My first time in Seattle. It reminds me of San Francisco, minus the fog. I was not anticipating a city built on hills overlooking the expansive and busy harbor. On first impression, it’s a sophisticated city with a good, inexpensive public transportation system, a young population and no trash on the streets. Although there are as few trash cans on the street as Philadelphia, people do not throw their trash on the street, and I am not just talking about the downtown tourist core. During 10-hours of walking around the city, I saw one Starbucks paper cup on the ground.
The Pike Place Public Market is a food mecca. Despite being a major tourist attraction, the huge enclosed and outdoor market displayed suburb produce, flowers, fish, meats, cheeses and crafts in abundance.
A wide variety of street performers round out the browsing, eating and entertainment experience.
I fully realized, while surrounded by cooler air and wildflowers in the San Bernardino Mountains, that Palm Springs is a lot more than Bentley motor cars. Within an hour’s drive are destinations favored by people for hundreds of years. White settlers built towns at these locations in the late 19th Century. Fashionable Lake Arrowhead and diverse Big Bear Lake in the northern mountains, family camping/cabin oriented Idyllwild on the southern side of the valley and the vast desert spectacle of Joshua Tree National Park are all easy, or leisurely, day trips.
It was 105 (F)/37(c) on a June day as I drove up dramatic Route 74 between the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains. The harsh, barren desert on this leeward side of the mountains slowly gave way to lush vegetation within the San Bernardino National Forest. So did the temperature. By the time I reached Idyllwild at over 5,000 feet elevation it was 80(F)/35 (C). I could make a play on the town’s name: In Idyllwild you idle away your time. It’s a charming, log cabin town within tranquility and beauty. Restaurant Gastronome (54381 Ridgeway Drive) was a decent choice for lunch. Wood frame, stone fireplace, beam ceilings, stained glass bar and a pleasant tree-shaded terrace to dine outside. Nothing special except the atmosphere and the moderate prices for lunch.
Driving north out of the valley towards Joshua Tree National Park, I passed the town of Desert Hot Springs, although the name should be “Desert Hot Winds.” With constant winds in excess of 40 miles per hour, the mountain sides are covered with thousands of wind turbines providing over 20% of the Coachella Valley’s energy needs. Joshua Tree National Park is vast. At 4,000 feet elevation it’s not as hot as the valley and at night it usually is cold. The park preserves the Joshua tree, a unique palm that is indigenous only to this specific region of the southwest. Besides, the landscape is stunning and the rock formations spectacular. At one lookout the San Andres Fault is clearly visible. Fifty miles north of Palm Springs, the park is an easy day trip.
Fortunately I was not driving the car as we climbed the San Bernardino Mountains along the eastern flank on our way to Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead. If I had been driving, the car would have sailed off the road because I could not stop turning my head to look at one beautiful scene after another. From the scrub desert, the 7,000 foot ascent transforms into lush forests and narrow valleys filled with clouds. The lake region is popular all year round with skiing in the winter. Big Bear Lake stretches for miles with a succession of communities both gated and so laid back it looks like the 1960′s. Lake Arrowhead is tony with a designer town, shops and restaurants to match. Once more, the landscape is stunning and in summer, the temperature at Lake Arrowhead in the evening was 65 (F)/17 (C). I took a day trip, but the drive to Lake Arrowhead from Palm Springs via I-10 west and San Bernardino takes less than an hour.
The Palm Springs Museum of Art is a gem. I don’t know why I was surprised by the exceptional quality of its collection considering the wealth in the Coachella Valley. Ranging from mesoamerican art, classic 19th century American west paintings, southwest native crafts to modern sculpture in bronze that mimics dessert drift wood, the museum is a calm, enriching atmosphere. The lower level sunken outdoor sculpture garden is a delight with pools, fountains, glass and bronze art works. The temperature in the garden is a good 10 to 15 (F) cooler! At night you can walk outside the building and look over the wall at the illuminated sculptures garden.
Palm Springs and the surrounding area has no shortage of hotels from budget to ultra-lux. The historic district of mid-century modern homes has the oldest (1920′s) and finest small inns in the city. Many of them are in the $100 – $200/double range in off-season, and some even in-season (November – March) and blend so well into the residential community as to go unnoticed as hotels. Best of all, they are within easy walking distance (2 or 3 blocks) of Palm Canyon Drive and the heart of Palm Springs.
The Old Ranch Inn is a suburb 8-room hotel with its casita rooms surrounding the inviting swimming pool with a beautiful view of the mountains. An original late 19th century ranch, the owners first built casitas and a pool in the 1920′s for Hollywood visitors. By the time its current owners purchased the property ten years ago, time and neglect had taken its course. Ed and Larry painstakingly restored and upgraded the inn into well decorated large suites with kitchenettes, private baths, private patio retreats and a few fireplaces. The atmosphere is that of a weekend house party since the pool is the afternoon and early evening gathering spot. Conversation flows freely and new friends are made. A hotel can chart its success by the number of repeat quests, and when more than one room is occupied by repeat guests from Europe, I’d say the Old Ranch Inn is secure.
The Palm Springs dining scene is eclectic but heavy on grilled meats, southwest and Mexican food. There are many decent restaurants, but only one outstanding establishment, Copley’s on Palm Canyon ( 621 North Palm Canyon Drive). It’s setting itself is historic, the restored 1930′s adobe-style home of Cary Grant. The huge interior courtyard garden provides excellent outdoor seating for pleasant evenings. The interior space has been opened up, decorated with warm colors and western art. The cuisine is excellent: mini-sushi tacos with red & green roe, butter-tender filet with spicy grilled shrimp, generous Neiman Ranch pork chop, rich chocolate pate with homemade mocha ice cream and lavender pound cake with homemade basil ice cream. Arrive before sunset and watch as the desert’s dusky sunlight plays with the mountains and the blue/black night emerges punctuated by candle light.
The first snow birds were not from Hollywood. The Cahuilla Native Americans have been spending winters in the Coachella Valley for at least the past 500 years. The Cahuilla summered nearby (30 minutes to an hour by car today) in the cool mountains surrounding the valley with its abundant wildlife and lakes – such as present day Lakes Arrowhead and Big Bear. By the late 19th century, white settlers had subdued and reduced the Cahuilla to a desert reservation on the Coachella Valley floor, while the settlers built a rough western town on its edge, on part of the site of the hot springs (aqua caliente), and named it Palm Springs.
America’s early film industry’s selection of Hollywood was destined to turn the hot springs of the Coachella Valley into green dollars for the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla. Their previously worthless Reservation occupies 50 square miles (127 km²) in the Palm Springs area, including parts of the cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage. This makes the tribe an important player in the local economy, operating an array of business enterprises, including land leasing, hotel and casino operations, and banking. The total population actually living on Reservation territory is over 25,000 although few of these are tribal members.
By the early 1920′s, Hollywood had supplanted New York as the center of the film industry. Stars of the early silent screen seeking a rustic getaway from the bustle of Hollywood transported their dressing room trailers out to this oasis in the desert and virtually camped. Soon vacation houses were being constructed. Ironically, the start of the film industry’s Golden Age corresponded with the 1929 stock crash and the Great Depression. The all-powerful studios warned their stars not to build ostentatious vacation houses so as not to offend fans during this difficult time. Many of the early houses and commercial structures followed adobe designs, setting a modest sized low-rise style using natural materials that Palm Springs would adopt as a general code.
The stars arrived in a steady stream over the next 50 years. Many of their homes are preserved within the Palm Springs Historic District and by conscientious owners. Although driving tours are available to view the homes, most are not open to the public. You will be looking through a gate just as if you had the self-guide map and a rental car. One exception is the mid-1950′s home of Elvis Presley. In private ownership by a true Elvis fan, it is open for tours. The Andalusian Court has been operating as a luxury inn since the early 1920′s. It was the favorite retreat for Lucille Ball, Dezi Arnez and their kids to chill. In those pre-airconditioned days one simply did not go out in the daytime sun but took advantage of the cooling environment courtyards and pools provided.
By the post-war 1940′s and 50′s Palm Springs architects and their clients, now stars of both Hollywood and Wall Street, fully embraced international modernism championed by the Bauhaus school, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. Many homes and small low-rise hotels built within the historic district not only exist today but remain in private hands, such as the late 1940′s Chase Hotel and Hotel Del Marcos. Some inns have been transformed into condos.
For forty-years, from the late 1940′s through the late 1980′s, Palm Springs became a mecca for low-rise houses. The clean lines and generous use of glass, rock and steel blurred the line between interior and exterior space. Landscape design centered on the use of the great variety of sustainable native plant life in this oasis softening the house into the land. This blurring of in and out provided a natural privacy for interior courtyards and pools. Vast lawns of the type found in Las Vegas are rare. The exception to water excess are the unnatural, but welcome, abundance of swimming pools.
The great names in architecture of Mid-century Modern designed for some of the great names in American business and entertainment:
European born, Bauhaus educated refugee and architect Richard Neutra‘sKaufmann Desert House, 1947, set the tone with a dramatic yet natural glass, rock and steel residence overlooking Palm Springs. With the sandy rock the same color as the surroundings it seems the house has grown from the hillside. This was not the first time Edgar Kaufmann, Pittsburg department store tycoon, had championed modernism. A decade earlier he had commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwaters in southwestern Pennsylvania – considered the greatest mid-century home in America.
Ohio-born architect William Cody did for small hotels what Neutra did for homes with his 1947 Del Marcos Hotel. The angular lines and large window walls on the ground floor allow views of the inner courtyard/pool creating an airy blend of both inside and outside public space.
One of the preeminent architects is Donald Wexler who worked for both Neutra and Cody before establishing his firm. His own 1955 home is a testament to the influence of Neutra, and his use of steel framing allows his house to feel light and have a zen-like tranquility. Personally, I think his 1964 design for the Dinah Shore residence is the standard bearer for Mid-century Modern. His 1965 main terminal building for Palm Springs International Airport maintains the same low-rise open and airy motif for a commercial space that well suits a frequently windy desert. Born in 1926, Donald Wexler is still active in Palm Springs life.
Architect John Lautner was an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright for six years before establishing his own practice in Los Angeles. Just south of Palm Springs proper, perched on an exclusive hillside, is the dramatic 30,000 + square foot mansion he designed forBob Hope in 1979 – nicknamed the “UFO” when it was built. I do not know who designed the Maybach house (of the Maybach-Motorenbau GmbH fortune), but you have to look for a while to distinguish its form from its hillside perch.
E. Stewart Williams built some of Palm Spring’s most significant buildings during a long and prolific career including the beautiful 1946 Frank Sinatra house …
…. and the 1976 Palm Springs museum of Art.
Swiss architect Albert Frey worked in France for Le Corbusier before moving to the United States. Among his numerous designs is the iconic Tramway Gas Station, 1963, which every visitor passes entering the city from the north and frequently stops since it’s now the Palm Springs Visitors Bureau.
Fortunately, few buildings in Palm Springs assault the eye by being altered or replaced with cheap 21st century commercial materials. The city seems committed to preserving its status as a unique architectural oasis.
Nestled in the Coachella Valley, 110 miles east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs has been a favorite spot for winter living for at least 500 years. Sheltered by the San Bernardino Mountains (11,500′ elevation) to the north, the Santa Rosa Mountains to the south (8,700′ elevation), the Little San Bernardino Mountains (3,700′ elevation) to the east and the San Jacinto Mountains to the West (10,800′ elevation), the Coachella Valley sits on top of, for the time being, a still sustainable aquifer. Winter daytime temperatures (October through March) average 80 (F)/25 (C).
It’s true that day time temperatures April through September average over 100 (F)/33 (C), and I know it does little to mention that the humidity is near zero. Yet, like lizards in a desert, why would anyone want to go out in the mid-day sun? There are other hours of the day – the cool of a summer evening when a dry 80 (F) does feel wonderful, or the equally pleasant morning hours, and then there are always the mountains and lakes within 30 minutes to an hour drive where temperatures average 20 to 30 (F) lower !
Village Fest is any street fair anywhere – musicians, horse rides for the kids, activities such as the rock wall climb, street performers, shops open until 10:00 pm and food!! Naturally, the restaurants along Palm Canyon Drive are open, but remember this is a street fair in an agricultural region that has abundant access to farms using natural methods (organic, chemical-free). Available at stalls is a wide variety of produce, flowers, grains, fruits (fresh and dried) along with fresh-baked products, arts and crafts. Being a street fair, you’ll also find cotton candy, Philly cheese steaks (no, I didn’t have one…diet…), grilled brats and fresh caramel popcorn prepared in an improvised gas cooker made with a Hobart commercial dough mixer bowl ( resourceful). The fair stretches for blocks.
Unlike many street fairs, Village Fest is always in the evening which adds to the festive air as twilight colors the sky, the mountains darken in shadow and the lights of Palm Canyon Drive and Village Fest sparkle. Palm Springs may be the land of the Bentley (more per capita than Saudi Arabia) but it’s home to many average cars as well. All their owners seem to enjoy the timeless pleasure of a simple village fair.