written by:
March 24, 2009

In Palm Springs, California, “mid-century modern” connotes more than just Eames chairs and glass walls; it also hints at Hollywood Regency. From the 1920s through the 1970s, silver screen stars from Frank Sinatra to Bob Hope built vacation homes in the Coachella Valley by modern architects such as E. Stewart Williams and John Lautner. But in Palm Springs, modernism became more that just a style for celebrities, it became a way of life for the masses, too. The Alexander Construction Company built over 2,500 affordable tract homes designed by the likes of Charles DuBois, Donald Wexler, and, predominantly, William Krisel.

In the 1940s, Edgar J. Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh department store giant and the same Kaufmann who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build his Falling Water home in Pennsylvania, asked architect Richard Neutra to built a vacation home for his family in Palm
In the 1940s, Edgar J. Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh department store giant and the same Kaufmann who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build his Falling Water home in Pennsylvania, asked architect Richard Neutra to built a vacation home for his family in Palm Springs. The resulting home is now one of Neutra’s best-known works.
1 / 7
The Wexler Steel Houses, constructed by the Alexander Company in the 1960s.
The Wexler Steel Houses, constructed by the Alexander Company in the 1960s.
2 / 7
At the 4th Annual Modernism Week in Palm Springs, architect William Krisel was honored with a star bearing his name along the city’s Walk of Stars. Krisel is shown above at the ceremony with his wife, Corinne.
At the 4th Annual Modernism Week in Palm Springs, architect William Krisel was honored with a star bearing his name along the city’s Walk of Stars. Krisel is shown above at the ceremony with his wife, Corinne.
3 / 7
Sidney Williams's love of architecture and design stems from her childhood growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she found modern art and architecture around every corner.
Sidney Williams's love of architecture and design stems from her childhood growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she found modern art and architecture around every corner.
4 / 7
Wind turbines cover the landscape just north of Palm Springs.
Wind turbines cover the landscape just north of Palm Springs.
5 / 7
The Gand House, a home designed by Charles DuBois in 1958.
The Gand House, a home designed by Charles DuBois in 1958.
6 / 7
Modern Way.
Modern Way.
7 / 7
In the 1940s, Edgar J. Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh department store giant and the same Kaufmann who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build his Falling Water home in Pennsylvania, asked architect Richard Neutra to built a vacation home for his family in Palm
In the 1940s, Edgar J. Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh department store giant and the same Kaufmann who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build his Falling Water home in Pennsylvania, asked architect Richard Neutra to built a vacation home for his family in Palm Springs. The resulting home is now one of Neutra’s best-known works.

Each year, thousands of visitors flock to Palm Springs for a taste of its modern architecture but also for the city’s ever-growing international film fest, outdoor adventures (including hiking and snowshoeing in the mountains), nightlife, or just simply for its warm weather and breath-taking natural surroundings. To put Palm Springs’s glamorous modern past and its preservation-problem-riddled present into perspective, we spoke with Sidney Williams, the Palm Springs Art Museum associate curator of architecture and design and daughter-in-law of architect E. Stewart Williams.

Sidney Williams's love of architecture and design stems from her childhood growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she found modern art and architecture around every corner.

It’s interesting how there are so many modern houses interspersed with the local Spanish-Mediterranean style homes and how they don’t seem at odds with one another. How did that come to be?


The eclectic architecture is the nature of Palm Springs. Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, was the first modern architect to build a modern structure here when he designed the Oasis Hotel in the 1920s. We had some interesting residents here and visitors with winter homes in Palm Springs who were more willing to go beyond the comfort level of the local people and sought out architects like Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Rudolph Schindler, or the local modern architects to do something that for that time was very edgy.


Are there still residents and winter visitors who seek out modern architects?


We have some local architects today who are doing some really good work but we need more patrons. For excellent architecture to be built, it takes people who are really interested in it and see it as a way of personal expression but also have an adventuresome spirit. Today we live in a time where developers have taken the reigns instead of the individual patrons.


In the 1950s Palms Springs had local architects William F. Cody, Albert Frey, William Krisel, Donald Wexler, and your father-in-law, E. Stewart Williams, all doing modern work. Who are the local modern architects to watch today?


Lance O’Donnell of O’Donnell Architects is a wonderful architect, as is Philip K. Smith III  of The Art Office and O’Donnell’s former business partner Ana Escalante of Escalante Architects.


What kind of community support is there to preserve mid-century modern architecture?


There are several groups that are very active: the Palm Springs Modern Committee, the Palm Springs Historical Society, and the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation. There are a lot of groups focused on educating the public because that’s the most important path to preservation. We have over 50 classified historical sites in Palm Springs and are diligently working on more as well as nominating historic districts and getting neighborhood associations involved.


Where would you suggest a visitor go in Palm Springs?


We have so many different types of visitors that it depends on what the person’s interests are. If they’re into architecture, take the tours and go to the Palm Springs Art Museum. Some people, and a lot of outdoorsy people, are very attracted to the environment of the mountain, the Indian Canyons, and the contrast of the desert and the mountains.


What is something to see that only someone from Palm Springs would know?


The wildflowers when they bloom in the spring. The drama of the purple, yellow, and other-colored wildflowers in the mountain next to the desert is such an amazing combination.

The wildflowers when they bloom in the spring. The drama of the purple, yellow, and other-colored wildflowers in the mountain next to the desert is such an amazing combination.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016
amaroso40040
When a garage damaged by termites had to go, a studio emerges.
June 19, 2016
the blue lagoon iceland geothermal spa hotel water visitors
The famed geothermal spa outside Reykjavík, Iceland, is entering a major new phase—paving the way for the area’s first five-star hotel.
June 19, 2016
heaven on earth maya lin topography what is missing california academy sciences wood video
A new monograph by Rizzoli explores the memorial project by the renowned artist.
June 19, 2016
gable game austin texas cantilevered home facade windows upper level car port
For Dwell's annual issue dedicated to indoor/outdoor living. Here, we introduce you to the photographers and writers who made it happen.
June 18, 2016
Modern prefab lakeside home in Bloomingdale, New Jersey
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
June 18, 2016
Rectangular bento glass table with compartments.
These top-notch projects by design students earned a spot on our honor roll.
June 18, 2016
bozley all
Jory Brigham picks up his family’s trade and takes it in unexpected directions.
June 17, 2016
ph133407
The outlandish Belgian fashion designer, a member of the iconic Antwerp Six, creates a quirky pattern-filled capsule collection for the Swedish mega-retailer—with a high-tech twist.
June 17, 2016
2016 Triumph Pavilion
A creative take on the classic children's toy.
June 17, 2016
planar and simple chicago farmhouse addition kitchen mutina cabinets tiles pella window kohler faucet
A relaxed interior and radical roof make a home more sociable and energy-efficient.
June 17, 2016
up and away renovation san francisco family room richard wright painting sofa
A couple bring cohesion to an architectural mishmash in San Francisco.
June 17, 2016
new head of its class connecticut renovation summer home facade bleached cedar siding volumes glass bridge
A Connecticut home with a notable architectural legacy gets an expansive update for a family of six.
June 17, 2016
Rockefeller Center filled with cactus during the month of June.
To welcome summer, the plaza at Rockefeller Center transforms into a desert landscape.
June 16, 2016
Tennessee cabin with porch and a natural hardscape
A metal-and-cedar home rises on farmland in East Tennessee.
June 16, 2016
sailing the high desert prefab vaction home narrow building storage outdoor kitchen facade
A prefabricated off-the-grid vacation home in eastern Washington is one with the land.
June 16, 2016
view finder don dimster renovation los angeles rear facade deck western window systems doors sun shades
A new outlook for a Buff, Straub and Hensman gem perched high above Los Angeles.
June 16, 2016