"Past Meets Future in Palm Springs" — by Lakshman Ratnapala

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Actor Lorne Greene's Midcentury-Modern home and pool in Palm Springs (photo © John Montgomery)
Actor Lorne Greene's Midcentury-Modern home and pool in Palm Springs (photo © John Montgomery)

There is a unique place tucked away in the California desert where modern architecture is haute. It is a place where a group of devotees of midcentury modern design is helping a remote town with a checkered history embrace the future while preserving the past.
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Agua Caliente Indian dwelling near Palm Springs (photo © John Montgomery)
Agua Caliente Indian dwelling near Palm Springs (photo © John Montgomery)

Palm Springs is a small town with a resident population of only 45,000, located on the western edge of the California desert. More than 2,000 years ago its first residents were the ancestors of today’s Agua Caliente band of the native American Indian tribe, the Cahuilla. They were hunters and gatherers living off the land, adapting to the extremes of desert summers and mountain winters. The first non-Indians arrived in 1774, heralding the magical transformation looming on the horizon of time. Today, the Agua Caliente Indians are still a vital part of the community. They continue to be a major force in the cultural and economic enrichment of the town.
By the late 1800s the sleepy little village drew pioneer settlers who came through the desert and created an oasis, leading the way for Hollywood’s glamorous stars to make “The Springs” their own little secret playground. In the 1920s and 1930s came the likes of Clark Gable, the Marx Brothers and even Albert Einstein who bought hideaway homes. Years later came a new crop of stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, Liberace and Marilyn Monroe having succumbed to the lure of the desert and the relaxing privacy it offered. Elvis Presley found his honeymoon hideaway here. But those who stayed sequestered themselves behind walled estates in magnificent homes boasting the town’s eclectic mix of early Spanish missionary and midcentury American architecture.
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Actor Lorne Greene's Midcentury-Modern home in Palm Springs (photo © John Montgomery)
Actor Lorne Greene's Midcentury-Modern home in Palm Springs (photo © John Montgomery)

Today, Palm Springs is home to a profusion of architectural gems from that “golden age of American architecture”, Midcentury Modern design is curated in museum collections, coveted in home furnishings, and found in travel destinations worldwide. Its distinctive clean lines and bold graphics increasingly appear in advertising and entertainment and are savored by fashionable sophisticates throughout the world. The inventive and original, post-World War II architecture drew from newly available materials and the social and economic flourishes of the times. “Desert Modernism” has become a fundamental stepping stone in the architectural continuum. Architects of that era were often asked what they were thinking when they created the enduring designs, so enthusiastically favored still. Most weren’t considering their legacy; they just wanted to do good design or “real architecture” much of which is on proud display in Palm Springs.
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Frank Sinatra's Midcentury-Modern home and pool in Palm Springs (photo © John Montgomery)
Frank Sinatra's Midcentury-Modern home and pool in Palm Springs (photo © John Montgomery)

One of the most extraordinary contributors to America’s architectural lexicon, John Lautner’s body of work in Palm Springs is unique from a perspective of design, materials, siting and engineering. The Arthur Elrod residence and the Bob Hope residence in this desert enclave are among America’s most important houses. John Porter Clark , a traditionally trained architect, turned towards the new modernism embarking on “the design of houses more compatible with the design of automobiles”. His 1939 home is a corrugated metal box resting on pilings. Deep in a grove of eucalyptus trees it was sited to best command the broad mountain panorama.
Professional Park, a delightful and serene office complex created by Donald Wexler, is California’s first commercial condominium development. It exemplifies a continuum of good design that weaves profound connections from the past. Wexler is a believer in steel as an ideal building material for the desert and his “home-system” in Palm Springs is one of the midcentury’s most unique.
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Elvis's hideway in Palm Springs (photo © Lakshman Ratnapala)
Elvis's hideway in Palm Springs (photo © Lakshman Ratnapala)

It is easy today to cruise around in search of the fun period of architecture in Palm Springs where the mild desert climate allow walls of glass, open carports and indoor-outdoor living. Houses with dramatic rooflines, innovative blends of materials and experimental trends of the midcentury, line the streets of this chic seasonal village of the 1960s, much due to the father/son team of George and Robert Alexander who built more than 2,500 single-family homes. It is safe to guess that more than 90 percent of the Alexander-style homes are essentially the same floor plan, in three sizes, yet one would be hard pressed to notice the similarity from the street outside. Each front elevation presents its own unique facade and combination of finishes. And, while they seem to be rectangular ranch style homes, in fact, the basic plan is a perfect square. The designer would “turn” the same plan on a different plot of land — and thus, a side entrance front door in one version, turned clockwise 90 degrees, became a street facing front door across the street or down the block, each bursting with new ideas. The Alexanders’ influenced housing throughout the country by hiring architects for their “merchant housing” tracts, rather than simply adapting standards or available blueprints as was common practice with tract building.
Primarily, Palm Springs seasonal homeowners were businessmen and professionals who took back to their places of permanent residence, the design innovations they discovered in the desert town. Anyone over 40 years of age, most anywhere in the world, including Sri Lanka, can recall today the “California Style” or the “American Style” homes that blossomed throughout the middle years of the 1900s..
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Frank Sinatra's Midcentury-Modern home in Palm Springs (photo © John Montgomery)
Frank Sinatra's Midcentury-Modern home in Palm Springs (photo © John Montgomery)

Architect Stewart Williams’ residential work gives the distinct expression of his belief that the “environment is an important part of life” conveying his philosophy of bringing the desert into the architecture rather than placing the architecture on the desert. This philosophy is very evident in a home, the Edris Residence, which he deftly placed among cascading boulders in a humble union of ancient landscape and midcentury 1953 architecture. The site carries on as a safe haven to generations of desert plants, birds and beasts as much as the house is an elegant, gracious habitat for its human occupants.
Numerous architects were busy as the region grew. William F. Cody a visionary in the truest sense, was one of the most distinctive. Noted for elegance and a finely engineered “thin-ness”, Cody interpreted the modern idiom with daring and inventive zeal. Faithful to the ideal of “less is more”, much of his architecture is minimalism that skillfully challenges indoor/outdoor boundaries. The work ranges from a simple, sophisticated gas station to luxurious custom-built homes. Called “the architect’s architect” by his peers, Cody’s sophisticated designs are detailed and complex —  a rigorous, disciplined architecture with a genial sense of space.
Midcentury Modern design has been instrumental to Palm Springs economic and tourism renaissance as a desert resort. Its pure form and timeless values are being found anew in homes and fashion. Each February, the Palm Springs Modernism Show rekindles the town’s top tourism attractions with informative symposia and “retro” period parties benefiting architectural heritage preservation groups upon whom has fallen the challenge of educating citizens and city planners to preserve the unique heritage. It is a task on which preservation groups labor daily as property developers proceed with unwise and speculative development which has frequently resulted in the demolition or alteration of historic properties. Some properties have been “demolished through neglect” by financially strapped owners. Nevertheless, there is reason to be optimistic. Increasingly, Palm Springs architectural riches are being promoted by the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism to a broader audience of cultural tourists. Robert Imber’s intensive tours interpret the architecture to thousands of visitors. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has named Palm Springs to its list of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations
If You Go:
Palm Springs is a two-hour drive east from Los Angeles or a 1 hour 20 minute flight south from San Francisco. High season for tourism is January-May with mild temperatures.
What to Do:
To immerse in Midcentury Modernism, visit during Modernism Week, a ten-day festival in mid-February. The event includes house tours organized by the Art Museum and talks by architects and designers.
The Modernism Show is a weekend sale of vintage furniture and decorative arts.
Architecture buffs must not miss Robert Imber’s Intensive Tour. Reserve far in advance as tours fill up fast.
Do not fail to ride the spectacular Aerial Tramway which rises from the desert, in just 10 minutes, to a 8,500-foot mountain-top alpine forest with cougars, coyotes and other wildlife.
Where to Stay:
Boutique hotels and eclectic inns abound. The personality and flavor of these historic building shine through as guests arrive.
Lakshman Ratnapala

There is a unique place tucked away in the California desert where modern architecture is haute.  It is a place where a group of devotees of midcentury modern design is helping a remote town with a checkered history embrace the future while preserving the past.
Palm Springs is a small town with a resident population of only 45,000, located on the western edge of the California desert.  More than 2,000 years ago its first residents were the ancestors of today’s Agua Caliente band of the native American Indian tribe, the Cahuilla.  They were hunters and gatherers living off the land, adapting to the extremes of desert summers and mountain winters.  The first non-Indians arrived in 1774 heralding the magical transformation looming on the horizon of time.  Today, the Agua Caliente Indians are still a vital part of the community.  They continue to be a major force in the cultural and economic enrichment of the town.
By the late 1800s the sleepy little village drew pioneer settlers who came through the desert and created an oasis, leading the way for Hollywood’s glamorous stars to make “The Springs” their own little secret playground. In the 1920s and 1930s came the likes of Clark Gable, the Marx Brothers and even Albert Einstein who bought hideaway homes.  Years later came a new crop of stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, Liberace and Marilyn Monroe having succumbed to the lure of the desert and the relaxing privacy it offered.  Elvis Presley found his honeymoon hideaway here.  But those who stayed sequestered themselves behind walled estates in magnificent homes boasting the town’s eclectic mix of early Spanish missionary and midcentury American architecture.
Today, Palm Springs is home to a profusion of architectural gems from that “golden age of American architecture”, Midcentury modern design is curated in museum collections, coveted in home furnishings, and found in travel destinations worldwide.  It’s distinctive clean lines and bold graphics increasingly appear in advertising and entertainment and are savored by fashionable sophisticates throughout the world.  The inventive and original, post-World War II architecture drew from newly available materials and the social and economic flourishes of the times. “Desert modernism” has become a fundamental stepping stone in the architectural continuum. Architects of that era were often asked what they were thinking when they created the enduring designs, so enthusiastically favored still. Most weren’t considering their legacy; they just wanted to do good design or “real architecture” much of which is on proud display in Palm Springs.
One of the most extraordinary contributors to America’s architectural lexicon, John Lautner’s body of work in Palm Springs is unique from a perspective of design, materials, siting and engineering.  The Arthur Elrod residence and the Bob Hope residence in this desert enclave are among America’s most important houses.  John  Porter Clark , a traditionally trained architect, turned towards the new modernism embarking on “the design of houses more compatible with the design of automobiles”.  His 1939 home is a corrugated metal box resting on pilates.  Deep in a grove of eucalyptus trees it was sited to best command the broad mountain panorama.
Professional Park, a delightful and serene office complex created by Donald Wexler is California’s first commercial condominium development. It exemplifies a continuum of good design that weaves profound connections from the past.  Wexler is a believer in steel as an ideal building material for the desert and his “home-system” in Palm Springs is one of the midcentury’s most unique.
It is easy today to cruise around in search of the fun period of architecture in Palm Springs where the mild desert climate allow walls of glass, open carports and indoor-outdoor living.  Houses with dramatic rooflines, innovative blends of materials and experimental trends of the midcentury, line the streets of this chic seasonal village of the 1960s, much due to the father/son team of George and Robert Alexander who built more than two thousand five hundred single family homes. It is safe to guess that more than 90 percent of the Alexander style homes are essentially the same floor plan, in three sizes, yet one would be hard pressed to notice the similarity from the street outside.  Each front elevation presents its own unique facade and combination of finishes.  And, while they seem to be rectangular ranch style homes — in fact, the basic plan is a perfect square.  The designer would “turn” the same plan on a different plot of land ….. and thus, a side entrance front door in one version, turned clockwise 90 degrees, became a street facing front door across the street or down the block, each bursting with new ideas.  The Alexanders’ influenced housing throughout the country by hiring architects for their “merchant housing” tracts, rather than simply adapting standards or available blueprints as was common practice with tract building.
Primarily, Palm Springs seasonal homeowners were businessmen and professionals who took back to their places of permanent residence, the design innovations they discovered in the desert town.  Anyone over forty years of age, most anywhere in the world, including Sri Lanka, can recall today the “California Style” or the “American Style” homes that blossomed throughout the  middle years of the 1900s..
Architect Stewart Williams’ residential work gives the distinct expression of his belief that the “environment is an important part of life” conveying his philosophy of bringing the desert into the architecture rather than placing the architecture on the desert.  This philosophy is very evident in a home, the Edris Residence, which he deftly placed among cascading boulders in a humble union of ancient landscape and midcentury 1953 architecture.  The site carries on as a safe haven to generations of desert plants, birds and beasts as much as the house is an elegant, gracious habitat for its human occupants.
Numerous architects were busy as the region grew. William F. Cody a visionary in the truest sense, was one of the most distinctive. Noted for elegance and a finely engineered “thin-ness”, Cody interpreted the modern idiom with daring and inventive zeal.  Faithful to the ideal of “less is more”, much of his architecture is minimalism that skillfully challenges indoor/outdoor boundaries.  The work ranges from a simple, sophisticated gas station to luxurious custom built homes.  Called “the architect’s architect” by his peers, Cody’s sophisticated designs are detailed and complex…. a rigorous, disciplined architecture with a genial sense of space.
Midcentury modern design has been instrumental to Palm Springs economic and tourism renaissance as a desert resort. Its pure form and timeless values are being found anew in homes and fashion. Each February, the Palm Springs Modernism Show  rekindles the town’s top tourism attractions with informative symposia and “retro” period parties benefiting architectural heritage preservation groups upon whom has fallen the challenge of educating citizens and city planners to preserve the unique heritage.  It is a task on which preservation groups labor daily as property developers proceed with unwise and speculative development which has frequently resulted in the demolition or alteration of historic properties.  Some properties have been “demolished through neglect” by financially strapped owners.  Nevertheless, there is reason to be optimistic.  Increasingly, Palm Springs architectural riches are being promoted by the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism to a broader audience   of cultural tourists.  Robert Imber’s intensive tours interpret the architecture to thousands of visitors.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has named Palm Springs to its list of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations.
IF YOU GO:
Palm Springs is a two hour drive east from Los Angeles or a 1 hour 20 minute flight  south from San Francisco. High season for tourism is January — May with mild temperatures.
WHAT  TO  DO:
To immerse in midcentury modernism, visit during Modernism Week, a ten-day festival in mid-February.  The event includes house tours organized by the Art Museum, talks by architects and designers.
The Modernism Show is a week-end sale of vintage furniture and decorative arts.
Architecture buffs must not miss Robert Imber’s Intensive Tour.  Reserve far in advance as tours fill up fast.
Do not fail to ride the spectacular Aerial  Tramway which rises from the desert, in just 10 minutes, to a 8,500 ft. mountain-top alpine forest with cougars, coyotes and other wildlife.
WHERE TO STAY
Boutique hotels and eclectic Inns abound.  The personality and flavor of these historic building shine through as guests arrive.
– Lakshman Ratnapala

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