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The "Swiss Miss" Architect of Palm Springs

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

Palm Springs, California is known for its hot springs, golf courses, stylish hotels and spas. It has been home to some of Hollywood's biggest stars. It seems it is also known for its "mid-century modern"(MCM) architecture. The MCM design aesthetic is typically characterized by clean, simple lines, honest use of materials, and generally does not include decorative embellishments.

In the Vista Las Palmas neighborhood, there exist 15 chalet-style, A-frame homes built while the city was undergoing development in the 1950's. They were constructed at that time by builder J.C. "Joe" Dunas and the Alexander Construction Company. A number of homes had already been built in the area with either "butterfly" or flat roofs that were typical of designs there during the mid-20th century. Dunas wanted to offer homes that were different than this. He reached out to one architect who turned him down. He then turned to the architect responsible for these distinctive homes, one of which was recently listed for $3 million. The architect's name was Charles E. DuBois.

Charles Elwyn DuBois was born on 9 April 1903 in Mexico, New York, the son of Elwyn Copeland and Gertrude Lillian (nee Markle) DuBois. He had an older sister, Gertrude, born in 1901.

Their mother suffered from epilepsy and, due to her illness, she was unable to care for her children. In 1910 they were living with their maternal grandmother while their father kept a separate residence.

By 1920 the two children were living in Glendale, California with their paternal aunt Lillian, her husband, Alexander Beamon, and their son Charles. The last record found of Elwyn C. DuBois was in 1917 when he was working in the oil fields in Fresno, California. Their mother died of an epileptic seizure at the Craig Colony for Epileptics in Groveland, NY on 31 December 1925.

Charles E. DuBois

Charles graduated from Glendale High School in 1921 and attended UCLA for a year. He then attended MIT intermittently from 1922 – 1930.

During the 1920's, he traveled between coasts, working at different architectural firms. He was a draftsman at Walker & Eisen (1923- 1931), at Gogerty & Weyl (1926-1929), and at Horatio W. Bishop (1929). Each of these firms was responsible for notable architecture in Los Angeles and around Southern California at the time. They all experimented with different architectural styles and many of their buildings have been designated historic landmarks.

He married Marjorie Gunyon on 27 December 1924.

Charles passed the California and national architectural exams in the 1930's and started his own firm in 1938. During WWII, when housing construction slowed, he worked as a Senior Set Designer for the MGM movie studios.

In the 1950's Charles lived in Encino with his family and was employed by various developers, including Joe Dunas. Drawing on his varied drafting experience, he was a versatile designer of homes and was in much demand. A partial list of his work includes locations in Torrance, Granada Hills, East Pasadena and Woodland Hills. The developers of Woodland West named DuBois Avenue after him as a gesture of appreciation.

At Dunas' request, Charles designed his collection of "Swiss Miss" homes (or Alohauses as they were sometimes called) as low-lying, one-story residences topped 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.

The interior structure is composed of a double-height space for the main living areas, while the rest of the home is single story on either side. Due to their striking differences from the surrounding MCM homes, there is much debate about where Charles got his inspiration for the design. One thought is that he designed the shingle-clad gabled roof to resemble ski chalets in Switzerland, where the steep roofs enabled snow to drop off.

Another interpretation is that he was following a trend for Polynesian-influenced design, which emerged in popularity in America during the post-war period. This style, known as "tiki", was more commonly featured in bars and restaurants, proliferated as American serviceman returned from stints in the South Pacific.

Of course, his designs were not to everyone's taste. William Krisel, one of Charle's contemporaries was blunt: the "Swiss Miss"homes, he said, simply weren't serious. "When you're doing Tiki and stuff like that, most architects wouldn't do that,"he was quoted as saying, "It's not really architecture. It's like Disneyland. All of them are totally inappropriate for the desert location. The Fiji Tiki belongs at the beach, and the Swiss Miss belongs in the mountains that have snow in the winter". Regardless, Charles proved to be a very popular architect.

Dunas purchased several dozen lots in Palm Desert in the early 1960's and asked Charles to design custom-style homes to be known as the Purple Hills Estates.

Much later in his career, Charles and his son Charles Robert (Bobby) DuBois designed large custom homes in Los Angeles for, among others, Michael Jackson and Van Halen.

Charles has been cited as one of the “Big Seven” architects working in Palm Springs in the 1950's and 1960's, but to the average person interested in mid-century modern architecture he remains virtually unknown.

He died on 29 December 1996.


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