How Frank Sinatra helped Palm Springs become a goldmine of Modern Architecture

Before Frank Sinatra ever stepped foot into Palm Springs, the little town in the Coachella Valley had started its metamorphosis from a dusty spot in the desert to the polished star it would eventually become. But it was people like Mr. Sinatra who, with their interest and investment in this paradise, propelled the town into a place to see and be seen.

It is because of that interest that Palm Springs is now an icon of Mid-Century Modern design. Famous architects of that era were drawn here, both for the success they could achieve in designing homes, banks, and shops, and for the stunning weather the area is known for. Thanks to people like Sinatra, and other important but lesser known investors and visionaries, Palm Springs now has some of the best examples of preserved modern architecture to be found in the world.

Below are photos from my recent tour of Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate, which has been lovingly refurbished after having escaped complete ruin, and a tour of the commercial district in Palm Springs, where all these swanky celebrities watched architects like E. Stewart Willaims turn this town into a goldmine of modernism.

The Twin Palms after which Sinatra's first Palm Springs estate was named. The house was designed by famous modernist architect E. Stewart Williams.

The pool, the pergola walkway, and the first house Frank Sinatra owned in Palm Springs. Originally, Sinatra wanted a traditional Georgian mansion, but when E. Stewart Williams presented him with this modern design, Old Blue Eyes chose the contemporary style: a house with a flat roof, lots of glass windows, and horizontal lines.

The living room with the original recording equipment still in tact. The house is rented out these days, which is why plasma screen TVs can be found in most of the rooms.

Much of the home has been completely renovated because it was otherwise falling apart in ruins. This bathroom, however, had all the original tile and fixtures from Frank's day, including a crack in one of the sinks said to be from Ava Gardner throwing a champagne bottle during one of the lovers' famous arguments.

Wood-clad ceilings, clerestory windows, and large floor-to-ceiling windows are some of my personal favorite features of this house and its contemporary style.

Also a favorite design element used in this house: the stacked ledger-stone, found on the fireplace in the master bedroom and on chimney outside.

Love those crooked lines of stacked ledger stone.

Architects like E. Stewart Williams designed a lot of the homes in the area, but the commercial district–a short, few-block span bordered by Indian Canyon Drive and Palm Canyon Drive–is packed with exquisite examples of modern architecture designed by Williams and other famous names of that era. Nearly every building has the presence of a beauty queen.

Union Bank has beautiful art deco tiles which tell the story of Palm Springs' history.

One of the easier modern icons to spot, thanks to its location on a triangular corner and the blue tiles along the front of it, was designed by Rudy Baumfeld of Gruen & Associates in 1959. Today it is a functioning Bank of America branch.

This is my favorite building in Palm Springs. It was designed by the same man who designed Sinatra's house, E. Stewart Williams. It is now a Chase bank.

Here you can see it from across the street. Notice how the mountain behind the building seems to sit on top like the pediment of an ancient Greek temple.

Another building designed by E. Stewart Williams, the Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan was completed in 1960. This building is in the process of being restored to become the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Edwards Harris Center for Architecture and Design.

There are lots of other buildings along the route that have a wonderful connection to the modernist architects from the middle of last century. Palm Springs Art Museum and the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation have done a wonderful job of encouraging preservation of these buildings and homes. On the tours we have participated in, the names of the architects are spoken with deserved respect. On the sidewalks outside of the soon-to-be Palm Springs Art Museum’s Edwards Harris Center for Architecture and Design those same names so well-known and beloved in this beautiful city are preserved on a Walk of Fame.

Donald Wexler, known perhaps best for the Alexander Steel Houses built in the early 60s around Palm Springs, he is a rock star architect in these parts and still lives in the area.

If you've been following my posts this week, you will recognize this man's name: Albert Frey. He has several structures in the area that are still in use, including the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the Tramway Gas Station (now the Palm Springs Visitor Center), and, of course, several homes, including his own. Outside the bounds of Palm Springs, Frey might best be known for designing the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

William Krisel designed some 30,000 homes in Southern California and left when the industry became "too uptight". He was interviewed by Dwell Magazine in June 2009.

And, of course no Palm Springs Architect Walk of Fame would be complete without E. Stewart Williams. He contributed much to the style for which Palm Springs is so well known.

For more examples of Modern Architecture found throughout Palm Springs, take a look at this article which provides information about a lot of the greatest of the Old Dames and their architects.

Other resources about Modern Architecture can be found below:

Tomorrow is the last day of Modernism Week for me. It is my understanding that the Double-Decker Bus Tour I will be taking is the perfect way to wrap up such a fantastic week of travel back to the mid-century.

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