Photo Essay: Revisit the Midcentury Classics of Palm Springs and Beyond
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
"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)
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.
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 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.
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 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).
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)
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)
Tour Guide Picks
Four home-tour guides tell us their favorite stop in the city.
"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
"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
"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
"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