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.
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 midcentury 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.