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Black Pioneers of Palm Springs

The history of Palm Springs is intricately woven with the stories of its black pioneers whose resilience and contributions have left an indelible mark on the city’s cultural fabric. From the early 20th century onwards, black pioneers ventured into the desert oasis, seeking refuge from racial discrimination and segregation prevalent elsewhere in the United States. Despite facing numerous challenges, these trailblazers established vibrant communities, built businesses, and significantly influenced the development of Palm Springs. Their narratives, often overlooked in mainstream historical accounts, illuminate the rich tapestry of diversity and perseverance that characterizes the city’s past and present.

Paul R. Williams

Architect Paul R. Williams (1894 – 1980) broke racial barriers when he became the first African American member (and later, Fellow) of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), as well as a civic leader. 1920 he was appointed to the first Los Angeles City Planning Commission. The following year, he became a certified architect. Williams opened his practice in 1923, later serving as an architect for the Navy during World War II.  He designed almost 2,000 homes in Los Angeles alone, many for wealthy business people and Hollywood stars, in neighborhoods he could not live in.

Architect Paul R. Williams Palm Springs

The recently graduated A. Quincy Jones worked for Williams, and the two would later partner on three Palm Springs projects. The Tennis Club Addition, Town & Country Center, and Romanoffs on the Rocks (1950 – demolished).

The Town & Country (1946 – 1955)

169 N Indian Canyon

Williams and several other Palm Springs architects, including Albert Frey, Donald Wexler, and John Porter Clark, contributed to this project, as it was constructed in multiple phases. “The Center” is considered an outstanding example of “desert modern” architecture and conveys the significance of the mid-century period in Palm Springs, which gained international recognition. Grit Development now owns the Town & Country, and the Palm Springs City Council voted to designate it as a Class I Historic site in April of 2016. Grit plans to retain and restore the property.

The Town & Country Palm Springs

El Mirador Hotel

In 1952, Williams completed a remodel of the glamorous and historic El Mirador Hotel (now the Desert Regional Hospital). It was the second luxury resort in Palm Springs built after the popular Desert Inn and attracted Hollywood stars, wealthy business owners, and many dignitaries. It had an Olympic-size swimming pool and Palm Springs’s first 18-hole golf course.

It was later converted to Torney General Hospital, a war hospital during WWII. After the war, the City of Palm Springs temporarily retained control. The city sought to pass a bond issue to create a civic center at the hotel, but it failed. Various owners controlled the property until 1952 when an investment syndicate of 18 led by F. Roy Fitzgerald and Ray Ryan purchased it for about $900,000 to reopen it as a luxury hotel. They engaged Paul R. Williams to renovate their property. His new design included the addition of a porte-cochere entry, cabanas, sun decks, a new pool area, and an outdoor lounge with a modernistic trellis and retractable canopy.

El Mirador Hotel Palm Springs
El Mirador Hotel

Palm Springs Tennis Club

Williams also worked on the Palm Springs Tennis Club addition in 1946. It was originally built by founding pioneer Pearl McManus and was said to have one of the most beautiful pools in the country. The addition was a more sophisticated version, emphasizing solid volume, the natural wood and stone of the surrounding environment, and unpainted brick and wrap-around glass tying the outdoors to the indoors.  The addition included a new main dining room, the Bougainvillea Room, a snack bar, a cocktail lounge with a terrace for outdoor dining, and a lawn terrace for lounging and sunbathing.

Palm Springs Tennis Club

In February 2018, Modernism Week, we dedicated a star for Williams on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, joining modernist icons Albert Frey, Hugh Kaptur, Donald Wexler, E. Stewart Williams, Richard Harrison, William Krisel, William Cody, A. Quincy Jones, and Richard Neutra.

Lawrence Crossley

The Louisiana-born Lawrence L. Crossley (1899-1962) came to Palm Springs in 1925 and worked for Prescott T. Stevens, owner of the El Mirador Hotel. As a leading black Palm Springs pioneer, Crossley worked his way up from chauffeur to help Stevens design and maintain the El Mirador’s golf course during the 1920s.

During the late 1930s, Crossley also built a small café (run by Mexico-born Marcus Caro) with rooms for rent on Section 14 (central downtown).  In the early 1940s, Crossley began marketing a “mystery tea” using an ephedra-based Native American recipe. The Palm Springs Desert Tea Co. was successful, and Crossley’s tea was sold as far away as the East Coast.

Lawrence Crossley Palm Springs
Courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society

Crossley’s Business Acumen

Crossley’s business acumen was on display in his role as the owner/watermaster of the Whitewater Mutual Water Co. (which served the north end of Palm Springs), and his ownership of the Tramview Water Co. He parlayed those investments into real estate development in Cathedral City including the Tramview Village and Eagle Canyon Trailer Village.

Crossley advocated for better housing for Palm Springs’ African American community and was publicly acknowledged for his efforts in the early 1960s by the Los Angeles Sentinel. Crossley, “a long-time confidant of the tribe,” also assisted in developing Native American lands and was appointed as guardian for ten members of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

During the early 1930s, Lawrence Crossley acquired approximately five acres of land south of Section 14, near the southwest corner of East Ramon Road and South Sunrise Way. This would become Crossley Court (a.k.a. Crossley Acres and Crossley Trailer Park). It is the first known example of land ownership by an African American in Palm Springs.

Before 1936, Crossley erected a house for himself and his extended family at 1543 East Ramon Road (not extant). Over time, he invited others to lease and build on the land, ultimately forming a compound. Various newspaper accounts alternately refer to the property as the “Crossley Trailer Court,” “Crossley Acres,” and “Crossley Court.”

In 1938, another African American from Crossley’s home state of Louisiana, Robert Rieux, received a permit to build a residence there for his family, as did Hewitt Crossley. These structures may have been ramadas for trailers. Another Crossley brother-in-law, Lloyd Gauff, was built at 1571 E. Ramon Road (not extant). The 1940 Census indicates that several Latino families lived in the compound, and a U.S. Geological Service Map from the same year suggests that as many as 15 structures were located there. By 1953, 37 homes had been erected on Crossley’s acreage.

In September of 1953, Lawrence Crossley sold the five-acre compound to the adjacent Ramon Trailer Park. He announced plans for a new subdivision two miles east of the city and a mile south of Ramon Road.

Crossley Tract

The Crossley Tract (a.k.a. Crossley Gardens and Crossley Estates) was a 77-parcel subdivision bordered by 34th Avenue on the north, Martha Street on the south, the east side of Maguerite Street on the east, and the west side of Lawrence Street on the west. The new subdivision would accommodate the displaced tenants of Crossley Court. Original plans called for 32 of the 37 homes from the Ramon acreage to be relocated to the new subdivision of 79 lots.

Crossley appears to have developed a partnership with the Sun-Spa Development Corporation. Sun-Spa Development’s president, Al Casey, explained, “We’re particularly interested in providing immediate, low-cost housing for residents forced to move from Section 14 because of the new Indian Land Leasing Agreements.” Section 14 was being developed for commercial use, and residential leases were not renewed.

The Crossley Tract (which is also referenced in the early press as Crossley Estates and later Crossley Gardens) consisted of a series of modest, three-bedroom, 2.5-bath minimal traditional-style homes. Grading began in the spring of 1958, and the first home was ready for occupancy by September. In 1959, the Crossley Tract was annexed into the City of Palm Springs.

We are proud of these two Black pioneers of Palm Springs.

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