By Angela Caraway-Carlton
Perched atop a double-decker bus, we’re gliding down streets lined with fan palms that appear to be donning hula skirts while dancing against a dramatic backdrop of California’s deep-brown San Jacinto mountains. With the warm desert sun on our faces, we squint to see the buildings that make Palm Springs a mecca of midcentury modern architecture. Our tour guide rattles off the dizzying roster of masterful architects who crafted these jewels—visionaries such as Albert Frey, William Cody, Donald Wexler and E. Stewart Williams—while regaling us with stories of celebrities from Bob Hope to Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe who’ve stayed and played here.
The towering tour bus allows our group of design lovers from all over the world the rare chance to peek behind the hedges and gates of some of Palm Springs’ most notable homes. Like the 1964 ranch-style estate of actor and singer Dinah Shore (now owned by Leonardo DiCaprio) in the storied Old Las Palmas neighborhood, where Shore regularly played tennis with her neighbor Kirk Douglas; and the 1947 Twin Palms Estate, where crooner Frank Sinatra once lived and floated in a piano-shaped pool.
“It’s said that Frank Sinatra would hoist the Jack Daniel’s flag that stood between the two palm trees to signal to neighbors to come over for cocktail hour,” calls out David Dixon, our tour guide and creative project manager for Palm Springs’ Modernism Week. “Our close relationship to Los Angeles meant that a lot of Hollywood celebrities and wealthy people escaped to the desert to enjoy the weather in the winter months. That inspired a sort of vacation architecture, and the architects were more experimental because it wasn’t people’s primary residences.”
Every year in February, architecture and design enthusiasts flock to Palm Springs, a Southern California city in the sun-drenched desert located about a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, to attend the ever-popular Modernism Week. Palm Springs is home to one of the largest concentrations of preserved midcentury modern architecture created from 1946–1973 in the world, and this signature 11-day festival features more than 350 ticketed events. The events include the aforementioned double-decker architectural tours, walking tours of iconic homes, nightly parties, fashion shows, informative lectures and the Palm Springs Modernism Show & Sale, where select vendors sell everything from fine art to furniture. (A mini-version of Modernism Week will also take place October 13-16, 2022.)
During my four days at Modernism Week, Palm Springs’ glamorous past and present sprang to life. I buzzed through showcase homes to marvel at the area’s most popular design elements: front doors splashed in vibrant hues; butterfly and cantilevered rooflines; A-frame and tiki-style homes; landscaping with geometric shapes; a seamless flow of indoor-outdoor spaces; shaded breezeways to temper the scorching sun; and never-ending glass doors and walls showcasing striking mountain views. Every now and then, locals arrived at events in showy classic cars, stealing away the attention of gawking attendees and their cameras for just a moment. I mingled at a cocktail party with one of the original queens of Palm Springs society, Nelda Linsk, who dished on the day that photographer Slim Aarons snapped his now-famous photo “Poolside Gossip” at her home in 1970. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ll recognize Linsk as the blonde woman in the canary-yellow outfit sitting by the pool in Aaron’s iconic photo.
Though located on the other side of the country, South Florida also took center stage at Modernism Week. One of the highlights was the standing-room-only talk “Fabulous Florida in the 50s,” given by midcentury style and design expert Charles Phoenix. Clad in a yellow-and-white striped suit, Phoenix shared a slideshow of various vintage Florida vacation photos, sprinkling in comedic commentary and standout design details of tourist traps, motels, resorts and roadside attractions. Making cameos in his presentation were the iconic A-frame building of the Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale and the design-centric Fountainebleu hotel in Miami Beach.
While both South Florida and Palm Springs are certainly coveted destinations with warm weather and palm trees, their midcentury architecture is distinctly different. “The midcentury modern style appeared in the United States after World War II, and it morphed into different kinds of architecture in different regions of the country,” explains Arthur Marcus, a Fort Lauderdale resident and architect, who also lectured on the glory of South Florida architecture during Modernism Week. “In Palm Springs, you have the beautiful rectilinear and geometric homes that contrast with rough mountains all around. In South Florida, we don’t have any mountains, so the contrast between rectilinear and free form is all in the whimsical architecture.”
Marcus recently authored The Architecture of Whimsy: Mid-20th-Century Modern Architecture in South Florida, a book highlighting 13 architects and their buildings in Miami and Fort Lauderdale fashioned with swooping overhangs, brise-soleil, cheese-hole railings and arches. He points out a number of commercial buildings on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, including the curvy Times Square shopping center on the southeast corner of Federal and Oakland Park Boulevard, and the former Ferguson’s Showroom, highlighted by its overhanging roof planes. There are also architectural stunners like the Birch House apartment building, constructed in 1959 in the North Beach Village neighborhood, which features beautiful curving on its porte cochère; the Breakwater Towers on South Ocean Drive with its freeform green arches; and the Sea Tower condominiums, imagined by acclaimed architect Igor Polevitzky in 1957, with its distinct signage, cantilevered balconies and unique brise-soleil sunscreen motifs with different designs on the front and rear of the building.
Marcus currently sits on the City of Fort Lauderdale’s Historic Preservation Board, working to bring attention to the mid-century modern gems still standing in Broward County. “There’s no ground swell of support for historic preservation in Fort Lauderdale. In places like Palm Springs, Sarasota and Miami, it’s almost like a religion,” says Marcus. “We’re working on it, but I’m hoping these buildings won’t be destroyed before we realize they are treasures.”
For those who want to discover Greater Fort Lauderdale’s surviving buildings, Randall Robinson, founder of the New River Architecture Project, will restart his BroCoMo (Broward County Modern) architecture tours in October 2022. “I started the tours to get people to see old things with new eyes,” says Robinson, “to help them understand what makes the period special, and to foster pride of place in Greater Fort Lauderdale and to build support for the conservation of the significant architecture of the period.” One of the tours specifically focuses on Charles McKirahan, an architect who’s responsible for the original A-frame of the Mai-Kai, the Times Square shopping center and the Harbor Isles/Breakwater Surf Homes. “The way Frank Lloyd Wright left his stamp on Oak Park, Illinois, and the way Morris Lapidus shaped Miami Beach in his image, is the way Charles McKirahan shaped Greater Fort Lauderdale,” says Robinson.
Thanks to forward-thinking architects from the past, South Florida, as well as Palm Springs are now more beautiful. And when you’re ready to trade the beach for the glamorous desert, Palm Springs is a design-worthy destination.
Mini-Modernism Week, October 13-16, 2022; Modernism Week, February 16–26, 2023; modernismweek.com; book a BroCoMo tour at newriverarchitecture.com.
Sidebar: Guide to Palm Springs
Where to stay:
Casa Cody. With an ideal downtown location, this historic inn (it’s the oldest operating hotel in Palm Springs) is within walking distance to many Modernism Week events and must-visit sites like the Palm Springs Art Museum. While situated in the middle of all the action, the serene property, with its adobe-hacienda architecture, feels like it’s worlds away with bougainvillea-draped buildings and walkways, citrus trees that guests can pluck fruit from and juice in their room, and picture-perfect views of the San Jacinto Mountains from two intimate pools trimmed with scalloped umbrellas. Rooms, suites, cottages and an original adobe house are scattered throughout the property with updated interiors, antiques and comforts for a modern stay.
Where to eat and drink:
A dreamy ambiance and fresh local ingredients are everything at Farm, an always-busy patio bistro nestled in downtown Palm Springs. You’ll feel as if you’ve been whisked away to the South of France, as you dine on sweet and savory crepes, a salad topped with a duck confit, hearty sandwiches starring brie or a decadent croque monsieur.
In the evenings, make a beeline for the Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs Hotel to watch the sunset at their rooftop bar, High Bar; then enjoy those sweeping city and mountain views during dinner at 4 Saints, where they’re known for their tender steaks, crispy maitake mushrooms on a bed of grits, and creamy, white cheddar potatoes.
Situated in the fashionable Uptown Design District, Eight4Nine Restaurant & Lounge is a treat for the eyes and stomach. The sprawling space (which used to be a post office) is divided into different rooms and touched with dangling chandeliers and glass shelves topped with ceramic tea pots and found objects. The menu is a crowd-pleaser with everything from fried chicken to Irish pot pie and a poblano chile relleno.
No trip to Palm Springs is complete without a visit to the Parker hotel, a celebrity playground with lush gardens and playful interiors decorated by famed designer Jonathan Adler. Make a reservation at Counter Reformation for a small but deliciously curated global menu and wines you’ve most likely never heard of. Be sure to snap a Polaroid in the confessional booth before you leave.
Clink martini glasses at old-school institution Melvyn’s, where the Rat Pack used to hang; and join the fashion plates of Palm Springs at buzzy newcomer Bar Cecil.
What to do:
Take a mid-century modern tour with Palm Springs Mod Squad (psmodsquad.com), where design expert Kurt Cyr escorts groups through the area’s most design-centric homes. Or choose the boozy “Martini & Midcentury Architecture Tour,” which ends with the signature cocktail of the era.
Glide through the air on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (pstramway.com), the world’s largest rotating tram car. On the ride up, the tram car slowly turns, offering breathtaking views of the San Jacinto Mountains and the valley below. At the top, take in those epic views from the observation decks or opt for a hike along the more than 50 miles of trails. Bring a jacket as it’s much colder at the top, even in the summer.