Palm Springs modernism: Modernism Week & architecture tours all year
California’s desert mecca of Palm Springs is a modernism architecture lovers delight. Be it during its annual Modernism Week or on your own modernist architecture tours, you will not be disappointed by the sweeping, clean lines of Palm Springs modernism buildings.
Palm Springs is nuts about its modernism architecture. I knew I loved the Art Deco look, but – let’s be honest here – I wondered why all the hoopla about the area’s annual Palm Springs Modernism Week, modern buildings, and modernist architecture tours. Once in Palm Springs, I knew: You can’t take two steps without tripping over some jaw-dropping specimens of streamlined modernism architecture. Take a tour, go during the official week of tours, or just park and take a walk around some key neighborhoods to gape at the clean, sweeping mid-century lines.
Since Modernism Week 2021 was a mostly virtual event due to COVID-19, we opted to go during a different week, combining that with our visit to the Desert X biennial outdoor art event, and do both self-guided modernism tours and poke around on our own, just kind of following our noses. Honestly, there were so many amazing modernism architecture doors, homes, buildings, and patios to look at, it was sometimes easier to just park and take a walk around a neighborhood.
Nevertheless, we found the education from our self-guided driving and walking tours from Modern Tours Palm Springs about modernism architecture, and the why of it all a fascinating and beneficial addition to our architecture touring. Founder Erin Lawrence offers well-paced, easy-to-listen-to commentary on her audio tours, with accompanying photos online. We do suggest you find some kind of tour, either purchasing one such as the above or taking advantage of free tours and guides from Visit Palm Springs or Palm Springs Modern Committee. Just search the websites to find articles about mid-century architecture and modernism tour information or lists with addresses. Or be adventurous and download the list of historically designated buildings from the City of Palm Springs (search for the list of historic sites and districts) and do your own tour – realizing you will lack the insightful commentary from audio or live tours.
What is modernism? A.k.a. modern, modernist, mid-century architecture or Art Moderne
Before our visit in Palm Springs, I thought I knew a bit of this style of architecture with my prior Art Deco fascination. Wrong. Although the styles overlap in some way, there are distinct differences. The key point of mid-century or modernist architecture, particularly in the mild desert climate of the Greater Palm Springs area, are:
>> Sleek, clean lines. They sometimes sweep, are sometimes angular, and often combine both in a minimal, uncluttered, even graceful look.
>> Form follows function. Forget the form-for-form’s sake of other styles. With modernist architecture, function is key.
>> Indoor/outdoor living and aesthetic. Lots of glass and windows to bring the outdoors in and to encourage an outdoor feeling no matter where you are in the building.
Perhaps this last key point is why the Greater Palm Springs area latched onto the mid-century “desert modernism” architectural style so strongly – and it stayed, prompting of course the bevy of tours, companies, festivals, museum exhibits, and its annual Modernism Week that actually has events all year long. The desert is warm – yes, in some months quite hot – but this means there is no direly cold weather to make all that glass uncomfortable. Also, long over-hanging roofs shade windows, and sometimes windows are placed high under roof lines to keep out the sun while maintaining the indoor/outdoor living style you will see on your modernist architecture tours.
Art Deco of course is known for more ornamentation and sometimes form over function. Yes, it may be considered sleek, like the modernist design style, but it is definitely not minimalist and sometimes it’s not functional at all.
Now, about that timing thing: Depending on whom you talk to or what you read, the timing of the mid-century architecture design (a.k.a Art Moderne) will vary. In general, Art Deco was particularly emphasized in the 1920s and ‘30s, while modernism in architecture overlapped and came after that period, mostly into the ‘40s. However, modernism in Palm Springs continued into the 1960s to ‘70s — or about the time the “contemporary” style took over.
Palm Springs modernism week – or on your own self-guided tour
There are some key stops in the Greater Palm Springs area. As more of a nut for this design style, I was constantly leaping out of the car on our Modern Palm Springs self-guided driving tour to take photos, while also opting at one point to just dump the “go see this” specific and instead just walk a few blocks and enjoy the entire style. Pay attention to parking regulations since some residential areas do not allow it. You may also wonder about the intrusion of visitors gawking at private homes, but we found residents to be quite accepting – as long as you stayed on the street and didn’t trample on private property.
Here is a small taster of modernist architecture homes for your modernism tour:
Palm Springs Visitor Center
Of course, you’ll start here anyway since it’s a treasure trove of information and right on Palm Canyon Drive. But it used to be a gas station. Yup, that amazing triangular roof was just there to help give the attendants and all those celebrities and other visitors a bit of shade.
Wexler Steel Houses and neighborhood
Although this one house at 290 Simms Road may get lots of attention, there is a bevy of outstanding examples in the same neighborhood on Simms, East Molino and North Sunnyview, all by architect Donald Allen Wexler. Built in the 1960s, these breathtaking pieces of mid-century architecture are actually all prefabricated. I will admit that these homes were some of my favorites since they are understated and have smaller footprints. Many of these homes were given protected historic status in 2001. The home at 3100 North Sunnyview was also placed on the national registry in 2012. (see photo of a Wexler Steel House on Sunnyview, above.)
Kaufmann Desert House
You must see this one since it is considered one of the most well-known examples of modernism in the area. Edgar Kaufmann had hired famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright for his home in Pittsburgh but went with modernist architect Richard Neutra for this house. At times the home was even abandoned and went through multiple non-period remodels before it was “saved” and brought back to its glory. It was given protected historic status in 1996.
Del Marcos Hotel
Right in town and hard to miss, the chirpy orange colors, angular lines and huge glass windows on this hotel at 225 West Baristo are just plain happy. It was first build in 1947, but did not receive protected historic status until 2012. Yes, that odd-shaped door on the front really does just beg for photos. This is one particular landmark Modernist building that was reached easily from our convenient downtown base at the Hilton Palms Springs Resort.
Coachella Valley Savings & Loan (now, Chase Bank)
This is another one of my favorites among public buildings (see cover photo for this story at the top). The upside-down U shapes along the front make it an appealing structure. Located at 499 South Palm Canyon Drive, the building gained local historic status in 2008 and was placed on the national register in 2016.
City National bank (now, Bank of America)
Nearly whimsical in its design, the bank building looks like a cross between a Flintstones cartoon home and a huge-stemmed mushroom (see photo, above). But the combination of white tiles, blue tiles, desert landscape, angular lines and top-to-bottom windows on one side make it one you’ll want to walk around a few times to enjoy. This building at 588 South Palm Canyon Drive achieved protected local historic status in 2007.
Elvis Presley’s Honeymoon Hideaway / Alexander Residence
In a short stop there, while we listened to Erin’s commentary with Modern Tours Palm Springs, we watched numerous visitors, both older and younger, posing for photos although the house was under some reconstruction. Elvis and his wife Priscilla stayed there following their secret 1967 marriage, but never owned it. When we visited the home at 1039 West Cielo Drive, there was a cardboard cutout of Elvis peering out the front window. Based on the city’s list, this home does not have historical protected status.
Leonard DiCaprio House / Dinah Shore Residence
Officially called the Dinah Shore Residence, this 1964 home went straight to the national historic registry, but not until 2019! Not really a home, albeit owned by DiCaprio, it rents out for a mere $4,500 a night or so, two-night minimum. Hmmm, with six bedrooms in 7,000 square feet (don’t forget the daily maid service) and a 1-bedroom guest house, wonder if we can split it with enough people to make it affordable? This is also a home by architect Donald Wexler, but a lot more luxurious than the prefab “Steel House” homes mentioned above.
And don’t miss the doors! Mid-century architecture loves its doors
I personally found some of the great doors in lime, pink, or orange a real delight on their own. I ended up simply walking the Kings Point neighborhood off Murray Canyon Road, a development built in 1968-70. The 43 homes with a private greenbelt were designed by modernist architect Wiliam Krisel.
Another great neighborhood for door-gawking is off South El Camino Real in the neighborhood that encompasses Alhambra and Yosemite drives. Park politely where allowed and stroll the streets.
Perhaps Perhaps Palm Springs and the Southern California desert are on your post-pandemic road trip bucket list? Make it so, then discover modernism, too. Whether you take a guided tour, participate in a self-guided tour, jump into a Palm Springs Modernism Week event, or create your own adventurous modernist architecture tour, you may find yourself joining the love affair with modernism in Palm Springs. I sure did.
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