Missouri’s Kansas City is undergoing a revival that’s attracting businesses back from the suburbs and especially from that “other” Kansas City.
Philadelphia and its surrounding counties – Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware – were all part of the original land grant of Pennsylvania that William Penn received from King James II in the late 1600’s. Having alienated his famous father, Admiral Penn, by associating with that “radical religious cult,” the Society of Friends (Quakers), William took his inheritance to establish a utopia of free speech and social equality in the New World.
I grew up in historic Bucks County in the 1950/60’s when it had a population of 250,000 (over one-million in 2011) and there was so much open farmland I was always bored on a “dog-day” July afternoon because the world was so silent. It was a racially segregated society. There were some African-American families living in the county. Many worked on the large prosperous farms. My parents occasionally employed a local African-American resident (his family still lives in the area) to help around our 14-acres of (non-farm) land. He always had lunch with us, and he was always addressed as “Mr. …” – which was how we were taught to address adults. My parents were liberal Catholics. I was 11 years old when I lost my innocence concerning racial prejudice. An African-American farm-worker family enrolled their boys in our local Catholic school – the outcome was not pretty. I was shocked, horrified and puzzled at the racist reaction of my friends and their parents. The boys didn’t last long. It was the beginning, for me, of life-long realities.
In the 1860’s, Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County, consisted of large Quaker-owned farms. It became a favorite location for wealthy Colonial Philadelphians to establish country farm/estates. By the Civil War, 1860-1865, the area had attracted both the interest of wealthy investors and the Federal Army. Camp William Penn was created as the first, and only, Civil War training camp for Black soldiers. The site was deliberately chosen because, being within a Quaker community, there was less racial intolerance than within the city itself.
Lucretia Coffin Mott, born into a prominent New England Quaker family, settled in Philadelphia with her husband in the 1820’s and, with both their strong anti-slavery views, created one of the first anti-slavery societies in the country – as well as being a leader in women’s rights (Seneca Falls) and many other social issues. Her son-in-law, Edward M. Davis, was a wealthy Quaker who had a vast farm/estate in Cheltenham Township which she and her husband often retreated to when their home on 3rd. & Arch in the city became too frenetic. After the Civil War, Cheltenham became the focus of intense real estate development among wealthy Philadelphians – many non-Quakers: P.A.B. Widener, William Luken Elkins, John Wanamaker. With Quaker influence, a unique development formed.
As these wealthy families built their own vast estates and developed such exclusive communities as Wyncote, Glenside and Elkins Park, the influence of the Davis and Mott families encouraged these non-Quaker millionaires to act with a social conscience. Davis and Mott set aside land from their estate for African-American families – many were workers on neighboring estates – to rent and own their own dwellings. In the 1890’s one of the first home owners was the butler to Mr. William Elkins. Architecturally, there is nothing interesting about La Mott. The houses are classic working class bungalows, row houses and twins that are found in all Northeast coast cities. Yet it’s the reality that such a neighborhood existed at all with the opportunity of home ownership in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that is remarkable.
Of course, African-American’s were still segregated, and employers were the wealthy white residents of the Township. Right next door to La Mott, separated by an enclosed iron gate, is the still exclusive Latham Park in Elkins Park. This mile-long private boulevard is lined with spectacular examples of upper-class architecture of the early 1900’s, including a stunning mid-century modern (1972) currently on the market for $625,000.
Even given the obvious racial/class differentiation of the past – although today more than one Black family owns a Latham Park house – La Mott Historic District represents a seminal social shift in American racial attitudes and is a prized symbol among Philadelphia’s Black community.
“I wish my buildings had all been made of stone,” the architect states.
“Why?” was my puzzled response .
“Because they’d last a thousand years…”
And the thought did trail off as this architect reminisced over lobster on his 80th birthday. One month later Paul d’Entremont, AIA (1908-1988), award-winning architect, passed away. In the intervening years I have seen a few of his, and his firm’s (Haag & d’Entremont), buildings go under the wreaking ball, but most of them remain.
Yet much to my surprise, one mile away from my home, the Abington Township School District complex of 50 acres was declared a historic site in 1985 by the National Register of Historic Places. The four structures are suppose to span a century of municipal architecture, 1875 – 1975, but, unfortunately, due to nearsighted municipal decisions that is not true. The largest of the four is the mid-century modern Abington Senior High School designed by my father and the only structure of architectural significance.
True, brick does not survive the years as well as chiseled stone, but then perhaps my father didn’t realize that National Historic Register designation is a preservative in its own right (he never talked about it). After all, most of the Egyptian monuments were government built. Many of my dad’s were as well – suburban schools during the post-war boom of 1945 – 1970. Internationalism/Modernism of the 1930/1940’s was the artistic influence on my dad’s generation and his buildings expressed an exuberance in clean lines, bright open spaces and the latest technology in building materials.
The National Historic designation specifically mentions the 1875 Huntingdon Junior High School, which, unfortunately, was demolished some decades prior to this designation. The complex today includes the 1920/1940/1970’s athletic complex, my father’s mid-century modern Senior High School and the ugly Abington Junior High School. It is a 50 acre complex of educational/institutional buildings on the same site that originally included the 1875 school. Otherwise, except for Paul d’Entremont’s building, there is nothing of design significance or any visible reason why it has National Historic designation.
The youngest building is the Junior High School. I was not able to locate the name of the architect or construction dates despite an extensive search on the web, but perhaps that’s best. Looking at the building on a brilliantly sunny day with a blanket of white snow, the Junior High School resembled the worst in drab, gray institutional warehouse architecture. I find no pleasant lines within the structure. It’s design philosophy seems to be industrial effieiency – beginning with bus drop off. The theatre entrance resembles the trash pick-up area of most municipal structures. It’s fitting to represent this late century trend in “no-frills” architecture although I see nothing of design value.
Set amidst comfortable Abington Township in Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, this campus of four structures is certainly complimented, and softened, by the still leafy country side. My dad would be pleased.
(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.
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.
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‘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.
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.
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.
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.