No California city is as closely identified with mid-century modern architecture as Palm Springs. Visionaries like Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, and Donald Wexler designed futuristic buildings here between 1945 and 1975, giving birth to the term “mid-century modern.” The buildings’ simple lines and sleek façades were built to accentuate—not upstage—the fair skies and folded hills of the surrounding desert.
“People find desert modernism’s clean lines to be an antidote to the messy, busy, over-stimulated lives we now lead,” notes Kurt Cyr, local architecture expert and guide. “This architecture transports them to another time and place.”
February's Modernism Week—with tours, lectures, and activities—is an excellent time to explore Palm Springs’ architectural landscape, but guided architectural tours, such as Cyr’s entertaining Palm Springs Mod Squad tours, are available year-round; check for details at the Palm Springs Visitors Center, itself a mid-century modern jewel. And for more background on mid-century modern design, visit the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center.
—Ann Marie Brown
Originally built in 1965 as a gas station, the visitor center’s signature design elements—such as its soaring, kite-shaped roof—are a tribute to the futurist vision of co-designers Albert Frey and Robson Chambers. Stand outside to admire the building’s space-age profile and picture-perfect setting at the base of Mount San Jacinto. Though it’s now viewed as a retro-perfect example of period architecture, the former gas-‘n’-go was slated for demolition in the late 1990s, but was saved from the wrecking ball and became the official visitor center in 2003. Step inside and pick up a free map to the region’s mid-century modern gems. The remarkable Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is just down the road.
See the perfect mash-up of Palm Springs’ 1950s roots and post-modern eclecticism at this five-star hotel (technically called Le Parker Méridien Palm Springs), with equal parts mid-century-suave and 21st-century debauched movie star. The Parker, opened in 1959 as California’s first Holiday Inn, was snapped up in 1961 by the “Singing Cowboy,” Gene Autry, who used it as the spring-training home of his baseball team, the California Angels. Autry built his own private residence at the back of the property, and the ultra-private, period-perfect house, complete with its own saline pool, is now available for overnight stays—but it will set you back a little over $5,300 per night.
Given a $27 million makeover by designer Jonathan Adler in 2003, the Parker Palm Springs now stands as one of the “it” spots for seclusion-seeking celebs, who love the privacy of its high white walls, dense hedges, and off-the-grid entrances. But even non-A-listers can luxuriate in the eye-popping lobby with its hipster chic, as well as the restaurant and meandering gardens. The restaurant’s patio is one of the great see-and-be-seen scenes in the region, and the food is excellent.
The plaque outside this concrete stunner reads like a Dream Team of mid-century modern design: Swiss-born master Albert Frey, E. Stewart Williams, Robson Chambers, and John Porter Clark all had a hand in creating the building’s signature style. One of the most influential elements was the creation of a screen wall at the front of the building. Made of metal tubing cut at angles and stacked in rows, the wall acts as a visually arresting shield against the desert region’s intense morning sun. This type of screen became a popular feature repeated on countless buildings and homes in the region. Another eye-catching element is the portico overhang with its large central opening that allows a handful of palms to grow through.
The name speaks for itself—Elvis carried Priscilla over the threshold here on May 1, 1967. Exactly nine months later, daughter Lisa Marie came into the world. Elvis didn’t actually own the home, but leased it in late 1966 as an exclusive retreat for himself and his soon-to-be bride.
The home was built for Robert and Helene Alexander, Palm Springs socialites who died tragically in a plane crash in 1965. This had been their dream home, constructed in four concentric circles and without a single square room. Featured as the “House of Tomorrow” in a 1962 Look magazine article, the home included a 64-foot built-in banquette sofa and straight-out-of-The-Flintstones rock walls. See these and other era-defining elements on guided tours, offered daily year-round.
When “Ol’ Blue Eyes” moved to Palm Springs in 1947, he chose the Movie Colony neighborhood, where he could sip martinis with the likes of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Cary Grant. His sprawling estate, with its seven bathrooms and piano-shaped swimming pool, hosted two of the crooner’s wives (Nancy Barbato and Ava Gardner) and a bevy of Hollywood celebrities.
Named after a pair of palms that grow near the pool, the site ranked as one of the region’s most notorious party houses: When Sinatra hoisted a flag emblazoned with the Jack Daniels logo, his Movie Colony pals knew that cocktail hour had begun. The home was also a legendary place for domestic squabbles. One of the most outrageous involved Frank throwing all the possessions of then-wife Ava Gardner out onto the driveway when she tried to catch him there with Lana Turner. In another fight with Gardner, he was said to have hurled a champagne bottle, leaving a chip in a sink. While architecture tours only allow a drive-by view of the house, you can rent it for an unforgettable dinner party, wedding, or special sleepover for $2,600 per night.
Modernist architect Donald Wexler believed that steel was ideal for desert building—it was economical and stood tough against sun, heat, and wind. In 1961, he planned an entire Palm Springs subdivision of nearly 40 homes, all to be made out of prefab steel and glass. Wexler got the idea from prefab classroom design, adapting it to create his stylish yet affordable homes (original price tags in 1962: $13,000 to $17,000).
Even with his visionary design skills, Wexler couldn’t foresee the future—and the skyrocketing price of steel. Deemed too costly, the development was never completed, and the seven original homes were largely forgotten. Fortunately for design fans, Wexler’s prefab groundbreakers were rediscovered in the early 1990s, and most of the buildings have been carefully restored, complete with era-appropriate landscaping. Respectfully admire the private homes, in the Racquet Club Estates neighborhood, from the outside only (no public tours of the interiors are available).
Some say this building, smack-dab in the middle of it all on South Palm Canyon Drive, looks like a white cloud against a blue sky. Others claim it’s more like an oversize mushroom. No matter what you think, it’s an eye-catcher. A functioning bank since 1959 designed by Victor Gruen Associates, the structure was inspired by Le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamp, France. The distinctive wide overhang shades out the hot desert sun, while the bulbous styling and round corners come straight out of a period cartoon.
Even though you can only peer at this spectacular private home from the end of its driveway and through a guarded gate, its design aesthetic is undeniable. In the late 1940s, architect Richard Neutra designed this vacation home for the Kaufmann family—clearly no slouches when it came to architecture, since they also commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design another icon, Fallingwater. The Kaufmann’s Palm Springs pad is now regarded as one of the most significant buildings of its time. Mixing steel, glass, and Utah stone, the structure blurs the line between indoors and out, blending with the land to complement and celebrate it.
Seven U.S. presidents and countless international dignitaries have been guests at Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s lavish estate in Rancho Mirage. (The former publishing magnates’ house was nicknamed “Camp David of the West.”) Get the backstory in the LEED gold-certified visitor center before touring the glass-walled home designed by mid-century master A. Quincy Jones. In the main home, interiors have all the colors of the era—lime greens and pinks—but it all somehow works with the desert backdrop framed by the floor-to-ceiling windows. Tours sell out well in advance, so plan ahead. And wear your sneakers—the house alone is 25,000 square feet, even though it only has two bedrooms. No ticket? Join the locals for free strolls and bird-watching on the nine-acre gardens, where Mrs. Annenberg oversaw plantings designed to mimic the waves of soft color found in Impressionist art. Grounds are open Thursday through Sunday, November through April.