Photo Essay: Revisit the Midcentury Classics of Palm Springs and Beyond

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By Adele Cygelman
Turning a new eye toward the landmarks and the legends of the desert modern oasis (and its neighbors).

If you’ve ever studied Palm Springs’ wealth of modernist architecture, you probably imagine that every house in every neighborhood sports the same profile: butterfly roof, pierced concrete block screens, post-and-beam open plan. And if you’re thinking of Vista Las Palmas or Racquet Club Estates, you’re right. 

The Desert House is about 40 miles outside of Palm Springs, sited on a pile of boulders at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, and it was finished in the early 2000s, long after the heyday of post-and-beam modernism. Yet there may not be another residence more attuned to the hardened landscape of the Coachella Valley than Kendrick Bangs Kellogg’s most outré experiment in organic architecture. 

The Desert House is about 40 miles outside of Palm Springs, sited on a pile of boulders at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, and it was finished in the early 2000s, long after the heyday of post-and-beam modernism. Yet there may not be another residence more attuned to the hardened landscape of the Coachella Valley than Kendrick Bangs Kellogg’s most outré experiment in organic architecture. 

But Palm Springs is much more than its Alexander Homes—as these houses, named for the Alexander Construction Company, are called. It’s an oasis of big-idea architecture, from the Spanish Colonial and International Style buildings of the 1920s to ’40s, to the postwar ranch houses, to the full-blown desert modernism of the ’50s, ’60s, and beyond. 

Its cast-concrete roof slabs evoke any number of desert sights—the fronds of a palm, the faces of stones, even the armored plates of an armadillo. 

Its cast-concrete roof slabs evoke any number of desert sights—the fronds of a palm, the faces of stones, even the armored plates of an armadillo. 

Most developers took ordinary materials—corrugated iron and glass, aluminum with baked-enamel finishes, concrete block, striated plywood, pecky cypress—and pushed and adapted them. Steel was prime, impervious to warping and allowing for wide spans of sliding glass doors. Those who built on the ridges and in alluvial plains incorporated the surrounding rocks and boulders into their projects. 

Hugh Kaptur, whose work references the pueblos of Arizona with thick walls, inset windows, and deep overhangs, may not be as famous as some of his midcentury contemporaries, but appreciation for his work is on the rise. 

Hugh Kaptur, whose work references the pueblos of Arizona with thick walls, inset windows, and deep overhangs, may not be as famous as some of his midcentury contemporaries, but appreciation for his work is on the rise. 

The town’s civic buildings, schools, banks, shopping centers, gas stations, fire stations, churches, libraries, medical centers, museum, and airport were all designed by the architects who made Palm Springs their home—John Porter Clark, Albert Frey, Robson Chambers, William F. Cody, E. Stewart Williams, Donald Wexler, Richard Harrison, Howard Lapham, and Hugh Kaptur. And each architect who arrived to help shape the village into a city brought a different progressive vision. 

Last year, Tahquitz Plaza, a business complex Kaptur designed in the 1970s, underwent a restoration, which he helped oversee. 

Last year, Tahquitz Plaza, a business complex Kaptur designed in the 1970s, underwent a restoration, which he helped oversee. 

To these pioneers, who flocked from all around, Greater Palm Springs presented a sun-bleached canvas on which to try out almost anything: custom homes, tract housing, shared-amenity condos, country clubs, and even mobile home parks. It was, and remains, the perfect marriage of small town and grand ideas.

Better known for its swanky hotels and club houses, Palm Springs also contains an abundance of religious architecture. On any Sunday, congregants can be found at places of worship by Albert Frey (Wiefels Mortuary), William Cody (Saint Theresa Catholic Church), and Howard Lapham (First Baptist Church of Palm Springs). Built in 1973, Laszlo Sandor’s concrete Seventh Day Adventist Church borrows ideas from brutalism, with thin horizontal and vertical windows and a blocky steeple.

Better known for its swanky hotels and club houses, Palm Springs also contains an abundance of religious architecture. On any Sunday, congregants can be found at places of worship by Albert Frey (Wiefels Mortuary), William Cody (Saint Theresa Catholic Church), and Howard Lapham (First Baptist Church of Palm Springs). Built in 1973, Laszlo Sandor’s concrete Seventh Day Adventist Church borrows ideas from brutalism, with thin horizontal and vertical windows and a blocky steeple.

"Midcentury modernism is not a style, it’s a language. It stays the same whether it’s spoken in 1955 or 2005. It’s a language that will always be spoken." 

William Krisel (1924-2017)  

The desert transformed Albert Frey—providing an endlessly intriguing counterpoint to his International Style designs—and he, in turn, transformed Palm Springs. The Tramway Gas Station, created with Robson Chambers, is one of his many works. 

The desert transformed Albert Frey—providing an endlessly intriguing counterpoint to his International Style designs—and he, in turn, transformed Palm Springs. The Tramway Gas Station, created with Robson Chambers, is one of his many works. 

Where Design Hunters Load Up 

Every February, during Modernism Week, midcentury fanatics descend on Palm Springs to peek inside rarely opened houses, catch panels, and, of course, comb the city’s furnishings boutiques. The event’s top organizer, Chris Mobley, shares where he shops the other 51 weeks of the year.  

Grace Home Furnishings 

Founded by designers Michael Ostrow and Roger Stoker, Grace Home Furnishings offers interior design services and a thoughtfully curated selection of Hollywood Regency–inspired furnishings. "Their wallpaper selection is out of this world," says Mobley.  

 H3K Home 

H3K is a one-stop shop for Palm Springs residents in search of furnishings to go with their midcentury homes. Mobley is fond of their newly opened downtown showroom and their Mod Dog pet design collection. 

Christopher Kennedy 

Relocated in the Uptown Design District, this local favorite doubles as a studio for designer Christopher Kennedy and a retail showroom full of original and retro-inspired furnishings. 

 Destination PSP 

Destination PSP offers a selection of Palm Springs–inspired merchandise ranging from the essential (an extensive book and print collection) to the quirky (tissue boxes in the shape of midcentury houses and a Kaufmann House–branded messenger bag). 

 Pelago Palm Springs 

After 20 years of curating midcentury modern furnishings and home accessories in the Montclair area of the Oakland Hills, Pelago brought its colorful collection to the Uptown Design District of Palm Springs. With its ample array of furniture, lighting, jewelry, and accessories, says Mobley, "This store has it all.

"When I saw the landscape of the desert, I knew I found a place I could call home." 

Albert Frey (1903 - 1998)

From a dusty village of a few thousand souls when Frey arrived in 1939, Palm Springs bloomed into a widely recognized ideal of California life and architecture by the time he retired in 1990. City Hall, designed with Robert Chambers and John Porter Clark, is one of his and the city’s best-known buildings.

From a dusty village of a few thousand souls when Frey arrived in 1939, Palm Springs bloomed into a widely recognized ideal of California life and architecture by the time he retired in 1990. City Hall, designed with Robert Chambers and John Porter Clark, is one of his and the city’s best-known buildings.

Excursions 

Architecture that’s worth a trip outside Palm Springs. 

Sandpiper (Palm Desert) 

Many of the stylistic hallmarks associated with architect William Krisel’s Palm Springs tract houses—patterned concrete-block facades, thin clerestories, deep setbacks—can be found in abundance at the Sandpiper, a low-density, 306-unit condo development that was erected in Palm Desert between 1958 and 1970. 

Sunnylands (Rancho Mirage)

You can find buildings by A. Quincy Jones in Palm Springs proper, but none like Sunnylands. Built for a pair of philanthropists in 1966, the ritzy 25,000-square-foot estate has hosted Bob Hope, Queen Elizabeth II, and no fewer than seven U.S. presidents under its distinctive roof—a pink pyramid intersecting with modernist flat lines. 

The North Shore Yacht Club (North Shore)

In a time before the Salton Sea was toxic and smelled of rotten eggs, everyone from The Beach Boys to the Marx Brothers wanted to belong to the North Shore Yacht Club. Now used as a community center, the 1959 building (based on an Albert Frey design), isn’t even on the water anymore, due to accelerated evaporation. It lives on as a potent reminder of a society’s delicate dance with nature and how fast a boom can go bust.

"Where I brought the desert into architecture. William Cody brought Beverly Hills into the desert."  E. Stewart Williams (1909-2005)

Donald Wexler arrived in Palm Springs in 1952 after a stint at Richard Neutra’s office in Los Angeles eager to build on a large scale with steel—hence the prefab Steel Development Houses.

Donald Wexler arrived in Palm Springs in 1952 after a stint at Richard Neutra’s office in Los Angeles eager to build on a large scale with steel—hence the prefab Steel Development Houses.

Tour Guide Picks

Four home-tour guides tell us their favorite stop in the city.

Zen House 

"Built before their famous Steel Houses, Zen House was the first home by Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison in Deepwell Estates, a quiet south end neighborhood. The post-and-beam dwelling has a board-and-batten exterior that doubles as both fence and facade, while the slatted roof of the entry paints the courtyard with stripes of sunlight and shade." 

Kurt Cyr, Palm Springs Mod Squad

Frey House II 

"It might be diminutive in scale—it’s only 800 square feet—but there’s a wonderful sense of oneness that exists throughout Frey House II. A marvel of Swiss engineering—Frey was from Switzerland—the house rests seamlessly on its mountainside site and all of the furniture is ingeniously built-in."

Michael Stern, The Modern Tour 

Edris House 

"Designed by E. Stewart Williams and built in 1954 for hotel owners from Seattle, the Edris House is pure, honest, organic architecture. Rescued by its current owner from an earlier gut job, the house is a time capsule, down to the built-in hi-fi equipment, Lucite drawer pulls, original bathroom tile, and stainless kitchen appliances." 

 Trevor O’Donnell, PS Architecture Tours 

Ocotillo Lodge 

"Gene Autry, known as the Singing Cowboy, commissioned George and Robert Alexander to build the Ocotillo Lodge in 1958. Its 124 condos were owned or rented by the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, and the Rat Pack, who would perform at the piano bar overlooking the martini-glass-shaped pool." 

Tim Bannister, Palm Springs Celebrity Tours 

The Parker hotel, which was the first Holiday Inn in California when it opened in 1959, has been updated twice by Jonathan Adler. Its decorative concrete-block entrance screen, designed by MR Architecture + Decor in the early 2000s, remains in place.

The Parker hotel, which was the first Holiday Inn in California when it opened in 1959, has been updated twice by Jonathan Adler. Its decorative concrete-block entrance screen, designed by MR Architecture + Decor in the early 2000s, remains in place.