Palm Springs lays claim to the “Largest Concentration of Mid-Century Modern Architecture in the United States”. From highly customized mansions to suburban tract-housing, Palm Springs was at the forefront of American architecture during the mid-20th-century. Visionary architects working in the burgeoning Coachella Valley put their own spin on Bauhaus and the International Style, reworking it for the desert environment. Let’s take a nostalgic self-guided architecture tour of Palm Springs and discover the magic of their creation – Desert Modernism.
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What is Desert Modernism?
Modernism is an International Style that has various localized sub-styles. Desert Modernism is an interpretation of the International Style that suited the Southern Californian and American Southwest climates, along with the favoured indoor/outdoor lifestyle. Architects adapted concepts of European Bauhaus to fit the local environment, à la Frank Lloyd Wright.
Desert Modernism, as it has become known, is recognizable by its minimalist, clean lines and use of mass-produced building materials. Rooflines are often flat, mono-pitched “skillion” or butterfly-wing v-shapes. Floorplans were open with lots of windows and sliding glass doors that brought the outside in and vice versa. While breeze blocks and sun shades temper desert heat.
How did all this amazing Mid-Century architecture come to be in Palm Springs?
Palm Springs’ became a trendy resort town in the early 1900s. Dry air was thought to be good for tuberculosis suffers and so the desert town started to flourish with hotels and health resorts. However, the two World Wars took their toll on Palm Springs.
After World War II, Palm Springs’ remerged as a popular winter escape, notably for movie industry elites and deep-pocketed industrialists from the east coast. It is said that Hollywood studios had their stars on a 2-hour leash, so Palm Springs was a local getaway that didn’t contravene their contractual obligations. The wealthy brought their “keeping-up-with-the-Jones’” mentality with them, and the desire to have the latest, greatest design and technology for their holiday homes. They could back these desires with the fat wallets it took to commission the day’s foremost architects to design them something highly original and cutting edge.
Simultaneously, the masses rolled into the Coachella Valley and its population swelled. Builders struggled to keep up with the influx. Tract housing became the natural solution – you know, those Stepford Wives-esque, cookie-cutter developments. The minimalism of Desert Modernism was perfect for developers trying to erect houses fast and cheap. Hence, downscaled versions of “it” homes and innovative new building materials trickled down to the every-person.
Some decades later the trend tide changed. During the 1970s and 80s, cheaper airfares and more flexible Hollywood working conditions allowed stars to travel the world. The local economy suffered and there weren’t the financial resources to demolish and rebuild structures that had fallen out of style. So, Palm Springs’ Modernist buildings lay preserved until the tide on Mid-Century began to roll in again during the early 1990s.
Architects to know and love
Before we embark on our tour, let me give you a quick snapshot of a few architects and developers that were highly influential on the Palm Springs streetscape and the evolution of Desert Modernism. If you want to crack on with the tour, click here to jump right in.
Richard Neutra – Austrian born, raised and trained, Neutra immigrated to the U.S. in 1923 where he worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolf N. Schindler before branching out on his own. Of the three homes Neutra designed in Palm Springs, his masterpiece is the residence he designed for Edgar Kaufmann in 1946.
John Lautner – After training under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West, Lautner moved to LA and focused on residential architecture. His combination of progressive engineering and dramatic space-age flair culminated in the Palm Springs homes for Arthur Elrod and Bob Hope.
Donald Wexler – Hailing from South Dakota, and studying at the University of Minnesota, Donald Wexler served in the Navy during WWII before moving to LA. He worked for Richard Neutra for a while, then relocated to Palm Springs where he was employed by William Cody. Wexler partnered with Richard Harrison for a time. Together they designed many school buildings and the Steel Development Homes for Alexander Construction Company. Other notable designs include the Dinah Shore Residence, Spa Hotel Bath House (demolished) and Royal Hawaiian Estates.
William “Bill” Krisel – Born in Shanghai to American expats, Krisel was raised in China unitl age 13. He studied architecture at the University of Southern California and became a licensed landscape architect. There are 30,000 residences in Southern California that can be attributed to Krisel. As a personal friend of Bob Alexander, his name appears on many Alexander Construction Company developments.
E. Stewart Williams – Born in Dayton, Ohio the son of an architect, Williams studied at Cornell and University of Pennsylvania. Some of his notable Palm Springs designs include the Palm Springs Art Museum, Coachella Savings and Loan (now a Chase Bank), Palm Springs Aerial Tramway station and Frank Sinatra Estate.
William F. Cody – Like Williams, Cody was born in Dayton, Ohio. He studied architecture at the University of Southern California before moving to Palm Springs in 1946. He designed the Del Marcos Hotel the following year and went on to work on several clubhouses and Country Club developments as well as projects outside Palm Springs. Among Cody’s celebrated designs are Abernathy House, Palm Springs Public Library and his contribution to the demolished Palm Springs Spa Hotel.
Albert Frey – Frey was born in Zurich, Switzerland and studied architecture at the Institute of Technology in Winterthur. He worked in Paris for Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret before moving to the US in 1928. While working with A. Lawrence Kocher on the East Coast for some years, a project brought Frey to Palm Springs. In California, he worked with John Porter Clark. Buildings of note include Frey House I and II, and the Tramway Gas Station (now the Palm Springs Visitor Center).
John Porter Clark – Born in Iowa, Clark studied architecture at Cornell and apprenticed with Garrett Van Pelt in Pasadena. He relocated to Palm Springs to find more work. In 1935, Clark met Albert Frey with who he partnered on eight projects. Frey left for a time to pursue projects outside Palm Springs, and rejoined Clark on his return.
George and Robert Alexander (land developers and builders) – The Alexander Construction Company was founded by Robert Alexander financed by his father George. They specialized in residential developments, creating affordable tract housing estates in the Coachella Valley. The prolific developers helped to double the size of Palm Springs. Their homes are known colloquially as the “Alexanders” though they enlisted William Krisel to provide much of the architecture. They also partnered with architects Charles Dubois and Donald Wexler.
Hugh Kaptur – Born in Detroit, Kaptur studied architectural engineering and served with the Marines in Southern California. His first built project was his in-law’s real estate office before working for General Motor’s styling division back in Detroit. He relocated to Palm Springs in 1956 and apprenticed for Wexler and Harrison. Kaptur designed the Triangle Inn, Fire Station #3 (with Robert Ricciardi) and #4, the Musicland Hotel and houses for Steve McQueen and William Holden among others. He is still active as of July 2019.
Jack and Bernie Meiselman (land developers and builders) – The Meiselman brothers have a mysterious background. What we do know is Jack was a builder who worked with the Alexander Construction Company for a time. After a falling out with the Alexanders, Jack teamed up with brother Bernie, buying up land close to Alexander plots and building a variation on his former partner’s design. It is easy to confuse Meiselmans with neighbouring Alexanders from the outside, but each had their own distinct floorplan that could identify them from the inside. The Meiselmans built approximately 350 tract homes in Palm Springs, making them much rarer than Alexanders.
Joseph Eichler (developer) – Eichler was born in New York City in 1900 and studied business at New York University. He took a job for a San-Francisco based business owned by his in-laws and moved to California in 1940. Between 1949 and 1974 Eichler Homes developed tract estates, mostly in the north of the state. One of his principal architects was A. Quincy Jones. Eichler did not build homes in Palm Springs, but his Mid-Century designs have been licensed and built there in recent years (more on that later).
Palm Springs self-guided architecture tour
It only makes sense to begin at the Palm Springs Visitor Center, situated inside the 1965, Albert Frey-designed Tramway Gas Station. Take a look inside and chat to the volunteers about any questions you may have about specific homes, architects or things to do in and around Palm Springs. You may also find it useful to pick up a physical map, though I will provide a Google Map at the end of this post.
Racquet Club Estates
From the Visitor Center, take West San Rafael Drive east into the Racquet Club Estates for your first glimpse of the /Alexander Construction Company Steel Houses. Designed in 1960 by Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison, these pre-fabricated, all-steel homes were to fill an entire neighbourhood. However, after seven homes were built, rising steel prices made further homes in this style, cost-prohibitive. All seven homes are now Class One Historic Sites.
There are many other great homes in this area, many of which are Palmer and Krisel creations for the Alexander Construction Co – I’ve listed some of my favourite addresses below. Mid-Century Modern fans will be delighted with all the breeze blocks, vibrant front doors and the occasional kitsch touch like a flamingo mailbox. In the Racquet Club Estates you’ll also find the Hugh Kaptur designed Fire Station #3.
Wexler/Alexander Steel homes:
290 Simms Rd
300 and 330 East Molino Rd
3100, 3125, 3133 and 3165 N Sunnyview Dr
Fire Station #3:
590 E Racquet Club Rd
Krisel designed homes
325 Francis Dr
388 and 520 Desert Holly Circle
970 E Racquet Club Road
455 and 483 E Francis Dr (flamingo letterbox)
Chino Canyon/ Little Tuscany Estates
Cross back over to the western side of the CA-111 to explore the Chino Canyon and Little Tuscany Estates. Look for the 1951 Edward Fickett-designed Alexander-May House, built for George Alexander, co-owner of the construction company bearing his last name.
Be sure to stop by Neutra’s masterful Kaufmann House built in 1946 – you know the one from THOSE Slim Aaron pics entitled “Poolside Gossip” by the pool, the very definition of glamour. Yes, if Kaufmann sounds familiar, he is the same department store mogul for who Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.
Follow up with the rocky, cliff-dwelling, Edris House constructed in 1953 and designed by E. Stewart Williams. You won’t miss the Franz Alexander House, a Walter White creation, also on Cielo Drive.
Finally, you can see just how timeless these Desert Modern designs through the three new builds of a Hugh Kaptur design in the appropriately named “Kaptur Court.” Mr Kaptur is 88 years old and still active in the Palm Springs architecture scene as of July 2019.
Kaufmann Desert House:
470 W Vista Chino Rd
424 W Vista Chino Rd
262-266 W Vista Chino
1030 W Celio Dr
Franz Alexander House:
1011 W. Cielo Dr
Vista Las Palmas and Old Las Palmas
Make your way south into the Vista Las Palmas estate and explore the collection of Swiss Misses designed by Charles Dubois for the Alexander Construction Company. The House of the Future aka Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway (architect unconfirmed) resides here too. This neighbourhood is known for its many celebrity homes, which is a whole other tour. So, I’ll skip those on this itinerary unless they have significant Desert Modernist architecture worth note… enter the Dinah Shore Estate now owned by Leonardo DiCaprio, and designed by Donald Wexler in 1964.
The development of Vista Las Palmas was dominated by the Alexander Construction Co and business partner, builder Joe Dunas. Hence, there are lots of Krisel designs here to be spotted – again I’ve listed a couple of standout examples below. I’m also partial to the Merito Manor condos styled by Barry Berkus, with the folding plate rooflines and vibrant front doors with some amazing door handles.
755 W Crescent Dr
855 Via Las Palmas
797 Via Vadera
Dinah Shore Estate:
432 Hermosa Place
193 W Merito Place
967 and 983 N Coronet Cir
1111 Abrigo Rd
Palm Canyon Drive
Let’s look at some more commercial structures for a minute. Cruise down Palm Canyon Drive for glimpses of Kaptur’s Farrah Building/Las Casitas Restaurant, along with the E. Stewart Williams-designed Oasis Commercial Building and Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center. I also encourage you to stop in at the Center to explore their rotating exhibit that showcase different architects – allow 45-minutes to an hour.
You’ll need to take a slight detour off the main drag if you want to see the main Palm Springs Art Museum building also designed by Williams. Don’t miss the 1947 opened, Del Marcos Hotel, a William Cody favourite. If you can, the Del Marcos is a great place to stay while you’re in town appreciating all things Mid-Century Modern. There is also a new build (2009) Krisel butterfly home at 421 S Cahuilla Rd.
Further along Palm Canyon Drive are the Alley Building (look for the BevMo!) by Luckman & Pereira, another Williams design – The Coachella Valley Savings & Loan Association (now a Chase Bank), plus two Hugh Kaptur designs, The Five Hundred and Musicland Hotel. There’s lots more to see, so let’s keep moving on our self-guided architecture tour…
Farrah Building 362 N Palm Canyon Dr
Palm Springs Art Museum 101 N Museum Dr
Palm Springs Art Museum and Design Center 300 S Palm Canyon Dr
Oasis Commercial Building 121 S Palm Canyon Dr
Del Marcos Hotel 225 W Baristo Rd
Alley Building 333 S Palm Canyon Dr
Chase Bank 99 S Palm Canyon Dr
Krisel (new build) 421 S Cahuilla Rd
The Five Hundred 500 S Palm Canyon Dr
Musicland Hotel 1342 S Palm Canyon Dr
Tahquitz River Estates
Right after the Musicland Hotel turn left into East Sonora Road to see the Joseph Eicher rebuilds happening in this street. Though developer (not architect) Eichler was known for his tract homes in northern California, these new builds based on original plans, fit seamlessly into the Desert Modern streetscape. They’re so recent, not even the volunteer at the Visitor Centre I spoke to, knew about them. Take a look inside the “The Desert Eichlers”, as they have been dubbed, by watching the videos on developer KUD Properties, website.
Eichler new builds include:
342, 398, 402 and 426 E Sonora Rd (there are now more, but I haven’t been able to confirm addresses)
The Mesa/Canyon Corridor/Twin Palms Estates
Continue south into Canyon Corridor neighbourhood and check out the Royal Hawaiian Estates which were a Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison collaborative design. Travelling right to the base of the San Jacinto Mountains in The Mesa, sail by the Streamline Moderne home dubbed “The Ship of the Desert.” The original designed by Earl Webster and Adrian Wilson, was damaged by fire. Never fear! The home was purchased and lovingly restored by renowned Palm Springs-based fashion designer, Trina Turk.
Make your way east on La Verne Way and you’ll be close to the Insta-famous pink door. The owners have requested that the door no longer be photographed, but a drive-by can’t hurt, right? Then on to another Hugh Kaptur Fire Station, #4.
The triangle-shaped area between La Verne Way and East Palm Canyon Drive is the Twin Palms Estates and is absolutely chock full of Krisel’s. If you haven’t had enough butterfly rooves yet, try Apache Road, Aquanetta Drive and Caliente Road.
Royal Hawaiian Estates:
1774 S Palm Canyon Dr
Ship of the Desert:
1995 Cam Monte
That Pink Door:
1100 East Sierra Way
Fire Station #4:
1300 S La Verne Way
Venturing north of East Palm Canyon Drive you enter the former apricot farm, Deepwell Estates. First, you will likely pass the gorgeous white-washed Werner Hogback House, a Hugh Kaptur design. Continue onto Calle de Maria where you’ll find various homes designed by E. Stewart Williams along with Donald Wexler and John Clark Porter. Various developers, realtors and contractors lived in Deepwell Estates back in the day, so you know there’s going to be some good stuff here. That includes the work of lesser known, but equally fabulous Desert Modern architects such as Stan Sackley who is said to have been another student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. You will come across plenty more breeze bricks and sunny-hued doors in this part of town.
William Holden Estate:
1323 S Driftwood Dr
1577 Calle Marcus
William Bogess House:
1366 Calle De Maria
Leo Koerner Residence:
1275 Calle De Maria
1207 Calle De Maria
1120 S Calle De Maria
1131 S. Driftwood Dr
1475 S. Paseo De Marcia
1325 Sagebrush Rd aka “Playboy Pad”
Sunmor Estates/Enchanted Homes
Further northeast, towards the Airport are William Cody’s St Theresa Catholic Church, and Palm Springs City Hall. City Hall was a star-chitect collaborative effort involving Albert Frey, John Porter Clark, Robson Chambers, and E. Stewart Williams. Crawl these estate streets which are just brimming with late 1950s homes designed by Wexler & Harrison and Krisel.
St. Theresa Catholic Church:
2900 Ramon Rd
Palm Springs City Hall:
3200 E Tahquitz Canyon Way
Wexler & Harrison:
2928, 2968 and 2980 Plaimor Dr
260 N Airlane Dr
204, 205 and 206 N Airlane Dr
Moving westward we finish our tour back towards the main strip, in the neighbourhood dubbed Movie Colony. Pass by Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms Estate which was designed by E. Stewart Williams and is every bit as glamorous as you’d expect, down to the piano-shaped pool (check it out on Google Maps satellite view). You might also want to take a peek at Palm Springs Convention Center, the work of William Pereira.
Twin Palms – Sinatra House:
1148 Alejo Rd
Palm Springs Convention Center:
277 N Avenida Caballeros
You may wonder why I haven’t mentioned some of the most iconic and groundbreaking homes of the Desert Modernist movement in Palm Springs. That’s because they’re a lot more difficult to see than just pulling up curbside. Here are a few ideas on how to get a glimpse of these elusive homes.
Two iconic structures dreamed into reality by architect John Lautner, are locked up in gated communities. However, if you’re willing to leg it up the Araby Trail, you might catch a glimpse of Elrod House (referring to interior designer Arthur Elrod) and Bob Hope House.
Frey House II is owned by the Palm Springs Art Museum, however bequest of the home to the Museum was conditional on it being used as a residence. Some fortunate staff member gets to call this place home! Occasionally tours are held around the property, but you’ll have to jump on those tickets fast because it’s a guaranteed to be a sell-out season every time!
Other ways to experience Desert Modernism in Palm Springs
Choose a boutique hotel or vacation rental with Mid-Century roots to stay. We adored the Del Marcos, an adults-only resort designed by William Cody in 1947.
Take a guided tour. Just remember to book well in advance!
To inside a Mid-Century Modern home in Palm Springs, look up real estate listings and open days. We got to see a beautifully restored Palmer & Krisel in the Racquet Club Estates.
Time you visit for Modernism Week in February each year, or the autumn preview in October for additional mid-century themed tours and events.
Download the Palm Springs Mid Century Modern Tour App from Apple iTunes or Android Marketplace for $4.99.
Finally, if you just can’t get to Palm Springs, take the addresses provided and drop them into Google street view and go on a virtual tour.
Plan a trip to Palm Springs
Enjoy your Palm Springs self-guided architecture tour and let me know your favourite Desert home, building or architect in the comments below.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,