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Modernism from a Millennial

If you’re from Palm Springs, the concept of modernism is ubiquitous—it’s everywhere and it’s everything. If you’re a millennial from Palm Springs, however, the phrase modernism is quite familiar but the actual concept of said ‘ancient’ architecture is a bit drab (or so I thought).

Being a desert native who loves to travel to unique destinations, I’ve recently come to realize that I haven’t explored very much of my hometown and what makes it a unique destination; and thus my desire to understand Desert Modernism began.

What is Desert Modernism?

The idea of Modernism began in the early 20th century. The movement was centered around the idea that ‘Form follows function’, meaning architects during this time began designing buildings with its purpose at the forefront rather than its look. In other words, the building was not designed with one’s Instagram aesthetic in mind (selfie walls weren’t invented until much later apparently). Palm Springs is famous for its Desert Modernism. Celebrities from the Hollywood era flocked to Palm Springs to escape the busyness of everyday life. Many hired famous architects to design homes, hotels and other buildings with their sole function being to reflect the beauty of the surrounding desert landscape.

What I began to realize about Desert Modernism is, it’s not just the 'ancient' architecture that draws people in, it’s the stories these buildings tell that allow them to live on and make Palm Springs shine with history.

After reading and learning about these stories, it was time to see these iconic landmarks for myself. I put together a list of the most well-known locations that I had researched, threw on my blue suede shoes (okay they were Birkenstocks c’mon I’m a millennial) and went on my way. The product of my endeavours is this self-guided, Palm Springs modernism tour, featuring five architectural gems. Let’s go explore!

First up on the list, the Palm Springs Visitors Center. Pull out your fancy smartphone and just type that right into maps. For the boomers, hand held maps can be found upon your arrival to the visitors center. For those that want to see and learn more about Desert Modernism, there is also a map created by the Palm Springs Modern Committee that includes 82 locations.


Palm Springs Visitor’s Center
2901 N Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA 92262
(1963, Albert Frey)

Albert Frey is one of the earliest and most famous mid-century modern architects in Palm Springs. His first project, the Aluminaire House, was the beginning of what became “Desert Modernism”. In the early 1960s, Frey was commissioned to design a new Tramway Gas Station in North Palm Springs at the base of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The gas station opened in 1965 and did well for many years. It eventually closed and was preserved and renovated into what is today, the official Palm Springs Visitor’s Center.

Next up on the tour, the Palm Springs neighborhoods. Start with the Desert Kauffman House located on West Vista Chino and work your way down through the other neighborhoods. You can drive through these neighborhoods or consider parking your car and take a nice walk or ride a bike!


Desert Kauffman House
470 West Vista Chino Drive
(1946, Richard Neutra)

The Desert Kauffman House was built in 1946 by architect Richard Neutra for Edgar Kaufmann as a place to escape the winter. Kauffman was a wealthy businessman whose family founded a department store in Pittsburg. He was also well known for commissioning famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design his renowned house named, “Fallingwater”. When he sought out to build his Palm Springs retreat, he hired Wright’s former colleague to construct it. Wright was not happy and a big dispute occurred. However, the home became so widely recognized that Wright actually ended up admitting that Neautra did a fantastic job.

From the Desert Kauffman House, you’ll find The House of Tomorrow just a half of a mile down the road on Ladera Circle.


Elvis Honeymoon hideaway
1350 Ladera Cir, Palm Springs, CA 92262
(1960, William Krisel)

This home was originally built by architect William Krisel for Robert and Helene Alexander but was leased by Elvis Presley in 1967 as a Honeymoon Hideaway for him and his wife Priscilla. Fun fact, their daughter, Lisa Marie Presley was born exactly nine months later in 1968. When I looked at the iconic ‘House of Tomorrow’ my mind drifted away to a dreamland. The year was 1967. Priscilla just invited me over for a pool party with her new hubby—the King. I spent the day sipping cocktails and dancing to groovy tunes. Life was good.

OK, back to reality, we have a tour to finish!

Next up, the famed Swiss Miss Homes. These are located throughout the Vista Las Palmas and Old Las Palmas neighborhoods.

These homes were built in 1958 by architect Charles Dubois. In the early 20th century, mid-century modern homes were known for having flat roofs. Alexander Construction Company wanted to create distinct homes that stood out from the rest in the up-and-coming neighborhood so they hired Dubois to create the distinctive A-frame roofs that rise from the ground. These A-frames became homes to some of the most elite Hollywood stars of the time. Today, there are reportedly 15 Swiss Miss homes remaining in Palm Springs.

Last up on the tour, Palm Springs City Hall. You’ll need to get back in your car and head towards the other end of town for this one. The Palm Springs City Hall is located off East Tahquitz Canyon Way, very close to the Palm Springs International Airport.(1958, Charles Dubois)


Elvis Honeymoon hideaway
1350 Ladera Cir, Palm Springs, CA 92262
(1960, William Krisel)

Last up on the tour, Palm Springs City Hall.

You’ll need to get back in your car and head towards the other end of town for this one. The Palm Springs City Hall is located off East Tahquitz Canyon Way, very close to the Palm Springs International Airport.


Palm Springs City Hall
3200 E Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs, CA 92262
(1952, Albert Frey)

Palm Springs City Hall was also designed by Albert Frey. In 1952, Frey, as well as a handful of other famous architects, created this modernism masterpiece. Frey envisioned an entrance that would immediately capture people’s attention. To accomplish this, a giant hole was made in the center of the entrance canopy, allowing three palm trees to grow through it.

And that concludes my self-guided modernism tour. There are countless locations around town that I’d love to check out next and I foresee a Palm Springs Mod Squad tour up next on my mid-mod excursion in the near future. Palm Springs Mod Squad offers a variety of tours where you can even see the interiors of some of these buildings. I can picture it now, riding around in a Mod Squad van while listening to tales of Hollywood stars and famous architects.

I never paid much attention to the architecture around town, but now I notice it everywhere—dramatic rooflines, expansive glass walls, colorful doors. From historic hotels to incredible homes (heck even the old Chase Bank is a mid-century modern icon), Palm Springs embodies modernism. Each destination I visit tells a unique story and I must say, my hometown tells a pretty great one.

The sun, the pure air, the simple forms of the desert create perfect conditions for architecture.

– Albert Frey