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Larry Beasley's house, Villa Moda, in Palm Springs, Calif. Mr. Beasley, Vancouver’s former co-director of planning, bought the house in 2011.Courtesy Larry Beasley

A short three-hour flight from Vancouver, it’s possible to walk off the plane and glide into vacation mode within minutes – poolside, under the palm trees, surrounded by cactuses, citrus and olive trees, with desert mountains as a backdrop, and enveloped in the popular luxury design movement of the 1950s, a.k.a. Populuxe. It’s as if the past seven decades never happened.

The B.C. connection with Palm Springs, Calif., is a long-standing one, especially for those who took advantage of the plunge in real estate prices during the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009. But Palm Springs had gone through a depressed time before the downturn, and the survival of its large stock of one-level mid-century modern houses was largely a matter of disregard rather than any kind of preservation policy, says Vancouver’s former co-director of planning Larry Beasley, who’s owned a mid-century modern home here since 2011.

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Courtesy Larry Beasley

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Mr. Beasley's house was built in 1957, and has now been fully restored.Courtesy Larry Beasley

His home was one of those featured in the annual Modernism Week festival this year. The four-bedroom house was built in 1957 and designed by Albert Belden Crist, who had been designing homes in Hollywood before moving to Palm Springs during the Second World War. Mr. Crist’s designs include an addition to Elvis Presley’s famous Palm Springs home, which sold for US$5.65-million a couple of years ago. The house had doubled in price since it was sold in 2020, which tells you something of the relatively recent demand for the mid-century modern gems that had fallen out of fashion as Americans opted for massive suburban mansions instead.

Canadian buyers have played a crucial role in their revival. Billionaire Jim Pattison was one of the first to buy in when he purchased Frank Sinatra’s long-time home in nearby Rancho Mirage in 1995. The Canadian connection has picked up, buoyed by prices that are relatively affordable compared to B.C. real estate.

“The year we bought our house, our real estate agent told us that 50 per cent of the houses in Palm Springs had been bought by Canadians,” says Mr. Beasley, who divides his time between Palm Springs and Vancouver when he’s not flying around the world. “Our house used to be called the ugly duckling on the block. It was overrun with trees and junk and falling apart.

“Modernism was just being rediscovered. Now, I’m not saying we were among the vanguard or anything. It had been discovered, say, five years prior. But average people had not really discovered it. And so, in our neighbourhood, there were a lot of rundown houses. It was not like you see it now. Nowadays we walk around and it’s hard to find a house that hasn’t been restored.”

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Kerry Gold/The Globe and Mail

These houses, many of them modest but innovative tract homes, have undergone full restorations because there is a market that appreciates them as works of art, says Vancouver realtor Trent Rodney, who took his cues from the Palm Springs modernism revival when he launched his West Coast Modern real estate company locally. Unlike Metro Vancouver, where hundreds of character houses are demolished each year to make way for big houses with walk-in closets and two-sink bathrooms, the houses of Palm Springs are preserved precisely because they harken back to an earlier age. As a result, street after street, neighbourhood after neighbourhood, is filled with one-level ranchers with cactuses gardens, painted breeze-block privacy walls and a front door painted baby blue, orange, pink or chartreuse.

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Kerry Gold/The Globe and Mail

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Restored homes in Palm Springs, Calif.Kerry Gold/The Globe and Mail

“I model our operation on Palm Springs’ success,” says Mr. Rodney. “I see them as 15 years ahead of us. I spent lots of time exploring there in person and researching.”

However, the branding between the desert-escape modernist movement and the west coast movement of the fifties and sixties is different, he says. Palm Springs was the escape for movie stars who wanted glamour and decadence. The modernism of Vancouver is an ode to exposed wood and serenity, with trees, creeks, ocean and waterfalls. A big part of Mr. Rodney’s job is educating the public on the importance of an iconic Barry Downs house, for example. Mr. Downs, who died two years ago at the age of 92, had received the Order of Canada in 2015 for his civic contributions, such as Library Square and Canada Place. Mr. Rodney just listed Mr. Downs’s own home, a spectacular 1,464-square-foot, two-bedroom property at 6664 Marine Dr., perched on a cliff in West Vancouver, for $4.6-million. Many mid-century modern homes on the north shore have been lost to demolition, purchased by buyers who only saw lot value. The homes are typically small compared to today’s standards. That smallness doesn’t seem to matter to the homeowners in Palm Springs. The town is a sea of one-level homes that are the result of old local building restrictions that didn’t allow anything higher than a one-level plan. Those regulations spawned the iconic Richard Neutra Kaufmann Desert House, considered a mid-century modern masterpiece.

Mr. Rodney says it’s been “an uphill battle,” but slowly the Vancouver region is acquiring a market that understands the intrinsic value of the homes built in that era. He’s found enough buyers who understand the importance of designs by Barry Downs, Arthur Erickson, Ron Thom, Fred Hollingsworth, Bob Lewis, Ned Pratt and B.C. Binning to command top dollar for the house itself, not just the land. Whether they designed innovative tract housing or ultraluxury homes hanging over cliff tops, the buyers are restoring them with modern mechanical updates but maintaining the designs. He recently sold an early James K.M. Cheng home and the owners immediately spent $1-million on updates, because they understood the value of the house itself.

“People are acquiring real estate holdings the way you acquire works of art,” Mr. Rodney says.

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A restored home in Palm Springs, Calif.Kerry Gold/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver heritage consultant and architect Donald Luxton attended the Palm Springs Modernism Week this year and he said there are some legal protections of significant homes and commercial buildings, both by the city and the national register. But the incentives go beyond the tax credits that are on offer for preserving the buildings.

“Many of them are viable because the prestige value ensures significant buildings are rarely torn down,” says Mr. Luxton. “They have high market value because people understand the value of the architecture. Buildings by famous architects for famous people are worth a lot of money. … So, it’s really a network that has grown over time – committed owners, effective advocates, preservation tax incentives, political support and a real estate market that trades on prestige. It’s a winning combination.”

Mr. Beasley said another factor has been the involvement of the gay community, which early on was active in restoring and preserving the homes. Ron Willison, who’s lived in Palm Springs for 40 years and works in group sales and events for property management company Natural Retreats, concurs that the gay community, looking to get away from discrimination, had a major impact on the preservation of the homes.

“The cities really had no impact on preserving the properties,” he said.

A big part of the appeal for Canadians is that they can own a home in Palm Springs and rent it out when they aren’t there. That made it possible for Mr. Beasley to maintain a home there. Even Sinatra’s first house in the movie colony neighbourhood is available for rent.

Real estate developer Olga Ilich, former MLA and the founder of Suncor Developments, has owned a home in Palm Desert since 2016, in a gated community. She doesn’t rent her place out, but she considers it a sound investment and a convenient escape. Before that, she was renting places in Palm Springs, but she discovered that it’s cheaper to own. Also, because she thinks like a person who works in real estate, she might pay taxes, homeowners association fees, and other costs on the property, but when she sells, she knows she will get a return on her purchase.

“We hang out with other Canadians down there,” says Ms. Ilich. “People who go down there, they will say, ‘are you going to be in the desert?’ We get together, and down there they are more relaxed. I came home a month ago, and I will go down again next month.

“A lot of people buy a bunch of flights, maybe starting in October and November, and plan that whole time out and they go back and forth.”

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