Design Destination: Palm Springs
While away a weekend at the epicenter of modernism, where you can see—and stay in—some of the West’s most iconic midcentury designs
A drive through the neighborhoods of Palm Springs, California, reads like a roster of the midcentury’s most notable architects—Wexler, Williams, Cody and Frey, to name a few—who designed homes for some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, from Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope to Elvis Presley and Lucille Ball.
Thanks to this confluence of moneyed clientele and forward-thinking architects, Palm Springs quickly became home to the greatest concentration of Midcentury Modern architecture in the country. The dramatic landscape of towering mountains and stark desert inspired these visionary architects to design sleek modern homes that respond to and embrace the environment. Their design aesthetic—flat roofs that seemingly float above walls of glass, deep overhangs that shield rooms from the sun, and open floor plans that merge seamlessly with the outdoors—would become known as Desert Modernism, and to this day, its informal yet elegant indoor/outdoor style inspires architects throughout the West and around the world.
WHAT TO SEE
1. Swiss Miss Houses, 1958-1962; Vista Las Palmas
The George Alexander Construction Company relied on architects William Krisel and Dan Saxon Palmer to design nearly all of its Palm Springs dwellings; 15 notable exceptions are known as the “Swiss Miss” houses. Designed by architect Charles E. DuBois, these charming post-and-beam structures are equal parts tiki hut and alpine chalet. While each of the Swiss Misses is unique, common threads include a peaked entry and A-frame living room featuring a massive floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace flanked by large expanses of plate glass.
2. Tramway Gas Station (Palm Springs Visitors Center), 1965; 2901 North Palm Canyon Drive
Designed by architects Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers at a time when many businesses commissioned works of architecture to reflect their success, this eye-catching former gas station, now the Palm Springs Visitors Center, is a fitting gateway to the town. Frey was known for treating roof planes as sculptural elements, and this structure’s soaring roofline that spans nearly 100 feet—and is supported by just six steel pipe columns—serves as a beautiful example.
3. Twin Palms Estates, 1957-1959; between Camino Real, La Jolla and Twin Palms Roads
In the 1950s and ’60s, the George Alexander Construction Company changed the face of Palm Springs by building more than 2,000 stylish single-family homes, nearly all of them designed by architects William Krisel and Dan Saxon Palmer. Their first tract of 39 homes was built here in Twin Palms Estates. Although the square-shaped floor plans are essentially identical, the homes’ unique rooflines, façades and finishes create distinctive looks. To identify one of these gems, look for this sequence of spaces: a parking area, then a breezeway, windows and a wall.
4. Alexander Steel Houses, 1960-1962; 300 and 330 East Molino Road; 290 Simms Road; 3100, 3125, 3133 and 3165 Sunnyview Drive
In the early 1960s, architect Donald Wexler, who believes that steel is an ideal building material in desert climes, set about designing an easily replicated, all-steel “home system” for the George Alexander Construction Company. The project came to a halt when a steel embargo made the development unprofitable—but not before Wexler designed and built seven 1,400-plus-square-foot homes. After surviving a period of neglect and decay, the north-end neighborhood and its one-of-a-kind homes are now protected as historic sites.
5. Edris House, 1953; 1030 West Cielo Drive
A classic example of Desert Modernism in the Little Tuscany Estates neighborhood, this house clad in stone and Douglas fir appears to rise organically from the rocky landscape, perfectly conveying architect E. Stewart Williams’ philosophy of bringing the desert into the architecture rather than placing the architecture on the desert. To this day, everything you see is original. Even the palm trees are left untrimmed, as the home’s first owner Marjorie Edris had preferred.
6. Coachella Valley Savings & Loan No. 3 (Chase bank), 1960; 499 South Palm Canyon Drive
Fans of architect Max Abramovitz’s Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City may notice familiar elements in this sculptural structure on Palm Springs’ main thoroughfare. Designed two years before the Avery Fisher Hall by architect E. Stewart Williams, this 1960 bank, now a Chase bank branch, draws the eye with its elegant, inverted white arches that rise above a floating terrazzo staircase and cast shadows on a dramatic wall of bronze corrugated metal.
7. Kaufmann House, 1946; 470 West Vista Chino Road
Designed for the same Edgar Kaufmann Sr. who commissioned “Fallingwater” from Frank Lloyd Wright, this glass, steel, aluminum and stone landmark (above) is one of the best-known designs by architect Richard Neutra, whose buildings are considered the embodiment of modernism’s International Style. After enduring years of neglect and insensitive renovations, it was restored to its original glory in 1997 by Los Angeles-based architecture firm Marmol Radziner.
WHERE TO STAY (IN A MIDCENTURY CLASSIC)
1. Desert Star Hotel
This hip Midcentury Modern property—designed by Howard Lapham in 1954—may be small, but its five bungalows are anything but modest. Each light-filled room is nearly 600 square feet, furnished with modern designs by Eames, Nelson and Bertoia, and includes a king-size bed, lounge area, full bathroom, fully equipped kitchen and a private patio for relaxing and dining. A central courtyard offers more outdoor living space, complete with a heated saltwater pool, stylish lounge furniture and mountain views. In a word: cool. From $140 per night. desertstarhotel.com
2. The Horizon Hotel
Designed by William Cody in 1952 for media mogul Jack Wrather and his wife, actress Bonita Granville, this peaceful, adults-only hotel features low-slung, angular architecture. Spare and stylish guest rooms are all about the views, which are framed by floor-to-ceiling walls of glass and perfectly positioned clerestory windows. Some rooms take the indoor-outdoor connection even further with private outdoor showers. Each room has its own patio; have your complimentary breakfast served there or even poolside. For the ultimate getaway, book the private 1,000-square-foot residence, complete with a full-size pool and swanky sunken bar. From $109 per night. thehorizonhotel.com
3. Orbit In
This little piece of paradise consists of two properties—The Orbit In (1957) and the Hideaway (1947)—located just two blocks apart, in the Historic Tennis Club District at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains. Featuring the classic midcentury courtyard style, both lodges were built by Herb Burns, the designer/builder who introduced Palm Springs to the “ultra-modern motor court inn.” Meticulously maintained guest rooms feature private patios, original kitchens and baths, iconic Midcentury Modern furnishings by Bertoia, Saarinen, Eames and more, and even a Crosley record player. From $129 per night. orbitin.com
4. Beau Monde Villas
Imagine spending the weekend at Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate (pictured on facing page) or lounging at a home designed by William F. Cody or William Krisel. Beau Monde Villas offers them all in its portfolio of more than 30 architecturally significant Palm Springs homes. Each is stylishly furnished and impeccably
maintained, and comes with perks including a personal house butler, concierge services, pre-arrival grocery delivery and more. Inquire for rates. beaumondevillas.com
WHERE TO EAT IN PALM SPRINGS
There’s no better way to start a day of architecture-peeping than with a hearty breakfast—featuring seasonal, locally grown ingredients—at Cheeky’s. Forget calorie-counting and start with the West’s most delicious cinnamon roll (the secret is the flaky croissant dough). cheekysps.com
At lunchtime, head to Jake’s for tasty fish tacos or the turkey BLTA. Don’t leave without stopping at the dessert case, where you’ll find gorgeous cakes and the restaurant’s famous giant cupcakes-of-the-day. jakespalmsprings.com
For a casual dinner, snag a patio table at Birba, where you can kick back and watch passersby as you sip cocktails (try a refreshing Lemongrass Rickey) and snack on delicious thin-crust pizzas topped with everything from San Daniele prosciutto and arugula to egg, pancetta, pecorino and spring onion. birbaps.com
WHERE TO GET THE LOOK
The name says it all. This little shop is brimming with bold colors and fun patterns—splashed on everything from tableware to area rugs, accent pillows to furnishings just for kids. On our wish list: “In the Mix” plate sets featuring four mod black-and-white patterns—perfect for dressing up basic white dinnerware. notneutral.com
2. Interior Illusions
Shop a wide range of glam furnishings, rugs, lighting, artwork and accessories, almost all in a bold palette of black and white. interiorillusionshome.com
3. Insolito Home
Find cool and quirky limited-production furnishings, including “Seatbelt” chairs from the Phillips Collection, sculptural “Peacock” chairs by acclaimed designer Dror Benshetrit and one-of-a-kind hand-blown-glass lighting fixtures. insolitohome.com
4. Modern Way
Pop in and browse an ever-changing selection of real-deal furniture, accessories, lighting, rugs and art from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s (think iconic Warren Platner lounge chairs, Bertoia Bird Chairs (pictured) and a groovy Milo Baughman lambswool pouf). psmodernway.com
5. Trina Turk Residential
Uncover a bright and bold array of decorative accessories, pillows, prints and the latest, greatest design books. trinaturk.com