Some of my favorite Frank Sinatra songs – “Come Fly With Me,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” played in my head as Bill and I were driving two hours east from Los Angeles for our first trip to the storied desert city of Palm Springs. I also visualized our classic Mid-Century Modern furniture – the Eames lounge and ottoman, Eames molded plywood lounge chair, Nelson platform bench, Bertoia diamond chair, and Grey end table – that are the centerpieces of our home décor.
Although my musings on music and furniture from the mid-20th century might seem out of place, they were actually right on target given our destination.
With its natural hot mineral springs, lush vegetation and 350 days a year of blue sky and sunshine, Palm Springs has long been an oasis for the wealthy, retirees, seasonal snowbirds, students on spring break, creative types, health seekers, and tourists alike. Thanks to the close proximity of Palm Springs to Hollywood, many early stars (Sinatra among them) chose it as their winter desert playground, as have today’s celebrities. In addition, Palm Springs since the 1920s has attracted visionary architects who, inspired by the desert surroundings, built a large concentration of homes and other buildings according to a design aesthetic now known as Desert Modernism. Many of these historic and architecturally significant places have been preserved and restored to new resplendence.
We’d heard that Palm Springs, having gone through various economic booms and busts, was once again experiencing a renaissance. Much of the city’s renewed vibrancy is due to the success of several special events. Tens of thousands of filmgoers come to Palm Springs in January for the prestigious Palm Springs International Film Festival. Modernism Week in February celebrates everything modern and features tours, films, fundraisers, events, parties, and symposia, proving that retro is hip in Palm Springs. The nearby Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in April draws all ages for its performances.
A quick weekend visit was in order, we decided, both for some R and R and to explore this hotbed of modernist architecture and design.
We stayed at La Maison Hotel, a secluded, boutique property with just 13 guest rooms and enclosed by high stone walls and dense shrubbery. Entry was through a single wooden door. We signaled our presence by pushing the buzzer. The husband-and-wife owners themselves – Richard Slosky and Cornelia Schuster – greeted us with our room key in hand. That was the check-in procedure.
The landscaped courtyard featured a 40-foot swimming pool, heated Jacuzzi, gently burbling fountains, and a vine-covered trellis. If we hadn’t known we were in Palm Springs, we easily could have imagined we were back in the south of France.
The Mediterranean look and feel continued inside the rooms, all of which overlook the pool. Ours was done in a neutral palate with simple, rustic furniture and imported linens. The bathroom amenities were from the French company L’Occitane en Provence. A fragrant sachet of lavender on the bed was a take-home gift.
They served a complimentary continental breakfast buffet, highlighted with Cornelia’s fresh-baked lemon scones. Richard, the barista, brewed espressos and cappuccinos, and poured wine precisely at 5:00 p.m.
Richard and Cornelia had been hard-charging advertising executives in Vancouver, Canada. Seeking a break from the stress, they bought and ran a small bed-and-breakfast inn on rural Salt Spring Island along the coast of British Columbia, where they perfected their art of hospitality. Again in need of a change, they came to Palm Springs and bought, remodeled and rebranded a run-down, gay, clothing-optional resort (hence the high walls), reopening in 2012 as La Maison.
By sheer happenstance during our stay, Trip Advisor announced that La Maison was #1 on its 2014 Traveler’s Choice award list of the top 25 small hotels in the U.S. Further, La Maison earned the #5 rating for service and #12 for romance.
Is it any wonder?
For our introduction to Desert Modernism we booked an excursion with Palm Springs Modern Tours. It was a 30-mile, drive-by look at dozens of properties with our guide, Robert, at the wheel. Our small group congregated at the Palm Springs Visitors Center, formerly an Albert Frey-designed gas station with a distinctive roof in the shape of a hyperbolic paraboloid.
Robert explained that the modernist body of work here encompasses homes, schools, hotels, civic buildings, bowling alleys, stores, museums, churches, car washes, schools, and even the airport – basically everything but high rises and bridges.
A veritable who’s who of architects – Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Donald Wexler, George and Robert Alexander, and Bill Krisel among them – fashioned the built environment in Palm Springs. Their designs leveraged the dramatic mountain scenery provided by the San Jacinto Mountains, warm sunny climate, and scrubby terrain.
Robert verbally dissected the structures, describing their design and historical provenance: architect; era; architectural, construction, and landscaping features; interior décor; original and current owners; and recent updates. Palm Springs has hardly any gated streets or neighborhoods (individual gated properties, yes), which makes street views of the homes fairly accessible.
He pointed out the main characteristics of Desert Modernism: streamlined silhouettes; flat roofs with wide overhangs; commercial and industrial materials like stone, steel, wood, and pre-cast concrete; minimal ornamentation; open floor plans; outdoor living spaces; and expansive glass walls and windows.
Many of the homes had been owned or rented by Hollywood’s Golden Age luminaries, including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Regan, and Bob Hope. Some of them have served as sets for movies. Leonardo DiCaprio is a new homeowner.
We were most intrigued by the landmark Neutra-designed Kaufmann Desert House. From our years living in Pittsburgh we knew that native son and retail magnate Edgar Kaufmann, Sr. had built a home here. Kaufmann also had commissioned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design the iconic Fallingwater in southwest Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, which we used to visit often.
We saw a little bit of everything, but it was just the tip of the iceberg.
After our tour, we walked through the palm tree-lined Uptown Design District, checking out the Mid-Century Modern retailers, boutiques, cafes, consignment shops, and art galleries.
We dined at the Workshop Kitchen + Bar with its industrial chic vibe and 27-foot-tall cathedral ceilings, and clinked glasses of prosecco while seated on the patio at Copley’s, which had been Cary Grant’s guesthouse.
Our favorite Palm Springs story came from Robert. It was about Sinatra. When the singer was in residence he hoisted a flag printed with a Jack Daniels bottle as the invitation for his friends to come over and party.