Exploring the Coachella Valley’s famous city of Palm Springs, I can imagine myself cruising from Los Angeles along Highway 60 to the desert oasis in a vintage 1960s convertible. I’d pull up in front of my mid-century house, it would be cocktail hour and we’d toast the sunset from the pool deck.
Although this may sound like a dream of the past, Palm Springs is a place that revels in its history through its preservation of significant buildings by modernist architects such as E. Stewart Williams, John Porter Clark, Albert Frey, Robson C. Chambers and Donald Wexler and well-known builders the Alexander Construction Company.
But it was the connection to A list celebs and the wealthy has made Palm Springs the hot spot for many celebrities to not just visit, but have a desert modern residence.
One of the first houses to see is in the Movie Colony neighbourhood - the Twin Palms Estate designed by E. Stewart Williams in 1947 for Frank Sinatra. This neighbourhood was the enclave of the Hollywood A-list, with many well-known residents such as Jack Benny, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe and Dinah Shore.
Although Sinatra initially wanted a two-storey residence, Williams won him over with the modernist design, the piano-shaped swimming pool and the tallest twin palm trees in the neighbourhood. Sinatra, when in residence, would raise a Jack Daniels flag from his trees to signal 5pm cocktail hour had begun.
Elvis Presley brought his bride Priscilla to Palm Springs, and honeymooned in the semi-circular House of Tomorrow, built by the Alexander Construction Company and designed by architecture firm Palmer & Krisel, for Robert and Helen Alexander. Featured in Look Magazine in 1962, the house features expansive windows, three levels and four perfect circles, with no square rooms.
After the Alexanders’ death in a plane crash, Presley rented the house, bringing some Tennessee flavour from Graceland to the modernist structure, probably spending many hours with friends and family hanging out on the 64 foot circular living room couch.
But for the architecture-obsessed, the house that gets a lot of traffic in its driveway is the Kaufmann Desert House. Designed by Richard Neutra for the Kaufmann family in 1946, this house is five bedrooms and five bathrooms, with four perpindicular wings connecting to outdoor rooms.
Commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. as a vacation home in 1946, the residence became famous after being photographed by Julius Shulman. With its soaring roofline and sliding glass walls, this home has become one of the top 10 recognized modernist homes of the United States.
After Kaufmann's death, the house had a variety of owners but was then purchased by Brent and Beth Harris, who restored the home starting in 1992, sourcing original materials to insure historical accuracy. The house is now reportedly worth US$12.5 million.
Visitors to Palm Springs should insure an architecture tour is on the list - such as those given by Robert Imber from PS Modern Tours - but at least, a visit to these three estates will give a sense of the modernist history of Palm Springs, California.
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I'm a Toronto-based freelance journalist, writing about travel, design, cuisine and people who are passionate about what they create. I’ve written for newspaper, magazine, websites and blogs since 2000, love taking photos and happy to share what I've found wandering our planet.
Located: Toronto Canada
Likes: Pacific rim, Middle East, Caribbean, islands, pop culture, art, architecture, cuisine, photography