In the decades since the craze for desert modernism took root, a handful of its practitioners—architects Albert Frey, William Krisel, Dan Palmer, William Cody, Richard Harrison, and Donald Wexler, and developers George and Bob Alexander—have ascended to household name-status, recognizable to even the most casual aficionado. Now on track to join that rarefied pantheon is architect Charles Du Bois.
Born in the hamlet of Mexico, New York, in 1903, Du Bois (pronounced “du boyz” and spelled with a space between “Du” and “Bois,” per his business card) received his architecture training from UCLA and MIT. He began his career working as a draftsman for the prestigious firms of Walker and Eisen, Gogerty and Weyl, and Horatio W. Bishop before opening his own office at 5143 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood in 1938, AIA records show.
Du Bois was also employed as a senior set designer for MGM during World War II, when residential commissions dried up due to the scarcity of building materials and skilled laborers, according to his Historical Society of Palm Desert biography.
With the postwar housing crunch, Du Bois’ architectural services became much in demand, and he was put to work designing housing tracts for several different developers, most notably J.C. Dunas, Roy Fey, and George and Bob Alexander.
Du Bois-designed tracts in the San Fernando Valley include Tarzana’s Deauville Estates and Woodland West in Woodland Hills, developed in the late 1950s. Now a historic district, Woodland West contains the street Dubois Avenue, named by development firm Don-Ja-Ran in honor of the architect.
A popular filming location, Woodland West is also where Annette Bening’s memorable “I will sell this house today” scene in American Beauty takes place.
Along with showcasing Bening’s formidable acting chops, this scene offers a glimpse of several Du Bois design hallmarks, namely Palos Verdes stone cladding, double entry doors, and “casket-pull” door handles. These features also turn up in the numerous housing tracts Du Bois designed in Palm Springs and Palm Desert for the Alexander Construction Co. and other developers.
Du Bois-designed homes possess many classic midcentury modern traits: post and beam construction, vaulted ceilings, walls of glass, an emphasis on blending indoor and outdoor living. But his Hollywood Regency style embellishments fell out of favor, and only fairly recently have they been viewed with renewed appreciation. (Even now, as this 2018 article in the Los Angeles Times depicting the desecration of one of his homes in Woodland Hills in a favorable light makes painfully clear, some people still have yet to come around.)
Du Bois, who died in 1996, added another standout element to some homes he produced in the late 1950s for the Alexander Company’s Vista Las Palmas development—an A-frame roofline that extended all the way to the ground, with a deep overhang on both front and back sides of the house.
This feature served dual purposes of shielding the property from the sun while differentiating it from the Palmer and Krisel-designed butterfly-roofed residences surrounding it. Ironically, however, for many years, it was a commonly held assumption that Krisel was the architect behind the iconic A-frames—only in recent years has Du Bois been properly credited for their design.
Alternately referred to as “Swiss Misses” or “Alohauses” for their Alpine and Polynesian influences, these visually arresting desert dwellings have become coveted trophies—one that hit the market last spring was swiftly snapped up for $2.9 million. Restored by Lindsey and Eric Bennett of HGTV’s Desert Flippers fame, the Crescent Drive residence was a major draw in this year’s Modernism Week.
Also earning a place in the spotlight in 2020’s Modernism Week was Du Bois’ Canyon Estates development in South Palm Springs. Envisioned by developer Roy Fey as a private condominium golf resort community, but one where the condos were like typical single-family residences, it was one of the architect’s most significant undertakings. Developed in stages beginning in 1969, it would eventually grow to have 254 single-story, single-family units, a central clubhouse, and 11 pools.
Designs included a two-bedroom, two-bath and a three-bedroom, two-bath model with a choice of six floor plans, five masonry types, and four exterior styles: Spanish, Polynesian, Contemporary, and Desert Contemporary. According to the Palm Springs Historic Survey Report, “Each design featured a raised flat-roofed or gabled clerestory window section that provided interior light, views to the mountains and an interesting visual cadence to the neighborhood.”
Right now, there is just one unit up for sale in Canyon Estates. Asking $619,000, it has three bedrooms, two baths, vaulted ceilings, walls of glass, clerestory windows, terrazzo tile, a “mint condition” glass and mirror bar, period chandeliers, and Hollywood Regency cabinet pulls and door handles.
But with Du Bois’s profile increasingly on the rise, don’t expect it to linger.