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Exploring Palm Springs Architecture

midcentury architecture

Palm Springs – An Architectural Masterpiece

By Barbara Beckley

If you admire architecture – and who doesn’t – it’s time to break out of your four walls – and open the door to Palm Springs!

Plan an escape to architecture that’s light years from ordinary, yet easily close to home.

Share the unbridled creativity of the master architects, who — inspired by Palm Springs’ sweeping views, and a movie star or two – designed structures that are as futuristic now as when they were built in the mid-20th century.

Doors – in powder blue, pink, yellow! Glass, glass and more glass! Textured brick walls embracing open-air living spaces and gleaming pools. High-beamed ceilings and sunken floors. Nothing was off limits.

women in front of orange door

Where to begin? Anywhere! Landmark architecture is everywhere in Palm Springs. It’s the first thing to greet you and the last to say goodbye. By car, it’s the high-flying gas station designed by Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers in 1965 and now the Palm Springs Visitor Center. By air, it’s the out-of-this-world Palm Springs International Airport terminal imagined by Donald Wexler in 1965.

palm springs visitor center

Homes, inns, boutiques, museums, commercial buildings, restaurants. Palm Springs surrounds you with the best of the best – designed by the top architects of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s: Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Wexler, Albert Frey, William F. Cody, John Porter Clark, E. Stewart Williams, Hugh Kaptur, William Krisel.

Double-dip for the Best Experience!  

Upon arrival, enjoy one – or more – of the Palm Springs mid-century modern architecture guided drive-by tours with companies such as Palm Springs Mod Squad (martini-making is included on The Martini & Mid-Century Architecture Tour). The owner-guides know the inside scoop – and gossip — on the architects, their buildings and the original, often celebrity, owners.

Also pick up A Map of Modern Palm Springs at the Palm Springs Visitors Center (and a closer look at this Frey stunner) for do-it-yourself exploration on the following days. The map leads to 75 mid-century marvels and Palm Springs abundant architecturally significant neighborhoods.

Must-sees include Old Las Palmas, boasting icons including the 1962 Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway and rows of “Swiss Miss” Alexander beauties. Twin Palms, a break-through housing “tract,” featuring 90 smaller (designed for regular folks) equally stunning Alexanders by Krisel. And Racquet Club Estates, home to Wexler’s seven break-through 1961 Steel Houses (they’re mostly glass).

For a deeper understanding visit the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center (in a killer 1960 Williams former bank building). Its sister, the Palm Springs Art Museum, is another Williams wow – from 1974. The museum offers the only tours that regularly go inside legendary homes like the 1964 Frey House II. Designed as his personal residence, it’s basically an amazing glass rectangle enclosing a hillside rock!

palm springs architecture museum

Live the Retro Moment!

Don’t stop there! Overnight in an authentic mid-century inn or small hotel. You’ll find dozens from the 1957 Orbit In and 1951 Holiday House, both designed by Herbert W. Burns, to the 1947 Cody-designed Del Marcos Hotel.

Sip a craft cocktail in the same space as the 1953 Don the Beachcomber restaurant – at Bootlegger Tiki. The original tiki torches still stand guard. Shop behind Frey’s 1960s glass walls at the Trina Turk/Mr. Turk Boutique.

Heck, you can even bank in retro glory. Chase Palm Springs is a 1961Williams’ design and Bank of America is architect Rudy Baumfield’s 1959 take on France’s avant garde 1954 Ronchamp chapel.

Given all this, enthusiasts might compare Palm Springs to an “architectural theme attraction.” In a most sophisticated and upbeat way. It’s as if these visionary architects united to create a showplace for their work — which they did, albeit unknowingly.

“Mid-Century Modern Land?” This may be going too far. But it’s kind of true… You be the judge — when you return to see all you missed this time.

bank of america

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