After 20-odd years of economic malaise and sinister repute, Palm Springs is fashionable again. Thanks to the thriving leisure economy of the 1990s -- but even more to a renewed interest in Modernist design and architecture -- the city is in the midst of a tourism renaissance. Today, you'll find the parking lots of mid-century motels and motor inns chock-full of expensive cars, whose owners are in town for a weekend of desert R & R.
Up until the 1910s, the only people roaming the Coachella Valley were the native Cahuilla tribes, Pacific Railroad workers who in 1876 had laid the tracks between Los Angeles and Yuma, Ariz., and a handful of adventurous pioneers. In the 1920s, Palm Springs was still one of any number of Indian tourism towns in the southwest.
But the small, dusty desert enclave at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains had more things going for it than beadwork and fair weather. First, there was a profusion of water in the form of natural springs, which ensured its longevity as both a community and as a resort destination. Second, but no less important, was the enclave's proximity to Los Angeles. When Henry Ford captured the imaginations of American consumers in the early 20th century, he also secured a place for Palm Springs in L.A.'s iconography as a warm-weather playground for adults.
But it was wealth that transformed Palm Springs into the iconic town of mid-century Modernist architecture that it is today. The wealthy industrialists and plutocrats from the Midwest and East who first entered the valley by train for their winter sojourns often brought with them architects to construct Spanish, Victorian and ranch-style vacation homes. This pampered coterie also imported leisurely pastimes -- spending months at a time in the desert, they demanded entertainment in the form of golf and tennis. This is still very much the case today. The Coachella Valley boasts thousands of tennis courts and swimming pools, and well as more than 100 golf courses whose electric-green fairways, when juxtaposed to the surrounding boulders and sagebrush, are surreal in every sense of the word.
Beginning in the late 1920s and 1930s, the nascent Hollywood industry gave Palm Springs both celebrity and style. The dramatic desert landscape became a favourite weekend retreat, and an ambitious pool of architects, often straight out of the offices of French architecture and Modernist master Le Corbusier, accommodated them with luxury hotels, nightclubs, restaurants, swanky shops and racquet clubs.
For architects, building in the desert demanded innovative materials that could stand up to the wind and heat. Their discerning clients, never too shy to eschew a new trend, welcomed Modernist solutions.
By the late 1940s, Walt Disney, Darryl Zanuck, Liberace, Frank Sinatra and his Brat Pack, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Cary Grant and other entertainment heroes could be found reclining poolside in private villas built by some of Modernism's most accomplished practitioners, including Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Stewart Williams. The 1946 house Neutra built for magnate Edgar Kaufmann remains one of the most endearing symbols of the Modernist movement in the world. Indeed, architecture buffs rejoiced when the home's new owners commissioned a thorough and expensive renovation after several decades of neglect.
The Kaufmann house renovation is exemplary for Palm Spring's current state of mind. In the mid-1990s, vacation-goers inspired by cinema (James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever was filmed in Lautner's fantastic 1968 hilltop home for Arthur Elrod) and by mid-century architecture reportages in magazines such as Wallpaper and The New Yorker, swept into town and began buying up Modernist homes, gas stations and motels. These were not just entrepreneurs anticipating a real-estate renaissance, but aficionados of iconic design as well. They almost immediately set out restoring the buildings, which, though well preserved by the desert sun, were often dilapidated owing to the vagaries of economic malaise in the 1970s and 1980s.
Palm Springs' administrators, however, do not seem to know what to do with all of this mid-century architecture. Admittedly, the majority of tourists that come to Palm Springs are aging golfers who are more interested in shacking up in the air-conditioned environs of a faux-Spanish condominium than in a no-tell motel done up in period-style furniture and a 1950s minimalist guise. The Coachella Valley ranks among America's fastest-growing regions, and it is often easier and more profitable to tear down these centrally located structures and reclaim the land rather than renovate. In recent years, city council has mindlessly demolished William Cody's Springs restaurant, and just a few months ago destroyed a still-functional Albert Frey shopping centre to make room for new development.
The city has, however, spared another Albert Frey structure, the arching Tramway gas station, the first Modernist monument that greets visitors when driving into town. The city plans to turn it into a tourist centre.
Grassroots organization Modcom (Modern Committee), comprising many of the people responsible for the rejuvenated architecture awareness in Palm Springs, remains skeptical. "They still have to make the 'necessary' changes to accommodate the centre," says Andrew Danish, a regular visitor and co-author of one of the few books dedicated to Palm Springs' Modernist tick, Palm Springs Weekend. "In light of what they've already destroyed, our skepticism is more than justified."
Fortunately for the city, it is hardly possible to drive down Palm Springs two main drags, Palm Canyon Drive and Indian Canyon Drive, without being awed by the number of Modernist banks, shopping centres, mobile home parks (the truest symbol of modernity), gas stations and churches. This is particularly the case at the crossroads of Palm and Indian Canyon Drives, where three banks built in the late 1950s or early 1960s are located. These institutions -- two built by Steward Williams and one by Victor Gruen and Rudy Baumfeld -- are not only civic monuments in their own right, but are testaments to the wealth on which Palm Springs was erected.
Easier to miss are City Hall, built in 1952, and the International Airport terminal building, erected in 1960. Despite their general acclaim, both are situated far enough from the main drags and golf courses to elude the gaze of the average tourist. Only those with a detailed map and a keen eye will venture into the suburb estates and chic neighbourhoods at the base of St. Jacinto Mountain, where iconic villas and test case homes are scattered at random. Similarly, to gain access to the sleek homes of mid-century stars such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, you've got to have connections. These buildings are often visible on their hilltop perches from the road, but are usually blocked off by gated communities and private golf resorts with guard posts at the entrances.
For many, the only mid-century architecture they need to see is in their motels. Over the past three years, diminutive motels such as Miracle Manor and Hope Springs, both located in a suburban tract in Desert Hot Springs, have reconstructed the minimalist luxury and seclusion of 1950s motels with the addition of 21st-century spa treatments. Miracle Manor, credited as the trend's pioneer, guarantees its guests R & R with rooms minus telephones and televisions, and a rejuvenation recipe that combines natural spring pools, deep rubdowns and desert breezes.
The popularity of these motels among L.A.'s smart set ensured that offshoots were quick to follow. In Palm Springs, there is the Orbit Inn, which offers a 1950s experience right down to the silverware, and the larger Estrella, with its 1970s-themed poolside bungalows. Even large mid-century motor inns have joined the fray. Last May, the owners of Caliente tropics Resort on East Palm Canyon invested $2.2-million (U.S.) to recreate the upscale, 1960s Polynesian-style atmosphere, complete with Tiki sculptures and Polynesian music. It may look like a typical motor inn from the exterior, but the rooms aren't cheap, and the parking lot is filled with the BMWs and Hummers that passed you on the I-10 on your way out from L.A.
While Palm Springs was suffering its downturn in the 1970s and 1980s, the rest of the Coachella Valley continued to build, with new oases such as Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and Indio popping up above the tamarisk trees and jimsonweed. Modernism may reign in Palm Springs, but for every iconic hotel and bank there are 20 postmodern ones to compete.
Now that Palm Springs is fashionable again, it is impossible for architecture buffs with modest bank accounts to swagger into town and leave with a mortgage on a Sinatra home. The next best thing is to earmark a few days, rent a car and view these structures as the sculptures they truly are.
WHERE TO STA Y
Miracle Manor Retreat: Desert Hot Springs; phone: (760) 329-6641; Web: http://www.miraclemanor.com.
Hope Spring s: Desert Hot Springs; phone: (760) 329-4003; Web: http://www.hopespringsresort.com.
Orbit Inn: Palm Springs; (760) 323-3585; Web: http://www.orbitin.com.
Estrella Hotel Resort & Spa, Palm Springs; visit the Web site at http://www.estrellapalmsprings.com; phone: (760) 320-4117.
Caliente tropics Resort: Palm Springs; phone: (760) 327-1391; Web: http://www.calientetropics.com.
For general information on Palm Springs and its modernist history, visit the tourism bureau Web site at http://www.palm-springs.org.
For information and articles on the area visit Palm Springs Life on the Web at http://www.palmspringslife.com.
For information on the conservancy of work of the Modern Committee, contact Los Angeles-based Modcom: phone: (213) 623-2489; Web: http://www.modcom.org.