July 10, 2011 Palm Springs

Palm Springs: A Mid-Century Modern Oasis

Palm Springs sign

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.

1937 Grace Miler House by Neutra

Grace Miller House by Richard Neutra, 1937. The first modern residential home in Palm Springs.

Raymond Lowey House by Albert Frey, 1946

Raymond Lowey House by Albert Frey, 1946

Neutra's Kaufmann House

Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House, 1947.

Sinatra House

Twin Palms (Frank Sinatra House) by E. Stewart Williams, 1947.

Edris House by E. Stewart Williams, 1953.

Edris House by E. Stewart Williams, 1953.

Alexander House of Tomorrow by William Krisel, 1962.

Alexander House of Tomorrow by William Krisel, 1962.

Alexander "Swiss Miss" House

One of the 15 Alexander "Swiss Miss" homes designed by Charles Dubois.

Park Imperial South

Park Imperial South by Barry Burkus.

Park Imperial South

Love the exterior globe lamp and zig-zag roof line.

Butterfly Roof by Palmer and Krisel

Butterfly roof home by Palmer and Krisel in Twin Palm Estates.

Front-gabled MCM in Palm Springs

I like how the front-gabled roof mirrors the mountains.

Villa Alejo Condominiums

Villa Alejo Condominiums by Meyers and Koozin, 1966.

Palevsky House by Craig Ellwood, 1968.

Palevsky House by Craig Ellwood, 1968. Love the hoop.


0 comments Post a Comment

  1. Scott Cueto — July 14, 2011 @ 9:32 am         Reply

    Excellent pictures! How did you get the Frank Sinatra pics; whas that from a bus? I worked in Palm Springs and nearby Desert Hot Springs for a year, right at the peak of the building boom, one of the best times of my life. To be surrounded by such an overwhelming concentration of mid century architecture was heaven for a modern nut like me. Been in DC now for 2 years and how i miss it, sure could use a trip to Palm Springs! Honeymooned there too, I even love it in the summer- you can swim all night under the stars- a remarkable place. Great post.

    1. Mid-Century Mike — July 14, 2011 @ 10:14 am         Reply

      Thanks. I took it from the top of an open-air double decker bus.

  2. Tom — July 15, 2011 @ 10:29 am         Reply


    Great photos of some of Palm Spring’s icons! Since I missed Modernism week this year due to client commitments, I went in late May after business in PHX. That was my 5th trip, and the place is as amazing as if it were my first! Weather was spectacular: 93 degrees there is very different from here in the swamp!

    Read recently that the Santa Fe S&L building (one of my absolute favorites) was acquired by the PS Art Museum for its design & architecture programs. That will certainly ensure its preservation.

    Call me about our house when you have a moment…

    Michigan Park/DC

    1. Mid-Century Mike — July 20, 2011 @ 12:34 pm         Reply

      Thanks Tom.

  3. policy kc — July 18, 2011 @ 5:53 pm         Reply

    Kaufmann house in PS is absolute perfection; we spent a few moments drooling on the curb back in May during a stop-over on the way to Joshua Tree.

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