Few places can claim postwar tract houses as a major tourist attraction. Palm Springs can. The southern California town’s bonanza of well-preserved buildings from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s—decades when exuberant angles, slopes and swoops were part of the vernacular in residential and commercial construction—is unparalleled. You can even do your banking, buy a bottle of wine and get your car washed in monuments to mid-century modernism. “There’s no place with a greater concentration of valuable mid-twentieth-century architecture,” says Robert Imber, who has been sharing his encyclopedic knowledge with visitors for the past 12 years.
Showing off its low-slung architectural bounty has become as important to the sunlit valley town of 45,000, two hours east of Los Angeles, as pursuits like golf, mountain hiking and poolside martini sipping. Design and architecture buffs from Europe, Japan, North America and elsewhere consider Palm Springs’ trove of Atomic Age architecture a must-see.
It doesn’t hurt that many modernist masterpieces are associated with a long list of boldface names, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Laurence Olivier, and Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and lounge lizards of more recent vintage, like Liberace, Barry Manilow and Sonny Bono (the latter was the town’s mayor for four years). The “Hollywood’s playground” factor is part of the draw, but the appeal of the inventive architecture is even greater.
The modernism-fueled visitor influx of the past 15 or so years has led to an explosion of hip hotels and trendy cafés and a cluster of vintage modern stores in the Uptown Design District purveying all the Womb chairs, shag rugs and Sputnik lamps you could ever need to authentically furnish a mid-century modern pad.
Maps and Apps
On any given day, visitors in rental cars cruise tranquil neighborhoods like Twin Palms, Vista Las Palmas and Racquet Club Estates to view iconic homes and maybe take away design or landscaping ideas. There are maps and apps to guide you; the best come from the Palm Springs Modern Committee, an education and advocacy group.
Whether you go it alone or sign up for a van tour with a guide like Imber, who provides gossip and backstory along with the architectural nitty-gritty, the place to begin is the former Tramway Gas Station, now the Palm Springs Visitors Center. Its striking white roof, an upswept triangle with a 95-foot span, was designed by Albert Frey and Robson Chambers in 1965. To Imber, it reflects “the enthusiasm, optimism, opportunity and exuberance of the times.”
To better understand the context that gave rise to the style often called Desert Modernism, catch a ride nearby on the world’s largest rotating aerial tram. It rises 8,500 feet in 12 minutes, through changing vegetation, depositing you in an alpine forest.
Gallery of Alexanders
The linchpin of Palm Springs’ modernist housing stock is 2,500-plus houses built between 1947 and 1965 by forward-thinking father-and-son developers George and Robert Alexander working with architect William Krisel (his national profile may be slim, but locally he’s a giant). Theirs was a uniquely successful effort to produce stylish yet affordable housing for a booming middle class. Alexander houses offered, in as little as 1,200 square feet, many of the same design elements then found in custom-crafted homes for the wealthy—expanses of plate glass, carports and breezeways, pools and patios, fanciful roof profiles (butterfly, vaulted arch, zigzag), and clerestory windows for taking advantage of mountain views.
Some of the best are in the Vista Las Palmas neighborhood. Dramatically sited on boulder-strewn lots set against the burnt orange San Jacinto range, these tract houses are anything but cookie-cutter. “It was real architecture for the masses,” as Imber puts it—worlds away, in quality and variety, from the Levittowns of the East Coast. Alexander houses were concrete symbols of postwar optimism, and that’s no figure of speech: Their patterned cinderblock walls were designed to capture the stark, shifting shadows of the desert sun. Impossibly tall palm trees, along with super-sized cacti and topiaries that look torn from the pages of Dr. Seuss, add to the drama.
Jewels in the Crown
If Alexanders are a galaxy in Palm Springs’ architectural universe, there are also some superstars. One of the best-known modern homes anywhere is the 1946 Kaufmann Desert House, built by Richard Neutra as a winter residence for the couple whose full-time home was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania. Considered the crown jewel in Palm Springs’ architectural archive, it’s a flat-roofed International Style masterwork seamlessly integrated into its rocky two-acre site. The house endured “terrible things, architecturally,” Imber says. “It had become nearly a teardown.” Happily, the L.A. firm Marmol Radziner restored it in the 1990s, reopening the exact same vein of sandstone in a Utah quarry to match the original.
John Lautner’s 1968 Elrod House is a series of concrete circles tumbling down a bluff, made famous as the residence of movie villain Willard Whyte in the 1971 James Bond thriller Diamonds Are Forever. Also in a futurist vein is the 1962 House of Tomorrow, a multi-level octagon tethered to the earth by a broad-winged roof. Designed by William Krisel and used by Robert Alexander for his own family, it was later rented to newlyweds Elvis and Priscilla Presley. It’s now called the Honeymoon Hideaway and is available for tours, but be warned: They’re all about Elvis, not architecture.
Other pockets of ingenious custom houses by local architects abound. Swiss-born Albert Frey, a protégé of Le Corbusier, spent his entire career in Palm Springs. His much-photographed 1946 house for industrial designer Raymond Loewy (600 W. Panorama Rd.) has a free-form pool that reaches under the exterior wall and into the living room. His own experimental home (686 Palisades Dr.) is a glass box on a hill 220 feet above the city.
Drive along East Molino Road and North Sunnyview Drive to see Donald Wexler’s group of innovative circa 1962 all-steel prefab houses, significant enough to be on the National Register of Historic Places. Need cash? Get it at the 1960 Coachella Valley Savings & Loan No. 3—now a Chase bank —E. Stewart Williams’s sculpture of swooping pillars floating above a concrete base. Williams also designed Twin Palms Estate, a home and recording studio for Frank Sinatra, in 1947. The four-bedroom house can be rented for vacations, events and photo shoots.
Palm Springs’ architectural archive is easily observed simply by driving around. Getting inside the privately owned houses is trickier. The Palm Springs Modern Committee conducts interiors tours each fall. Another chance comes in mid-February, during Palm Springs Modernism Week. Begun in 2006 as a show and sale of vintage modern objects, the event has since swelled to an 11-day extravaganza of lectures, films, book signings, pool parties, music of the era, and bus and walking tours. Some 35,000 tickets were sold in 2012, says Jacques Caussin, the originator and board chairman. Coveted tickets for interiors tours go on sale after Labor Day and sell out quickly.
More resources for the design-conscious are coming. The Palm Springs Art Museum, whose collection includes contemporary art and photography, is targeting 2014 for the opening of its Architecture & Design Center, to be housed in a 1961 E. Stewart Williams bank building that was saved after a battle to preserve it. In the meantime, of course, all of Palm Springs is an open-air museum, free for the gawking.
Palm Springs Modern Tours: palmspringsmoderntours.com
Palm Springs Modern Committee: palmspringslife.com/psmodapp
Palm Springs Visitors Center: 2901 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; visitpalmsprings.com
Aerial Tram: pstramway.com
Kaufmann Desert House: 470 W. Vista Chino
Elrod House: 2175 Southridge Dr.
House of Tomorrow: 1350 Ladera Circle
Honeymoon Hideaway: elvishoneymoon.com
Coachella Valley Savings & Loan No. 3: 499 S. Palm Canyon Dr.
Twin Palms Estate: 1148 E. Alejo Rd.; beaumondevillas.com
Palm Springs Modern Committee: psmodcom.org
Palm Springs Modernism Week: modernismweek.com
Palm Springs Art Museum: 101 Museum Dr.; psmuseum.org
Architecture & Design Center: 300 S. Palm Canyon Dr.