore was responsible for the design and decisions that go into completing a project,” Krisel said. “No detail is too small for sincere consideration.”
Early in their careers, Krisel and Palmer began working with developers George Alexander and his son Robert, owners of the Alexander Construction Company. Their first modern tract together was the Corbin Palms neighborhood in Woodland Hills, built from 1953 toa 1955, originally with 287 homes. Before long, large communities of Krisel-designed homes were built in San Diego, Las Vegas, Florida, Texas and Arizona.
“They took on one of the great problems of modernism, which was to create good, decent contemporary housing that was affordable for the masses,” postwar architectural historian Alan Hess told the Times. “Palmer and Krisel did it, and on a large scale and keeping the inherent qualities of modernism. … Other architects would not deal with the realities of budgets, materials, clients’ demands, the financing that was required in the nitty-gritty of real-world housing development.”
Creighton said Krisel found inspiration in the budget limitations that the Alexanders imposed on the Palm Springs homes.
“He had quite a remarkable relationship with the Alexander family and the construction company, and they really trusted him, and there were a lot of restrictions, particularly with the tract homes,” Creighton said. “And the greater the restrictions — time-wise, material-wise — the more creative he became, the more inventive he became. The more complex the problem was to solve, the more excited he was.”
The Alexanders tapped Krisel’s firm to design Ocotillo Lodge in Palm Springs in 1955. It became a favorite desert hangout for Hollywood stars and was once owned by Gene Autry. It features a curved central structure, panoramic views of the mountains and a keyhole-shaped swimming pool. They also designed the Alexander Estate in 1960, originally dubbed “The House of Tomorrow,” which became Elvis Presley’s honeymoon hideaway. The house consists of three stories in four concentric circles and no square rooms. Krisel and Palmer went on to build more than 2,500 homes in Palm Springs. The homes were rediscovered by midcentury modern fans in the 1990s, during a resurgence of interest in midcentury architecture.
Krisel’s partnership with Palmer dissolved in 1966. Krisel established a solo practice, and then in 1969 formed a new partnership with Israeli architect Abraham Shapiro. They shifted their focus to high-rise commercial and residential design and construction. Their projects include the Ocean Avenue Towers in Santa Monica and Coronado Shores in San Diego.
From 1980 onward, Krisel acted as a consultant for housing and forensic architecture. He’s become active in restoring many of his homes and the landscapes around them.
The role of the architect has changed since Krisel began practicing more than six decades ago, Creighton said.
“He feels like the architect has been relegated to just another small work role. They don’t have a signature to the place. They’re part of the process but they don’t control the show,” she said. “And I think he would not be happy under those conditions today.”
A list of events related to William Krisel at Modernism Week in Palm Springs, which continues through Feb. 21, is available at modernismweek.com.
This article was made possible with support from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.