Frey House II is perched on the rocky base of the San Jacinto mountains above downtown Palm Springs. Completed in 1964 for its architect and owner, Albert Frey, it distills the tenets of desert modernism in only 800-square feet.
There’s the embrace of indoor-outdoor living or, in the case of the Frey structure, the bear hug. Its expansive glass welcomes in views of the sprawling city below, as well as glimpses of its uphill neighbours, a herd of bighorn sheep. And the home is constructed around a massive chunk of granite that thrusts into the sleeping area. There are deep roof overhangs of corrugated metal to shield its open plan from midday sun and humble natural materials set against mid-century pops of yellow drapery and turquoise wall panels.
What the home also captures is an openness among the people of Palm Springs to invite architecture fans into the largest concentration of modernist properties in the United States. While the Frey house is now owned by the Palm Springs Art Museum, the city is filled with private and equally pedigreed residences that often welcome small group tours or, in the case of the city’s annual Modernism Week, hundreds of design looky-loos. Considering that many of the city’s homes were built to insulate their owners from the harsh desert environment and curious neighbours, such transparency illustrates the shift in how they’re shared with the world beyond their breeze block walls.
“Most of the owners of these homes feel like they’re custodians,” says architect Diane Bald, who sits on the advisory board of USModernist and recently restored a 1954 house once owned by actor Kirk Douglas in Palm Springs’s Old Las Palmas neighbourhood. Bald and her husband, Roots co-founder Michael Budman, began visiting the area in the late 1980s. When their interest in the Douglas house was piqued by news of the real estate listing in the New York Post, their first call was to family friend, actor Michael Douglas, Kirk’s son. They wanted to make sure he wasn’t interested in buying back his Donald Wexler-designed childhood home. He gave them his blessing. “I wouldn’t say it was the purest modernist house,” Bald says, citing walls that broke up sightlines and Italian mosaic tiles that had been painted over. “But it was the start of it.”
Before taking on the Palm Springs project, Bald had restored a 1957 Malibu beach house designed by Los Angeles architect Craig Ellwood. Her meticulous work won an award from modern architecture non-profit Docomomo in 2020. “There, we were really pure in our restoration,” she says, but in the Douglas house, Bald tweaked its floorplan, updated the kitchen, installed a terrazzo floor and achieved a heightened sense of light and flow. “You really feel the vibes when you walk in here. Everyone comments on it. It’s just a very happy and bright living space,” she says. During Modernism Week, Bald and Budman share it with up to 700 visitors. “As an owner of a home like this, I feel it’s important for the public to see it because these are great pieces of architecture.”
Since 2006, Modernism Week has been the main platform for snooping around the city’s catalogue of celebrity estates and mid-century neighbourhoods. “It was a bunch of non-profits getting together – the Preservation Foundation, the Modern Committee, the art museum and a few others – and saying, ‘what can we do? How do you raise money to do things?’ ” says Richard “Kip” Serafin, who was one of the early advocates for sustaining the city’s unique style. “We would have cocktail parties at homes that people couldn’t see. And then we decided from cocktail parties, you could go into tours.”
Today, Serafin and his company, Locations 760, act as a gatekeeper to some of the city’s more iconic properties, helping Louis Vuitton host its 2016 cruise collection at the John Lautner-designed Bob Hope estate or launching a BMW in the backyard of the Dinah Shore House, another Wexler property. “Today, it’s grown tremendously,” he says of Modernism Week.
The 2023 event in February hosted more than 100,000 design professionals, architecture buffs and tourists taking advantage of Palm Springs’s open-door ethos. “What’s happened over the years is some of the neighbourhoods have gotten all excited about it and see it as a good way to make money,” Serafin says. These neighbourhood associations, such as Canyon View Estates, where director Olivia Wilde filmed her 2022 thriller Don’t Worry Darling, use Modernism Week’s proceeds to keep their cul-de-sacs looking picture perfect.
Desert modernism’s influence on design owes a lot to the city’s spirit of preservation but its future clout depends on whether its homeowners continue to open up these spaces. “When I first started coming here in the late 1990s, there was a small group of very passionate, dedicated fans of modernism – preservationists, people who were eager to get their hands on these houses, which were suffering, to make sure they were preserved and restored,” says Trevor O’Donnell, who worked in entertainment marketing on Broadway before founding PS Architecture Tours. “Ten years ago, there were a lot of regular folks who very proudly bought and restored their homes and were very eager to open them and share their work. But these same houses are now selling for multiple millions of dollars to people who may not be as inclined to let a bunch of strangers tramp through their living room.”
O’Donnell says the design future of Palm Springs also depends on it continuing to be a laboratory for new ideas and not a Disneyland of decades-old homes. He names Sean Lockyer, Lance O’Donnell, Susan Secoy Jensen and Ana Escalante as a few of the contemporary architects helping to sensitively move its streetscapes forward. “The central ideals of modernism – the honesty, the purity, the lack of superfluous ornament, the form emerging out of function – they’re all there [in their work],” he says.
The desert modernism style these homes amplify was never meant to be static. “The sign that we had done the right thing [in our restoration], is that I’m friends with Gary Wexler, who is Donald’s son,” Bald says. “He walked into the house and broke down in tears and said, ‘oh my God, if my father could have seen this, he would have been so happy.’ So this is how the house was meant to be.”
This daytime spot is known for its bacon flight of applewood, celery salt and jalapeno flavoured slices. cheekysps.com.
A resort within the L’Horizon Resort and Spa, Hermann Bungalows offers handsome poolside suites with mid-century-inspired decor. Stays from $599 through hermannbunglows.com.
The winter event’s organizers host another abbreviated program of tours, talks and parties from Oct. 19 to 22. modernismweek.com.
MR. LYONS STEAKHOUSE
Following a classic steakhouse feast, slip into Mr. Lyons’ discrete bar, Seymour’s, for an after-dinner craft cocktail. mrlyonsps.com.
PALM SPRINGS ART MUSEUM ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN CENTER
Until July 2, this offshoot of the Palm Springs Art Museum exhibits American Framing, a remounting of the U.S. entry to the 2021 Venice Biennale of Architecture. psmuseum.org.
PARKER PALM SPRINGS
While the Insta-famous hotel’s recently reopened restaurant, Mister Parker’s, is this season’s hottest reservation, overnight guests can also grab a drink at the Mini Bar and snag a spot around its roaring lobby fire. Stays from $599 through parkerpalmsprings.com.
PS ARCHITECTURE TOURS
Trevor O’Donnell’s tours introduce groups to Palm Springs’ design history and standout properties. Two-and-a-half-hour tour, $120 through psarchitecturetours.com.
Visits to this Rancho Mirage house and grounds highlight its historic visitors, from Queen Elizabeth to President Barrack Obama, as well as owners U.S. ambassador Walter Annenberg and wife Leonore’s collection of art and furniture. Tours from $26 through sunnnylands.org.
THE COLONY PALMS
The historic hotel’s Colony Club restaurant is a chic spot for a midday meal on its poolside patio. colonypalmshotel.com.
THE PALOMA RESORT
The Paloma’s tapas restaurant, Sol y Sombra, serves a menu of paellas including seafood and vegetarian options. Stays from $299 through thepalomaresort.com.
Style Advisor travelled to Palm Springs as a guest of Visit Greater Palm Springs. The organization did not review or approve this article prior to publication.