Palm Springs Living: Adobe to Mid-Century Modern

Top Right: Big Bear Lake, Bottom: Coachella Valley

(You can click all photos to expand)

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/ casino operations and banking. The total population actually living on Reservation territory is over 25,000 although few of these are tribal members.

Top: Gloria Swanson’s home, Bottom: Charlie Chaplin’s adobe

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 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.

Top left: Mario Lanza house, right: Elvis Presley house, Bottom left: The Andalusian Court Inn, right: Liberace house (note piano mailbox lower right of pic)

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.

Mid-century modern: Top left: Hotel Del Marcos (1947) Bottom left: the Chase Hotel (1948), Top right & bottom right: two former inns now condos.

  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:

Kaufmann Desert House, 1947

European born, Bauhaus educated refugee and architect Richard Neutra‘s Kaufmann 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.

Palm Springs International Airport, 1965

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.

Dinah Shore residence, 1964, Wexler residence, 1955

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 for Bob 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.

Top:Bob Hope House, 1979,  Bottom: Maybach House

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 …

Frank Sinatra house, 1946

…. and the 1976 Palm Springs museum of Art.

Palm Springs Museum of Art, 1976

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.

Tramway Gas Station, 1963

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.



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