Palm Springs: A Mid-Century Modern Oasis
Why did Palm Springs become an oasis of mid-century modern architecture in the desert? It was certainly the climate and topography that demanded low slung roofs with extended eaves to block the searing sun and walls of glass to take in the stunning views. Also, most of the homes were second homes so “homeowners felt more at liberty to take risks with the design than they did in their main residences, and practical considerations were not as critical in a vacation dwelling,” Michael Stern writes in his book, Julius Shulman: Palm Springs. This concentration of Desert Modern architecture is also due to the extraordinary group of architects that worked and/or settled in the Coachella Valley at the right time to capture the zeitgeist of the new trend of modern architecture. At the time, there were four major architecture firms for 7,000 full-time residents plus big-name LA architects that did work in the desert. The architects included: Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, Barry Berkus, E. Stewart Williams, Donald Wexler, William Krisel, William Cody, John Lautner, A. Quincy Jones, Paul R. Williams, John Porter Clark, Richard Harrison, among others. LA-based architect Rudolph Schindler is credited with designing the first modern building in the desert: a 1922 cabin for Paul and Betty Popenoe in Coachella.
During a panel discussion at Modernsim Week held in February, Wexler said Palm Springs was a “small town with sophistication” and it allowed for “a natural way of living.” He related one of his favorite stories that highlighted the ethos of the group of modern architects that transformed the area. One day, potential clients came into his office and asked him to design an “early American-style house.” Wexler responded by saying he could build them a teepee. They promptly left.
Much of the architecture built in the 1950s and ’60s remains. After these booming years in Palm Springs, the 1970s and ’80s saw other areas of the valley attract the money and development, including Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert. There was little need, money or incentive to tear down the existing architecture in Palm Springs, which was, in a sense, forgotten. Then in the 1990s, those with an appreciation for the neglected architecture came in and scooped up properties to restore, helping renew the interest in mid-century modern architecture and leading efforts to preserve this unique collection in the desert that you can explore today.
I have so many pictures that I am going to spread them out over a few posts, including one on just the work of Don Wexler, who I had the pleasure of meeting when I was in Palm Springs. Today’s images will focus on houses and condos, including some of the most iconic residences. Enjoy.