From Mid-century to today
SUNMOR is a well-known central Palm Springs neighborhood comprised of a remarkably intact collection of mid-century homes built in the late 50s and early 1960s. The neighborhood is bordered by Palm Springs City Hall and the International Airport on the east, Farrell Drive on the west, and East Tamarisk and Andreas Road to the north and south respectively.
The two primary builders of Sunmor houses were locally prominent builder Robert “Bob” C. Higgins and the nationally prominent team of Robert Alexander and his father, George Alexander, of the Alexander Construction Company.
While Sunmor is generally known as an “Alexander” neighborhood, it was actually Bob Higgins who built the first houses and first imagined a neighborhood of affordable modernist tract homes in the present location. We know Higgins was a highly-competent builder engaged by many prominent architects because he is given credit for the construction of architect William Cody’s beautiful L’Horizon Hotel and architect Donald Wexler’s Alan Ladd residence (Higgins was also a partner in actor Alan Ladd, Sr.’s well-known Palm Springs hardware store, Ladd-Higgins Hardware). The earliest public mention of the Sunmor neighborhood appears in the July-August 1955 issue of Palm Springs Villager which enthusiastically announced that an “official groundbreaking” had taken place and that “building has begun on the extensive 213-acre Sunmor subdivision in Palm Springs.” The article identifies the Sands Realty and Development Company at 555 South Palm Canyon as the realtor of record with A. R. Simon as its president. Two other items of interest appear in the brief article. Firstly, Frank Bogert (discussed later) is identified as one of the “first purchasers” of a Sunmor home and the architectural firm of Wexler & Harrision is credited with having designed the Higgins-built homes.
The Sunmor neighborhood was next featured in both the September and October 1955 issues of Palm Springs Villager magazine in a pink-hued two-page advertisement for “Sunmor Estates…Palm Springs Newest Subdivision.” The 1955 advertisements identify a parcel of land at the terminus of Louella Avenue as “Present Construction” and other two land parcels are identified as “Planned Future Construction” to the west (almost to Sunrise Way) and south (as far as Ramon Road).
According to the advertisements, Sunmor Estates homes were priced “from $17,600″ and financed with 20-year loans. It is supposed that at least three homes had been built by September 1955 as the magazine advertisement touted “Dramatic 2, 3 and 4 Bedroom Homes Now on Display.”
Ultimately, only eleven houses were built by Higgins. While details are still murky, indications are that builder Higgins’ Sunmor Estates project faltered and by about 1957 the Alexander Construction Company had gobbled up many of the land parcels identified by Higgins and Sands Realty as potential future construction. Fortunately, Higgins’ designs blend nicely with the post-and-beam modernist houses built soon thereafter by the Alexander Construction Company.
Fortunately, the historic record regarding the Alexander Construction Company (responsible for building much of the mid-century housing stock in Palm Springs) is far more complete. In total, the Alexander Construction company is estimated to have built between 1,200-1,300 homes in the Palm Springs area between 1957 and 1965.
Similar advertisements of the era by the Alexander Construction Company touted tract homes “Designed by Architects, Built by Master Builders for Permanent Value.” The “architect” referred to is William Krisel (of the architectural firm of Palmer & Krisel). The Sunmor Alexander homes are Krisel’s “Ramon Rise” design. (The Ramon Rise neighborhood is located south of Ramon Road and to the west of El Cielo Drive and is now known as “Little Beverly Hills”). The Ramon Rise-Sunmor-Krisel connection was fortuitously unearthed by architect Jim Harlan in 2010 while doing research at the Getty’s architectural archives for the tribute journal The Alexanders: A Desert Legacy published by the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation.
The Alexanders were committed to the ideal that even in a luxury community like Palm Springs quality homes could be built to fit the budgets of lower and middle income families. With home prices in the late 1950′s generally starting at a modest $15,000, the homes were available to not only the elite Hollywood crowd but to more modest buyers. The Desert Sun newspaper recently opined that, “Because of their [the Alexanders'] vision, Palm Springs took a new shape and a new direction in development….Because of the Alexanders, Palm Springs has not only grown, it has grown in a much more balanced and solid way.
Over the years a number of minor Hollywood celebrities have called the Sunmor neighborhood home. However, the neighborhood’s most famous resident was most certainly the outspoken “cowboy mayor” Frank Bogert (1910-2009). Bogert served four terms as the city’s mayor from 1958-1966 and from 1982-1988 and was the author of two books that chronicled the early history of Palm Springs. Two cul-de-sacs in the Sunmor neighborhood have the distinction of being named after members of the Alexander family, i.e., Helene Alexander (Helena Circle) and her daughter Jill (Jill Circle).