A-frame roofs form Charles DuBois’ Swiss Miss houses in Palm Springs

By Eleanor Gibson

As we near the end of our series celebrating Palm Springs’ mid-century architecture, coinciding with the city’s Modernism Week, here’s a look at the chalet-esque houses that Charles DuBois designed to stand out from their neighbours.

The Swiss Miss Houses were built in the Vista Las Palmas neighbourhood of Palm Springs, which was undergoing development in the 1950s by builder Joe Dunas and the Alexander Construction Company – the local firm also behind Donald Wexler’s prefabricated homes.

Modernist American architect William Krisel had completed a number of homes in the area with his famed “butterfly” roof, and flat roofs that had become typical to designs in Palm Springs during the mid-20th century. But when Dunas tasked Krisel to design homes that could be distinguished from this trend, he apparently rejected the offer.

The builder then turned to architect Charles DuBois, one of modernist architecture’s lesser-known figures.

Swiss Miss Houses by Charles DuBois
Photograph by Dan Chavkin

Fulfilling the developer’s wish, DuBois designed his collection of Swiss Miss Houses as low-lying, one-storey residences sliced by dramatic A-frame roofs that rise straight from the ground.

The pitched frames span the full width of the residence, creating covered porch areas at the entrance and shaded terraces at the rear facing towards the pool.

Swiss Miss Houses by Charles DuBois
Photograph by Dan Chavkin

Inside each house, the structure forms a double-height spaces for the main living areas, while the rest of the facilities occupy the single story volumes on either side.

While drawing a strong distinction to the surrounding modernist homes, there is much debate about where DuBois gained his influence for the design. The shingle-clad gabled roof is often said to resemble those above ski chalets in Switzerland, designed to enable snow to drop off.

Swiss Miss Houses by Charles DuBois

Another interpretation is that DuBois employed the roofline to follow a trend for Polynesian-influenced design, which emerged in popularity in America during the post-war period. More commonly featured in bars and restaurants, the style known as “tiki” proliferated as American serviceman returned from stints in the South Pacific.

The Swiss Miss houses also have much in common with typical modernist buildings. An abundance of glazing and the use of natural materials to blend in with the surroundings – like stone used for chimney stacks – are both traits shared with the movement.

Swiss Miss Houses by Charles DuBois

There are reportedly 15 Swiss Miss Houses remaining today in Palm Springs’ Vista Las Palmas, which was home to some of Hollywood’s biggest stars during the 1950s. Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joan Collins and George Hamilton are among the celebrities who resided there.

The neighbourhood has also become a popular tourist attraction due to its eclectic mix of modernist designs in the desert city.

Swiss Miss Houses by Charles DuBois
Photograph by Tom Blachford

Palms Springs is often regarded as a mecca for mid-20th century architecture and celebrates its status during the annual Modernism Week.

To coincide with this year’s event, running from 15 to 25 February 2018, we’re featuring the most important buildings in the city each day – including works by famed modernist architects John Lautner, E Stewart Williams and Albert Frey.

Photography is by Jim Riche, unless stated otherwise.

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