Back to some Architecture: Palmer/Krisel Butterfly Houses


William Krisel came onto the Mid Century Modern scene as an architect fairly late in the game. guys like Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra were garnering a lot of the attention in the 50's, when Bill Krisel came to Palm Springs as a recent USC grad.

Krisel retired as a practicing architect 20 years ago. But he notes that he was "just a bit surprised" to be asked again recently to create plans for the little butterfly-roofed, post-and-beam structure that became a kind of signature Palm Springs residence half a century ago. In fact, if a developer follows through, a whole new colony of reproduction Krisels could rise in the desert. See Here.

Working with the Alexander Construction company in the 1950s, Krisel saw 2,500 of his tract houses built in Palm Springs, nearly doubling the size of that city. Whole neighborhoods of his original homes still exist, as if in a time warp.

Wide, curving streets front gardens behind which Krisel carefully angled the houses in varying positions on their 100-foot-square lots. He alternated styles of roofs, so that each house looked different from its neighbor. A casual observer still might take these streets for charming communities of custom-built homes, but all were mass-produced and have the same floor plans, Krisel says.

He helped to break the mold for affordable housing not only in Palm Springs, but also in the west San Fernando Valley in the 1950s.

"Before that, affordable tract houses were tacky, low-ceiling cracker boxes with holes poked out for windows," he says.

Over the years, his legacy seems to be the butterfly roof, an engaging and revolutionary design for the time, where the roof line is inverted to be lower in the middle, rather than higher. This does a couple of things. From an exterior standpoint, this look was very different from what had been the norm up til then: either flat toppers, or the more traditional peaked-middle roof. For newer times, the design lends itself well to water collection and conservation, as the water from the entire roof can be collected via one spout, and then used for irrigation, or other gray-water recycling as that becomes more popular and affordable. From an interior standpoint, the roof line lends itself to more dramatic interior spaces in the center of the house, and more possibilities for light at the outer edges of the floor plan, where bedrooms were typically located.

The construction technique for this type of roof lends itself well to hollowed out, open floor spaces in the public areas of the home. And that is a concept that was revolutionary at the time, and still very sought after now. Designing for southern California, Krisel was able to blend outdoor and indoor spaces, letting the open floor plan of the public spaces flow out to courtyards, gardens and pools.

With updated construction materials and techniques, the butterfly roof is a practical and easy way to differentiate a home design. And even here in the Mountain West, home buyers name the blending of outdoor and indoor spaces as being very important in their decision to buy a home. Done correctly, they don't leak, and as I mentioned, water collection is very easy, as people begin to turn to more "green" building designs and methods for their homes.

As a design concept, Alexander Construction wasn't sure of the appeal, and only gave Krisel a few lots to build his homes on, as a test. Obviously, his designs were readily accepted, and he went on to be an iconic figure in modern architecture, though not with the name cachet of the Schindlers and the Neutras.

What Bill Krisel did was bring modernism to the masses. Before him, only the wealthy could build modern homes, commissioning well-known architects and the costly materials they used. Krisel packed excellent architecture into houses of modest size, made of modest materials, and he did it on a very thin dime.

Not only were his test houses accepted, but they sold faster, and made more profit for the construction company. They sold for $20,000 then, and today, you can buy one of the originals in Palm Springs for about $900,000 on a 100 x 100 suburban lot. Or you can buy plans and have one built, with 21st century amenities. From an appraised value standpoint, comparing apples to apples, that new-construction home would also cost you about the same - $900,000 to $950,000.

Here in Utah, you could build this style of home, even using original plans purchased from Krisel, for a lot less. Of course, one of the complaints about houses from the 50's, and consequently, of house designs from the 50's, is the lack of storage space. With a new-construction project, this would be easy to alleviate.

I like the Butterfly Houses. Wanna build one? I know somebody who could help you do that....

Just sayin....

More Pictures: San Lorenzo Rd, Palm Springs .


Loralee Choate said...

I'm torn on the butterfly house. I LOVE the roof, but the bottom half of the structure depresses me a little. It's a little too "Solid" for my taste.

I'd probably have to see it in person and walk around it before passing judgment, though.

That One Guy said...

Yeah, the originals from the 50's were pretty "hard"... but they can also be quite glassy as well. Mostly, the focus was out the back, as opposed to the front, so curb appeal wasn't huge by today's standards. Ones designed today would be much more open and naturally lighted, with both low and high glass.

Anonymous said...

I am the part of the company that has the license the plans from Bill Krisel and work together with him for 0ver a year to update the palns while retaining the original architecture. This was not easy to do and to correct the author there are no plans available for sale. We build the homes for clients. It anyone has any interest they can go to our website www.maxxlivingstone.com

Reach Upward said...

How well would butterfly roofs handle winters with heavy snow? We don't always have those kinds of winters, but several homes in my area had carports cave in this year. One woman died when her carport went down.

As far as storage space, I suppose that most of the Krisel homes in CA have no basement. You could build one with a basement in UT, thus providing a lot more storage space.

That One Guy said...

Anon Livingstone: It's been a long time since I read your site, but it was my impression that I could get one of these original designs on my lot. If that's not the case, thanks for the clarification.

Reach: Post and Beam construction, as this is, is conducive to load bearing situations. Here, we would suggest an ice-melt system in the middle, which would prevent the ice-dam build-up. From there, you're good to go.