Walter S. White, one of the great Palm Springs Architects
Walter S. White – Design for a Modernist Desert Residence – 73271 Buckboard Trail, Palm Desert
Photo: George Gutenberg
Drawings for the Johnson-Hebert Residence by Walter S. White (1917-2002) date to early 1958. By that time, White had perfected his ideas for mid-twentieth century modern desert residences. Typically, he first conceived a roof for without shade, life in the desert was unbearable. Underneath he, second, placed space-defining walls, usually not more than two per room and sometimes extending beyond the roof line in order to mark outdoor living spaces. Third, the remaining sides of the rooms White enclosed with large expanses of glass.
White liked to experiment with the roofs. Curved shapes were a favorite of his; the Bates Residence (1954) in Palm Desert features a wave-like roof, a simple concave curve graces the Alexander Residence (1955) in Palm Springs. By the later 1950s, White was fascinated by hyperbolic paraboloid (hypar) shapes. Formed like a saddle, or a Pringle potato chip, these roofs were self-supporting and offered maximum freedom for the interior arrangements.
The original, daring roofline of the Johnson-Hebert Residence combined two adjacent hypar shells. At three points the roof angled sharply upwards, at three corresponding points it bent deeply downwards toward three buttresses that anchored it to the ground. For reasons unknown, this hypar roof was not built—instead a hipped roof with wide overhangs protects the house—even though White erected at the same time a hypar roof for the Willcockson residence (1958-9) which still stands on a sand dune between La Quinta and Indio.
White usually preferred corner lots for his residential designs. The Buckboard Trail residence is unique as White placed it orthogonally on such a site. Long walls give access into the house, while separating on the inside the private quarters from the living room, and on the outside entertainment areas from private zones. Generous windows on three sides turn the living room into a glass pavilion which originally was encircled by a grape stake fence that assured privacy against views from the street corner.
Subtle details characterize the design. The residence rests on a platform with low steps whose inwardly inclined risers create sharp shadow lines. For the car port White borrowed from his commercial designs when he hung fixed corrugated sheet metal from simple post and beam steel frames. A Wrightian shallow planting bowl welcomes visitors at the curb; a walkway covered with smoothly rounded beach pebbles leads into the entrance hallway, gently massaging the sole of one’s feet—so at least the designer thought—before one would step on the carpets in the living room and the private quarters.
The residence was one of the last projects Walter S. White realized in the Coachella Valley. By 1960, White was living in Colorado Springs where he worked on residential projects for the Kissing Camels Estate. Many of his early residential designs within that private country club resemble the Buckboard Trail house, which thus links White’s Californian works with his Colorado designs.
In the early 1980s, White returned to Los Angeles where his career had begun in the 1940s. After White’s death in 2002 his papers were donated to the Architecture and Design Collection of the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB).
In fall of 2015, UCSB’s Art, Design, and Architecture Museum will show the first ever retrospective of Walter S. White’s architecture; an exhibition that is currently being researched in large parts by students of the Department of the History of Art and Architecture.
Volker M. Welter
Professor, Dept. of the History of Art & Architecture, UCSB
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