Palm Springs | Modernist mecca

Palm Springs became “the” destination for rest and recreation when it became popular with Hollywood’s movie stars in the 1930’s. It was a convenient escape from the demanding schedule of Hollywood, and not to mention the prying eyes of detective “dogs” hired by the studios to keep their stable’s actors in check. Palm Springs was the perfect location, the warm weather, approximately 107 miles (172 km) east of Los Angeles; one could be back on the set as ordered by the studio’s big executives in approximately 2 hours.


Above: One of Palm Springs earliest “glamour” spots, the El Mirador Hotel, opening on New Year’s Eve 1927. The Spanish Colonial Revival-style resort became one of the most fashionable destinations for the powerful of Hollywood. El Mirador was one of the first hotels in Palm Springs designed to cater especially to this clientele. While other hotels in the area had restrictive guest policies, El Mirador insisted on an open policy. Jewish movie stars and powerful studio chiefs flocked to the hotel. The Marx Brothers, Al Jolson and even Albert Einstein were frequent guests who enjoyed the relative seclusion and high standard of service offered at the property.


It was so popular that the area near the hotel became known in trade papers and fan magazines as the "movie colony".
The movie colony came to Palm Springs hard and fast, creating the "Movie Colony neighbourhoods", Tahquitz River Estates, and Las Palmas neighbourhoods. Actors Charles Farrell and Ralph Bellamy opened the Racquet Club in 1934, and Pearl McCallum opened the Tennis Club in 1937. Nightclubs were set up as well, with Al Wertheimer opening The Dunes outside of Palm Springs in 1934, and the Chi Chi nightclub opening in 1936. Besides the gambling available at the Dunes Club, other casinos included The 139 Club and The Cove Club outside of the city. Southern California's first self-contained shopping centre was established in Palm Springs as the Plaza Shopping Centre in 1936.


Left: The Racquet Club in 1934, early Hollywood hangout in Palm Springs.

Right: Chi Chi Nightclub in 1936, with playbills including stars such as Dorothy Dandridge, Nat King Cole, Liberace, Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, Crosby Bros.


By the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood’s A-listers also decamped to this hot, dry valley in droves: Monroe was a frequent visitor, while Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and many others built homes there.

Above: The “Rat Pack” doing what they do best in Palm Springs.


 When Frank Sinatra arrived in Palm Springs in the 1940′s, he brought allure and sex appeal to the formerly sleepy town. Soon after Palm Springs became the ultimate destination for jet setters and Hollywood royalty, and the partying hasn’t stopped. If I could turn back time, that’s where I would liked to have partied.



Sinatra’s “Twin Palms” estate is now open for luxury vacation rentals and events. 


Along with the movie stars came the architects, the architectural geniuses who would design the stars’ home to suit their Hollywood earned status.
Little did these architects know then that their works in Palm Springs for the next decades would become a major part of their legacy.  Palm Springs is about to become a modernist mecca of “Hollywood” proportions.
Revered Californian modernists like John Lautner, Richard Neutra and Albert Frey all built some of their best-known works here in this desert. Many of these buildings share attributes designed in response to the bright and arid climate – including overhanging roof planes and shaded verandahs – and are collectively considered examples of “desert modernism”. This new strain of modernist architecture are also inspired by local materials, and the earthy colours and sheer scale of the surrounding desert and San Jacinto Mountains.


Above: John Lautner’s Elrod House, one of Lautner's many houses in Southridge and Palm Springs as a whole. The Elrod House is one of his most famous structures and an example of his so-called free architecture, where architecture and nature are combined. When the house was built, the soil was excavated but the rocks were kept in place. These rocks are part of the interior of the house and run straight through the walls and windows.


Its best-known feature is the large circular concrete canopy above the main living area with a circular glass design. The living room incorporates large rocks and opens onto to an outdoor swimming pool and a terrace that offers a view of Palm Springs and the San Jacinto Peak.


Below: The Elrod House's most notable appearance was as Willard Whyte's mansion in the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. The living room, swimming pool, and an interior room were displayed in the film.


These spectacular homes have been paid homage to countless times in Hollywood movies. Unknowingly, one would have seen some of these homes on the silver screen. These architectural accomplishments are strangely enough, built by Hollywood for Hollywood.
John Lautner’s magnum opus, the Bob Hope House as pictured below topped by a curving copper roof, the futuristic house includes 10 bedrooms and 13 full or partial bathrooms. There are fireplaces in the great room and master bedroom.
Murals on the main floor and the pool area were done by Malibu Getty muralist Garth Benton. Curving walls of windows allow for unobstructed city, mountain and valley views.
Outside, there’s a swimming pool, as well as a tennis court and a large pavilion with an outdoor fireplace. A pond, a waterfall, lawns and desert landscaping complete the setting.


Below | Right:
Louis Vuitton Resort 2016 runway and after party at the Bob Hope House.
Below | Left:
The Bob Hope House, a view from the pool.


The Kaufmann House (or Kaufmann Desert House) is a house located in Palm Springs, California, that was designed by architect Richard Neutra in 1946.


It was one of the last large-commission domestic projects designed by Richard Neutra, but it is also arguably one of his most architecturally noteworthy and famous homes.
This five-bedroom, five-bathroom vacation house in Palm Springs was designed to emphasise connection to the desert landscape while offering shelter from harsh climatic conditions. Large sliding-glass walls open the living spaces and master bedroom to adjacent patios. Major outdoor rooms are enclosed by a row of movable vertical fins that offer flexible protection against sandstorms and intense heat.
It is a modernistic vision of rectangular layers perfectly balanced by vertical lines both in structural and design. Its roofline flows from the backdrop of mountains like a natural extension chiseled and finished to man made architectural perfection.


Below: The Kaufmann House photographed from the pool and from the garden capturing the mountain views.


I could feature an endless list of mid-century homes that you will fall in love with one way or another. There are also the public structures of Palm Springs that are unmistakably designed by certain genius architect; its City Hall, Airport, Tramway Gas Station…
If I carried on, I would end up writing a pretty book.


Above: Albert Frey’s City Hall opened in 1952. Albert Frey is a Swiss architect credited with being one of the founders of Desert Modernism in the Palm Springs area. He worked for Le Corbusier in 1928-1929 before immigrating to the United States. He has contributed buildings to Palm Springs for about 30 years. The Tramway Gas Station with its iconic “flying wedge” canopy (image below) was among his latest works, built in 1965. It was abandoned for most of the 1990s, restored as an art gallery in 2000 and renovated to its current state and function as a Visitors Centre in 2003.

Above: The “quiet elegance” of Donald Wexler as seen here in Palm Springs Municipal Airport.  He moved to Palm Springs in 1952 and practiced there for almost six decades, developing an architecture that is acutely sensitive to the extremes of the desert climate. In 1962, he designed the all-steel Alexander houses, along with the structural engineer Bernard Perlin for the developers George and Robert Alexander. His houses' framing, roofs and exterior siding are typically steel, with drywall interior siding. Wexler produced a body of work that included houses, schools, hotels and banks.


There is much to see and learn from this little time capsule they call Palm Springs. The city's most defining characteristic is its architecture, and many of the structures have been repurposed for locals and visitors to still enjoy. Thanks to the Palm Springs Historic Site Preservation Board (HSPB), there are approximately 100 designated historic sites broken down into three levels – Class 1, Class 2, and Class 3.
Of the 100 or so designated sites, there are about 39 single family residential properties and the rest are commercial, institutional, governmental, or other non-residential sites with Class 1 or Class 2 distinction. Buildings that were built prior to 1969 are automatically Class 3.
“Historic preservation is important to Palm Springs" says Ken Lyon, associate planner for Palm Springs’ Department of Planning Services. "As a city whose primary industry is tourism, 'cultural tourism' (historical, architectural, arts, etc.),offers our visitors a 'richness of experience' and contributes to the attractiveness of Palm Springs as a popular international tourism destination.
Due to the HSPB and other local preservation organisations, Palm Springs has retained much of its important Spanish Colonial Revival and Midcentury Modern architecture, and for that we are eternally grateful.
We hope Palm Springs will forever be preserved in a charmed time capsule, our safe haven, our destination of aesthetic perfection, our escape from the vulgarity of todays glossy, flashy sense of modernisation.


Visit for the ultimate celebration of mid-century architecture, design and culture in Palm Springs.
Palm Springs Preservation Foundation

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