Filled with distinctive post-World War II buildings designed by leading architects of the time, Palm Springs is America’s mid-century modern mecca. From the moment you arrive in town via State Highway 111, the soaring roofline of the Tramway Gas Station (designed in 1965 by mid-century master Albert Frey and now the Palm Springs Visitors Center), it’s clear that mod dominates the local landscape. Even Palm Springs City Hall, all sharp angles, bold cut-outs, and circles, has distinctive mid-century modern styling.
At the visitor center, pick up a Map of Modern Palm Springs; it points out worthwhile architectural sites, including structures designed by influential architects John Lautner and Richard Neutra. For a one-stop destination, visit the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center, housed in a 1961 bank building designed by E. Stewart Williams.
Sometimes it helps to have an expert lead the way, and both Modern Tours Palm Springs and The Modern Tour offer guided tours. On a Modern Tours Palm Springs architectural exteriors tour, participants remain in their own car and go at their own pace, with audio and photos provided via smartphones. The Modern Tour’s excursions—also self-driven—provide interior and exterior tours of the homes that are accessible on any given day. Also open for touring is Sunnylands, the classic Rancho Mirage estate designed by A. Quincy Jones for publishing magnate Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore. It’s a Mad Men–fan’s delight, where you can imagine women in pinched-waist dresses reclining on pink sunloungers, watching the desert sunset over very dry martinis.
If you catch the modern bug, the Backstreet Art District is the place to find vintage treasures at numerous design stores. Or immerse yourself in the retro world during Palm Springs annual Modernism Week, which offers architectural tours and sales featuring leading decorative and fine arts dealers. And to really live the mod life, stay in the Saguaro, the Ace, or other restored mid-century hotels and motels with period furnishings and swanky pools. Or splurge on an overnight stay at Sinatra’s legendary Twin Palms estate, complete with piano-shaped pool.