A ‘Rescued Alexander’ proves enlivening on my first Modernism Week docent stint


Rescuing an Alexander means adding clerestory windows, getting rid of dark wood and tile, and tearing out someone else’s addition in order to restore the original floor plan.

This is just the start of my discoveries after the first episode as docent in 2020 Modernism Week.

Along with Kanela Barton, Linda Borque, Steven Cosmos, and our captain John Stewart, I was stationed at the home of Malcolm McKay and Steve Orr, one of six houses on view for ModWeek guests in a tour called Give Me Shelter: Rescued Alexanders. Friends of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter sponsored us. The brochure, which is well worth having, features clever portrait photos of dogs at each tour location.

Malcolm McKay (above) and Robert Orr oversaw key renovations to their Alexander.

The title refers to the remodeled houses built by George and Robert Alexander, the father and son who took the Modernist principle of repeatability to new heights in Palm Springs.

This lustrous 2,500-square-foot, four-bedroom house was completed in 1962. First owner Robert Surtees, a Hollywood cinematographer, won three Academy Awards and received no fewer than 13 more nods. Nat King Cole lived next door. Marilyn Monroe was a frequent guest a few doors up the street. Elvis and Priscilla’s honeymoon hideaway can be glimpsed from the backyard.

Under the hand of McKay and Orr, light-gray terrazzo flooring replaced dark tile inside and extends to the exterior spaces, contributing to superb indoor-outdoor living.

The west wall begged to admit more light and scenery, so it received cutouts and now holds clerestory windows that add about one-third more of everything.

New doors were added at the front; the ceiling at the threshold rose about eight inches to render new vivacity in the entryway.

As the tour brochure notes, “The wraparound glass walls in the living room and dining room create a clear view through the house from one corner of the property to the opposite.”

A feeling of exaltation is the general result. I don’t know what the other five Alexanders offered but couldn’t have been more content here.

Things started off slow at 12 noon, but by 2 p.m. we were inundated with guests.

I interacted with people from Gulf Shores, Ala.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Regina, Sask.; Tacoma, Wa.; Houston, Tex.; Stockton, Cal.; and Kansas City, Mo./Kan. (As our president would say, “Whatever!”)

You might as well dress for ModWeek.

Ulf and Felix came all the way from Hamburg, Germany, to escape the chilly rain. When I told them I’ve been to Ahrensburg, the first stop outside Hamburg on the train to Copenhagen, and tried to collect my 10 percent, they laughed. People from Hamburg usually laugh at that joke.

An odd thing was in stepping over to the southeast corner of the pool, looking back at the house, and finding a black cat lounging on the roof. Malcolm said it’s feral; he seemed to welcome it in the spirit of the house, which encompasses all.

It’s time to end this report, and I haven’t even mentioned the collections of N-gauge trains, model skyscrapers, small airliners, and ships large and tiny seen in the den and study.

What a well-done house, tasteful to the last touch, and ever-blessed by the Palm Springs sun!


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