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Palm Springs Revisited

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The fin-de-siecle modernist revival rolls on, influencing everything from architecture and furniture to fashion and graphic design, as a generation that missed modernism's heyday finds it newly fresh and compelling. Its resurgence has turned Palm Springs—that same Palm Springs of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby—into one of the coolest spots on earth. The town long known as "God's waiting room" is being rejuvenated as savvy newcomers, led by creative types from New York and Los Angeles, buy and restore vintage-modern villas that just a few years ago would have languished on the market.

Why now? Partly it is nostalgia for a simpler time and hunger for pared-down design in a world awash in styles and stimuli. Ultimately, more than 30 years after its peak, after waves of postmodernism, deconstructivism, and neotraditional design of every stripe, modernism is due for a revival. And so is Palm Springs. The decline of the Coachella Valley's best-known city began in the seventies, as the wealthy shifted to the gated golf course developments and Mediterranean-style homes of Palm Desert, Indian Wells, and other newer communities "down valley." Fortunately, decades in the doldrums preserved Palm Springs' distinctive charm, a mix of modernist élan and Hollywood-flavored hedonism that now seems as refreshing as an icy martini.

The first visitors came here for the curative power of the desert climate and the hot springs—still owned, along with half the real estate in town, by the Agua Caliente band of the Cahuilla Indians. The transition from sleepy desert outpost to glittering getaway began in the thirties with the arrival of Hollywood players seeking relief from the studio grind. Palm Springs became world famous as a playground for celebrities such as Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper, Lucille Ball, and Elvis Presley. They'd go to hear Lena Horne or Sammy Davis Jr. belt out ballads at the Chi Chi Club, or have drinks at The Doll House, where the barstools were equipped with seat belts. In those days the season traditionally kicked off in late October with a party at the Racquet Club, with impromptu soirees at which Frank Sinatra, "Honorary Mayor" Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby performed for their peers in the club's bar.

For many recent arrivals the spirit of that lighthearted era remains vivid and appealing. "Palm Springs represents the last time you could drink, smoke, tan, and have debauched sex without guilt," says L.A. interior designer Brad Dunning, who bought a house here ten years ago. Drive around neighborhoods like Las Palmas and you will pass vintage-modern homes once occupied by the likes of Elvis Presley, Jack Benny, Beach Boy Carl Wilson, and Dean Martin. This was, after all, the Rat Pack's favorite refuge. Their houses were slightly grander versions of the typical Palm Springs modernist villa: a low-slung pavilion with plenty of glass to capture striking views of desert, mountains, and the pool and garden that made the private oasis complete. Constructed during the go-go fifties and sixties, they embody postwar optimism and a ring-a-ding-ding vision of the good life.

But then, Palm Springs was uniquely suited to become modernism's place in the sun. The town flourished from the forties through the sixties, when the modern movement was in full flower. Sophisticated visitors (both Hollywood stars and vacationing tycoons) looking for a more adventurous style than they had at home found clean-lined design an ideal complement to the relaxed desert lifestyle. The area attracted architects now recognized as modern masters, both L.A. imports like Richard Neutra and John Lautner and locals like William Cody, Stewart Williams, and Albert Frey. Land was plentiful and tradition weighed lightly upon it.

"Palm Springs was a blank slate for modernist architects," explains Adèle Cygelman, the author of Palm Springs Modern. "They interpreted the style of the time in ways that were appropriate for the desert—big overhangs, sun-resistant metal and rock, pools that had a cooling effect. And it looks just as right today as it did when it was built." As the newly arrived Albert Frey wrote in a 1935 letter to his former employer, Le Corbusier, "The sun, the pure air, and the simple forms of the desert create perfect conditions for architecture."

One example is the house Frey built in 1963 and lived in until his death in 1998. Perched on a rocky slope overlooking the city, it's an elegantly economical composition of glass, metal, and concrete. Though the Swiss-born architect is sometimes seen as an International Style prophet in the wilderness, "Frey's creative interaction with California, the desert, and the car culture was more influential than the ten months he spent with Corbusier," insists Alan Hess, coauthor of Palm Springs Weekend, a forthcoming look at desert modernism. No doubt Le Corbusier would have dynamited the massive boulder that Frey left to divide the living room from the sleeping areas.

Spare forms never looked better than they did in the desert's stark, elemental environment, their lines etched by the klieg-light sun. But many of these houses were in sad shape by the recession of the early nineties. (Realtor Allen B. Miller recalls that "many houses were selling for far less than their replacement cost—below the value of the lots alone today.") People with an eye for design began rescuing modernist gems tarnished by time. "They are architectural collectibles, trophies of material culture," observes artist and art historian Hal Meltzer, who lives in one (a group of high-ceilinged pavilions, designed in 1962 by architect William Cody, arrayed around a pool) and is restoring another (Richard Neutra's Miller House, from 1936, once lauded as the most beautiful house in North America).

In the late nineties, Frey's house for industrial designer Raymond Loewy, with its amoeba-shaped indoor/outdoor pool and its view-framing trellis, was restored by metalware manufacturer Jim Gaudineer. "It was built in 1947 as a compact bachelor pad and Loewy added onto it when he got married," says Gaudineer. "When you slide open the glass walls, it's almost like living outdoors." Supermarket magnate Ron Burkle rejuvenated the spectacular John Lautner house built for designer Arthur Elrod in 1968, a concrete-and-glass aerie that appeared in the movie Diamonds Are Forever and the pages of Playboy. A couple of years ago property renovator Marc Sanders hit the real estate jackpot when he came across a neglected 1947 house designed for Frank Sinatra by Palm Springs architect Stewart Williams, complete with a piano-shaped pool in which Ava Gardner, Greta Garbo, and Lana Turner had splashed. Sanders purchased and refurbished it, then sold it for a hefty profit.

The desert's most celebrated architectural rescue remains the lavish, museum-quality restoration of Richard Neutra's exquisite Kaufmann house (designed for the same family that built Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Fallingwater house). Fanatical in their devotion to Neutra's design, financial executive Brent Harris and his architectural historian wife, Beth, put the new air-conditioning ducting below ground so as not to mar the roofline, quarry-matched the original stone cladding, and even recast the original toilet-seat hinges. "We removed everything that had been added to the house, which is what the Harrises wanted, and we added a complementary pool house," explains architect Leo Marmol, of Marmol and Radziner in Santa Monica.

Jim Moore, the creative director of GQ magazine, was one of the first to recognize Palm Springs as "ground zero of the modernist revival." In 1993 he bought one of the steel-frame prototype houses that local architects Wexler and Harrison designed in the early sixties for U.S. Steel. Seven such houses were built in a cluster at the north end of town before rising steel prices halted large-scale production. The free-flowing interiors and expansive windows that open onto walled patios make the houses seem larger than their 1,500 square feet. "I've always been a minimalist, and when you live in one of these houses you have to keep things sleek," remarks Moore. His neighbors include filmmaker Doug Keeve and L.A. artists David Blomster and Jim Isermann, who have outfitted their house with vintage furniture by Knoll, Saarinen, and Verner Panton.

The modernism of Palm Springs is far from monolithic. "There was no single response but many visions," notes Hess. Cody strove to reduce roof slabs and beams to the bare minimum (the roof on his own house was a mere four inches thick). Reflecting his affinity for Scandinavian modern design, Williams used wood and stone to root his houses in the desert landscape.

As influential as these architects were, none did more to popularize modernist design than L. A. architects Dan Palmer and William Krisel, whose plans were replicated in hundreds of houses built by father-and-son developers George and Robert Alexander. Delivering on the Bauhaus promise of progressive production housing, this was modernism for the masses: appealing, affordable tract houses, open-plan, post-and-beam structures with butterfly roofs and sweeping windows.

TV reporter/producer Huell Howser, the host of the California's Gold series seen on the state's PBS affiliates, recently bought an Alexander house. "There are a dozen or so expensive architectural icons, but many more simple modernist houses such as this one that regular people can still afford to buy and fix up," he says. "You can still find the California dream here, away from high prices and congestion. I like the sense of freedom and informality."

Howser and other modernistas decorate their houses with vintage-modern furnishings from the seemingly endless supply in local shops. "Everything in this house is secondhand but the mattresses and the blender," he says proudly. The white sectional sofa came from ModernWay, where proprietor Courtney Newman mixes the familiar and quirky, giving the latter labels such as Hollywood Arabian Moderne and Mafia Modern. Other favorite sources are John's Mid-Century Modern, Dazzles, and (for new modernist designs and reproductions) Lunacy. And that is only the beginning: The area has over two dozen thrift shops, consignment stores, and other resale outlets. "It's a treasure trove," says L.A.'s interior designer of the moment, Brad Dunning. "Because many of these houses were vacation homes you find slightly more flamboyant designs, more custom furnishings."

And modernism flourishes not only in Palm Spring's residential architecture but in the city's civic and commercial buildings too, among them the city hall, the airport (complete with putting green), the Palm Springs Desert Museum, retail shops, even banks, including one modeled on Le Corbusier's famous chapel in Ronchamp. A young British couple, Fraser Robertson and Sarah Robarts, have transformed what was a dilapidated hotel on Indian Canyon Drive into Ballantines, a chic retro outpost of modernist furnishings and memorabilia evoking Hollywood habitués from the old days. In November they will be opening the refurbished, Albert Frey-designed Movie Colony. Dunning is adding modern decor to the well-preserved L'Horizon motel, designed by William Cody. And Oregonians Christy Eugenis and Stan Amy have renovated the Orbit In, a classic courtyard motel in the Tennis Club district. "We are furnishing it with modern icons like Eames and Bertoia chairs, George Nelson benches, and Richard Schultz outdoor furniture, as well as new designs in the modernist spirit," Eugenis explains. (Like other recent arrivals, she enthuses about the town's "evolving, interesting mix of people—seniors, gays, artists, young couples, and families.")

"What is most interesting about Palm Springs is that modernism became the vernacular style of the city," comments Marmol. "In every neighborhood you find elements of modernist design, like flat roofs and a strong relationship between the exterior and interior." Still, the appeal is lost on many of the blue-rinse brigade, who'll always prefer Spanish Colonial. (Until recently, there were no modernist buildings listed in Palm Springs' official Architectural Guide.) "Every resort city today wants to be Santa Barbara," says Hess. "What Palm Spring residents don't realize is that they have something unique that is at least as attractive to vacationers." A catalyst in the debate was Albert Frey's 1965 Tramway Gas Station, which marks the northern approach to the city with its soaring, flying-wedge roof. In 1997, meeting in the Frey-designed city hall, the city council granted it protected status, then rescinded it days later under pressure from the owner and others who dubbed the building an eyesore. Finally, it regained landmark status and was sensitively renovated as the Montana St. Martin Gallery, specializing in garden sculpture.

"A lot of people who have moved here care deeply about preserving the character of the city," says Peter Moruzzi of the Palm Springs Modern Committee. They cite the positive effect of modernist design on real estate values and tourism. They draw parallels with Miami Beach's money-spinning Art Deco Historic District. When it came time to debate the preservation of a Frey-designed fire station this summer, no one spoke against it. "The city government and powers that be are finally catching on to the fact that they have something no one else has," says Howser. Something that has brought the desert dowager a flock of young admirers. There are currently more Palm Springs residents aged 25 to 44 than 65-plus. ("My typical seller is eighty years old, and the typical buyer is forty," comments Miller.) Palm Springs is becoming a year-round town. The figures for off-season tourism and year-round residents are rising, with the population in the Coachella Valley projected to reach half a million by 2015—almost double what it is now.

The demand for vintage-modern homes led Palm Springs developer Dennis Cunningham to start building new clean-lined boxes with shady overhangs and patches of colored stucco. The first group sold out before completion. "The houses use common materials in uncommon ways," notes Cunningham. "They have plenty of glass but conform to current energy standards." Marc Sanders has commissioned a house from architect Donald Wexler and plans, with partner Jeffrey Adkins, to develop a cluster of Wexler-designed townhouses.

We've arrived at the point where "neo-modern" is not redundant. "The current craze for modernist design will abate, but appreciation of modernism will endure, just as happened for earlier styles," predicts Hal Meltzer. Palm Springs may be the Colonial Williamsburg of midcentury modern, but it's also an inspiration for creators and consumers of new modernist design. For them, both the city and its signature style are, as Sinatra sang, even lovelier the second time around.


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