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What a fab idea: Designating a prefab steel house

To paraphrase the old General Motors boss "Engine Charlie" Wilson: What's good for Palm Springs is good for the mid-century modern preservation movement, and vice versa.

And, while there are many civic-level designations in the small desert city that's big on modernism, in March the very first postwar structure made the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

It's about time, too, since renewed interest in the period has been around for at least a decade, with Palm Springs acting as the movement's Mecca; each February, thousands of aficionados descend upon the California city to enjoy Modernism Week's house tours, cocktail parties, seminars and film screenings. Carloads of architourists hit the west side of town to point digital cameras at the tiny visible sliver of Richard Neutra's famous 1946 Kaufmann Desert House, too, but more rewarding is the trek to the windy, northern fringe, where seven all-steel houses designed in 1961 by architects Donald Wexler and Ric Harrison sit, proud and largely unaltered.

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One, thanks to homeowner Brian McGuire, now prouder than the rest.

"I think that's why I had so little difficulty getting to the National Register designation, because the historic integrity of the house had been maintained," he says. Indeed, four years before he purchased the 1,400 sq. ft. home in 2005, previous owners had addressed deferred maintenance during a "very modest" restoration. Currently, six of the seven steel homes have been restored to near-original condition by sympathetic owners, with one "holdout": "I have several people on speed-dial," laughs the pharmaceutical consultant, "just ready to notify them when that house is on the market, but we're still waiting – there are some architects who are very interested."

The interest is not surprising. While the idea of a prefabricated, all-steel home was not new in 1961 – in the late-1940s the Lustron Corp. produced thousands – the Steel Development House Project was unique in other ways. Adapted to the harsh desert climate, these stylish vacation homes boasted floor-to-ceiling windows with multiple sliding doors to patios, different roof shapes (one had a zig-zaggy folded plate), flexible room configurations, and unadorned surfaces inside and out. Unlike conventional wood-frame, steel is impervious to rot, warping, termites and fire. It also dissipates heat after sunset, and, at the time, for the same cost as stick-built.

Finished components for the first three homes (completed in March 1962; the other four were built later) arrived via five truckloads from Los Angeles ready to be bolted together. Once concrete foundations were prepared with gas/water lines and embedded steel templates (where walls would slot in), the 9-by-36-foot central cores of each home – which included kitchen, two bathrooms, laundry room and central hallway – were lowered by crane. After walls went up, the light-gauge steel roofs were lowered in place; onsite assembly took just three days for each home. To achieve a custom look with the identical floor plans, carport and breezeway configurations were altered, as was orientation on each lot.

Even though it was one of the first three, the National Historic Site's 50-Year-Rule meant Mr. McGuire's home wasn't eligible when he first put pen to application in August, 2011. Another possible obstacle was the fact that architect Donald Wexler was (and still is) very much alive, and the federal government eschews granting historic status if it can be used for personal promotion (he's retired, so it wasn't an issue in the end). Although the seven homes were already protected at the city level via Class 1 Historic Site Status granted in 2001, the experience of battling developers in 2010 – trying to erect a low-rent condominium on a vacant lot directly behind the enclave – was enough to persuade Mr. McGuire to take on the challenge.

Because he didn't know the "buzzwords," the process took some "back-and-forth" with folks at the Office of Historic Preservation in Sacramento, Calif. He was, however, buoyed by their support: "They're very open about starting to include mid-century modern in their register, so they were very patient with me," he offers. It helped, too, that when the application was presented to the State Historic Resource Board in January, 2012, Mr. McGuire was in attendance and spoke briefly on how the steel homes were emblematic of their experimental and optimistic era. "It wasn't necessary, but I thought, might as well," he says with a chuckle. "I think they were impressed that someone would come from such a distance to represent a nomination."

They were also impressed at how different his application was from the "typical stuff" usually up for consideration: "There was a Victorian house in Redlands, an Art Deco theatre in Los Angeles, a turn-of-the-century hotel, and then mine was at the very end, and when [the officer]started projecting the pictures, everyone leaned forward in their seat because it was such a different look, a different narrative, and it was kind of a showstopper."

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While it may have stopped that show, the hope is that Mr. McGuire's success will inspire other Palm Springs building owners to go ahead with seeking federal protection. "People come out in February to see all this mid-century stuff [during Modernism Week]and then, when they've all gone home, [developers]start trying to tear it all down," he says.

"It's still a struggle – it would curdle your blood."

Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version incorrectly stated the date of the application presentation to the State Historic Resource Board. This online version has been corrected.

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About the Author

Dave LeBlanc was born in Toronto and wouldn't have it any other way. At age 8, he remembers jumping for joy when both the CN Tower opened and Toronto finally snatched Montreal's crown to become the biggest city in Canada; he's been an architecture lover and Toronto advocate ever since.He attended Ryerson for Radio-Television Arts and York University for English. More

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