Palm Spring California was the home of and still has the county’s largest concentration of the overwhelming majority of so-called Mid-Century Modern buildings. Most of these buildings were built from the mid-1940s through the 1960s. The style was used for both residential and commercial buildings. It is generally characterized by wide, low footprints, large open spaces, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a focus on bringing the outdoors in.
Homes of the Rich and Famous
Not surprisingly, many of the largest and most luxurious Palm Springs homes were built by Hollywood executives and especially stars (many of whose contracts required them to remain within two hours of Los Angeles should they be required for an emergency shoot). The names of the homeowners bring back memories of Hollywood and entertainment royalty from the 1940s and 1950s. Think Bob Hope, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglass, Steve McQueen, Liberace, Elizabeth Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dinah Shore, and Marilyn Monroe.
And speaking of Marilyn Monroe, her famous subway grate photo is commemorated in a 26-foot statue in the center of town.
Palm Springs was also Ground Zero for most of the Rat Pack. Dean Martin, Peter Lawford (with his inlaws Jack and Bobby Kennedy as quasi-frequent guests), and Chairman of the Board Frank Sinatra, all had homes there. And while Elvis didn’t own a home in Palm Springs, he did rent a home during the first year of his marriage to Priscilla—and threw wild parties.
The most famous mid-century modern home of all, however, or at least the one that is most architecturally significant, was owned not by Hollywood royalty but by a Pittsburg department store owner, Edgar Kaufman. He is more frequently associated with another famous, architectural gem—Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.
Kaufman, in fact, originally asked Wright to design his Palm Springs winter home. Wright generally did not turn down a commission. However, when he was asked to design Kaufman’s desert home, Wright claimed that he didn’t understand desert design and turned it down. This was surprising since he had created the incredible Taliesin West a decade before and another noteworthy Palm Springs building the Oasis Hotel two decades before.
Instead, Kaufman hired Richard Neutra, who had previously worked for Wright at Taliesin East. After seeing the home, Wright did another unusual thing: he complement another architect and congratulated Neutra on the project. Kaufmann meanwhile, has the distinction of having commissioned two of the most architecturally important homes in the world: the masterpieces of both Prairie Style and Mid-Century Modern.
Neutra became the most prominent of mid-century modern architects, despite designing few other Palm Beach homes.
Other Mid-Modern Masters
Among other prominent mid-modern masters who designed some of the most renowned Palm Springs homes of the genre were:
- E. Stewart Williams, who designed the Frank Sinatra Residence and created the Edris House and many commercial buildings (see below):
- William Krisel, designer of the House of Tomorrow (Elvis Honeymoon House)
- Donald Wexler, especially for the Dinah Shore Residence, the Alexander Steel Houses (prefab, all-steel homes, which were intended to fill an entire neighborhood but resulted in only seven due to rising steel prices), and several commercial buildings (see below)
- Erie Webster & Adrian Wilson for the Ship of the Desert (aka, the Trina Turk Residence);
- Albert Frey, one of the most prolific of the Mid-Century Modern craft, is especially known for his own Frey House II
The city also has a number of mid-century modern planned neighborhoods. While the Alexander Construction Company’s Steel House neighborhood did not come to full fruition, a number of others did. The largest and best known of these is Las Palmas Estates (by architect William Krisel), which is home to the greatest concentration of, and many of the most renowned of these homes including the Edis, Kaufmann, Dinah Shore, and the House of Tomorrow. Other communities include Racquet Club Road Estates (with the Grace Miller House—also be Neutra), Twin Palm Estates, and El Rancho Vista Estates.
Mid-Modern Commercial Buildings
A number of notable commercial buildings also are in the mid-century modern style. Among the most acclaimed are:
- The Albert Frey’s Tramway Gas Station (which was thankfully saved from destruction and was repurposed into the Palm Beach Visitor Center);
- The Palm Springs Public Library (William F. Cody);
- Two Coachella Valley Saving and Loans (E. Stewart Williams);
- Robinson’s Department Store (William Pereira & Charles Luckman);
- Fire Station No. 1 (Albert Frey and Robson Chambers);
- The Palm Springs Police Department; and
- Riverside County Courthouse (both by John Porter Clark) and dozens of others.
Hiking in Palm Springs
As our time was limited here—not to speak of the hot 90-degree mid-day temperatures—we limited ourselves to only one, relatively short hike: The Araby Trail.
This 4-mile up and back hike climbs 800 feet into the mountains, where it intersects with three other trails. The two-hour hike took us steadily up (with one significant downhill stretch near the beginning) with continual views of the valley, surrounding mountains, and the homes above—with one pretty patch of wildflowers. About a third of the way up, we spotted Bob and Dolores Hope’s large concrete eyebrow home peering over a ridge, complete with a large round water tank, pool, tennis court, and putting green. The trail had continual lovely views over the arid, brush-covered mountains and valley to the top of our trail, which provided an even more panoramic view.
Palm Springs Restaurants
And no visit to an area is without meals. We had 4 meals during our 2 days in Palm Springs.
- 4 Saints. We sat on a patio with a lovely view overlooking the city and the mountains that surround it. Our dinner began with a shared plate of charred maitake mushrooms with grits, morita glace, and green apples. One entrée was a cornbread-stuffed roasted quail with demi-glace on a sea of red peas, mustard seeds, grapes, and red onions. A roasted steelhead salmon on a bed of Carolina gold rice with guanciale, collard greens, and almonds was the second entree. Although all three dishes were fine, none stood really out. Our service started strong and trailed off to a point where we couldn’t find our server, nor apparently, could his colleagues who we asked to send him to our table. We, however, had no problems with the wine, a very nice 2018 Regis Bouvier “Les Longeroies” from Marsannay.
- Copley’s on Palm Canyon is located in the guest house of Cary Grant’s “Las Palomas” Palm Springs estate. It is a lovely property where we both had very good meals. Joyce’s shrimp and three-cheese grits with bacon, chorizo, roasted sweet corn, asparagus tips, and lobster sauce was delicious. Although Tom’s original serving of orange-rosemary duck breast with grits, baby spinach, and a pinot noir and pomegranate sauce was somewhat overcooked, the replacement was very good. So too was our 2019 Alexana Terroir Series Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. And while wine markups were steep (as we found throughout Palm Springs), the overall pricing was very reasonable for the quality of the food and service and the location.
We also had two lunches:
- Jakes, where we had two sandwiches: A wonderful tempura-fried softshell crab with apple-smoked bacon, tomato, arugula, and basil aioli on a brioche roll and a much less exciting tail-meat lobster roll with Old Bay remoulade, celery, red onion and romaine lettuce on a brioche roll.
- Reben & Ozzy Oyster Bar, where we were very pleased with our order of fried oysters but found the green lip mussels (steamed in white wine, garlic, basil, tomato, and onions) to be tough and tasteless.