The sun rises over California’s Little San Bernardino Mountains, casting its dazzling light across the city of Palm Springs. This desert gem is awash in color: vibrant reds and pinks of bougainvillea and oleander, deep green palm fronds, the brilliant blue of a cloudless sky.
But the regional landscape isn’t the only thing prompting visitors to reach for their oversized Jackie O-style Francois Pinton sunglasses. The city’s showy homes and buildings — with incandescent white or desert sand facades, sparkling plate glass windows and pops of silver, metal, teal and orange on trim and doorways — are just as blindingly beautiful.
In fact, it is the architecture of this place — the largest concentration of midcentury modern buildings in the U.S. — that is behind Palm Springs’ revival as a Hollywood hideaway and top tourist destination.
“It’s an extraordinary and surprising paradise,” says Robert Imber, a 25-year resident and owner of Palm Springs Modern Tours. “It’s a desert… that is surrounded by these mountains. We have oases; we have a 60-foot waterfall, and then we have this historic architecture. It is beautiful, and it’s unique.”
A community of roughly 45,000 people, Palm Springs basks in 350 days of sunshine a year, winter highs in the low 70s and a year- round outdoor lifestyle that has beckoned celebrities since the 1920s, when silent-screen legend Gloria Swanson owned a home here.
Many celebrities followed — Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and the entire Rat Pack, including Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. The confluence of these moneyed vacationers wanting getaways that reflected their discriminating taste and the postwar building boom created a setting for some of the era’s top architects — Albert Frey, John Lautner, Richard Neutra and Donald Wexler, to name a few — to build remarkable works.
“The architects were responding to the environment. With air conditioning, there was a lot more they could do. They were experimenting with this new indoor-outdoor lifestyle, with homes opening to the swimming pools and glass walls to showcase the mountains,” says Chris Menrad, president of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, also known as
When midcentury modern fell out of favor in the late 1970s and 1980s, newcomers built larger, newer homes elsewhere in the Coachella Valley, leaving many of the city’s iconic homes and buildings untouched by time, but also neglected.
The late 1990s brought renewed interest, according to Menrad. Fashion photographers began scouting unusual spaces for photo shoots, and hipsters with an eye for architecture snatched up vintage 1940s, ’50s and ’60s homes at reasonable prices.
A Vanity Fair article on Palm Springs in 1999 simply fanned the flames, Menrad adds. “That huge spread followed by a renewed Zeitgeist for the style, with Mad Men and all, lit a fuse. Summer used to be a dead time, but now, weekends are always full.”
Today, visitors can enjoy the retro vibe in boutique hotels, resorts and restaurants, as well as public buildings and thousands of homes. For a small taste, they can pick up a map of iconic buildings at the Palm Springs Visitors Center, a brilliant Albert Frey-designed gas station saved from the wrecking ball in the 1990s.
Or they can download the self-guided ModCom Mid-Century Modern Tour app and design their experience around it. Narrated by architectural historians, the app highlights more than the exteriors of the midcentury buildings and includes videos of site interiors — an advantage over a map, since many buildings are privately owned and not tourable.
Private tours also can be arranged through Palm Springs Modern Tours, three-hour immersions into form and design from the comfort of a minivan. Imber, one of the city’s best-known architecture aficianados, serves as driver and guide, sharing his extensive knowledge of the area’s buildings and quirky insider tidbits on topics ranging from Hollywood-heyday gossip to California architects, designers and builders.
For those wanting more, ModCom hosts Modernism Week, which took place over 11 days in February this year and included more than 250 events, from specialty tours and lectures to panel discussions, education courses and, because this is Palm Springs, parties. A fall preview is set for Oct. 20-22.
American pop-culture comedian and connoisseur Charles Phoenix served as a bus tour guide during Modernism Week. When he drives from Los Angeles to Palm Springs and sees the visitor center’s distinctive sweeping canopy, any stress melts away.
“I feel like the world, the rest of the world somehow, doesn’t even exist anymore,” he says. Imber agrees: “Even those of us, we who live here, are really awed by this place every day.”
Make a Trip of It
Reservoir: Diners at Reservoir in the Arrive Hotel sit in Scandinavian-style chairs, underneath a butterfly roof, dipping into ceviche or shared tacos while overlooking the hotel pool, bar and toasty fire pits.
Sink into the deep green velvet banquettes of this clubby steak-house, order a classic dry martini, Manhattan or sidecar, and you’ll feel Rat-Pack cool in a restaurant that’s been around since the late 1940s when Frank Sinatra built his weekend getaway in Palm Springs.
L’Horizon: This William Cody-designed Hollywood retreat built in 1952 has been reimagined as 25-room luxury celebration of modernism, from the George Mulhauser chairs and cooper fireplaces in some rooms to a center court infinity-edge pool where guests enjoy complimentary foot and back massages.
Orbit In and Hideaway: These authentic midcentury modern properties have the same ownership. The Orbit In’s nine rooms boasts themes from top designers, including Eero Saarinen; the Hideaway’s 10 rooms have stunning mountain views.