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.

Embraced by the desert at Frey House II in Palm Springs

You are here.

Frey House II leans into the San Jacinto Mountains on a pedestal of earth-colored brick, like a ship which has run aground. The home’s architect and inhabitant, Albert Frey, had been exact about the color of the brick, wanting it to blend perfectly into the side of the mountain. Even the iron from the surrounding rocks has bled into and discolored the brick, just as it would normally do the soil around it. That was something Frey wanted to happen, something he perhaps delighted in.

The home was built in 1963 as a place for Mr. Frey to live. The original square footage was no more than 800 square feet. We learned he later added on to the home, to make room for his girlfriend, but our focus on this day was the original footprint.

A porte-cochere or portico housed Frey's small car.

One oddity stood out at the bottom of the steps leading up to this very angular house: a chubby, rotund cowbell. It makes more sense, however, knowing that Frey was born and raised in Switzerland and he placed the bell there as a nod to that heritage. In some respects, this house was the ideal Swiss chalet in his adopted “California Alps”.

Earth-colored brick, a glass block (is one missing there in that hole in the wall?), and a cowbell led us up the steps to the home. I like the shadows of the bricks jutting in and out on that corner.
Discoloration of the earth-colored brick by the iron-rich rocks.

Seeing those bricks colored and discolored like the earth and noticing how the roof of the place seems to mimic the sky on one side and the mountain on the other, for the first time I can grasp what is meant by modern architects like Frey who worked to build structures which imitated and “disappeared” into their environments. This house, perched into the walls of this mountain, was embraced by the desert around it. It blended in and molded to the nature surrounding it. Even the pool, so sparkly and blue, seemed to imitate the expansive sky above.

Looking out over the pool.
I liked the little stones embedded into the concrete around the pool. Are those river rocks? Or stones found on the mountain?

Outside, the direct sun pressed hot and heavy with temperatures flirting past 80-degrees Fahrenheit. Inside, the difference in temperature was immediately felt. It had all been planned that way by Mr. Frey to be a home that was cool in the summer and warm in the winter, without the need for piped in heat and air.

Our guide told us how Frey had spent an entire year studying the position of the sun as it hit the ground so he would know how to best place and situate the roof and its overhangs. In the summer months, the sun barely brushes the top step outside the home–never venturing further into the home with its steamy tendrils, thanks to the ribbed aluminium eave hanging over the steps by the pool. Today the winter sun (hot as it was outside) humbly crept along the floor and warmed the carpet inside. With the windows wide open, cool breezes drifted through and made the room quite pleasant and relaxing.

Perforated corrugated aluminum sheets were used on the roof/ceiling of the home. Reminds me of the sky and the cool blue of the pool.
Winter sun comes barely comes in. The rest of the house is shaded and cool.

It was so comfortable in this tiny ship of a house. Everything was built in–the couch, the record player, the drafting table–that it felt as if everything had been thought of and was within arm’s reach. It truly was like living in a ship–one which had been cast up onto high ground and landed perfectly on its anchor, a gorgeous, massive rock.

The rock is at the heart of this small home.

Frey thought around every obstacle as he built this home around the boulder. He did not have access to the kinds of laser-accurate tools we have today which could cut glass to the exact wrinkles and undulations of this rock. So he chipped at it, positioned the glass around it and then filled it back in using the chips he had displaced.

Everything was built in, even the record player.
A stereo console and nightstand/end table connects the bedroom to the main room.
Looking east onto Palm Springs. This photo gives some idea of the length of the living room/bedroom/office space in which Frey lived.

Unlike the Stephens House, I found myself wishing I could be one of the lucky few to live there. It seemed so peaceful, as if inspiration could be born and nurtured inside, while all the little niggling worries of everything else were left outside to melt in the sun.

The large windows opened up and exposed the room from floor to ceiling to welcome, cool breezes. The yellow curtains on one side looked like the yellow flowers dotting the desert floor just outside. The blue drapes on the other side of the home reminded me of the sky visible from the lower level of the living area. It was a dream home–not pretentious, but nonetheless elegant in its simplicity and functionality.

Yellow curtains, the color of bright encilia flowers just outside.
The drafting table with Frey-crafted chairs and blue curtains, the color of the surrounding sky.

In spite of a concrete floor and an aluminum perforated ceiling, this house was richly inviting. Perhaps it is the color of the wood veneer so prominent in the space, used back then for its low-cost availability, and now prized because it is so rare. Woods do tend to soften even the harshest of spaces. Or maybe it was the colors he chose–the blues on the ceiling, curtains, and tabletops. Likely, it is the complete package, a combination of everything, a habitable expression of the desert mountains, which makes it so delightful and draws out feelings of contentment and joy.

The honey-colored wood veneer covered walls and built-in furniture alike. Love that clock.
A view from the open floor-to-ceiling window off the bedroom area.

The hospitality of the home could also simply be owed to its creator, a man who put in his will a special endowment for the house to be maintained and restored as needed. He lived there and loved that house from the time it was built until his death in 1998. It was something special to him and he was happy to share it. He specified that someone should always live in the home because empty houses fall into disrepair and he desired that the home remain “alive” by having someone live there. He also made sure that architecture students and other architects should always have access to the home “for study and inspiration in the future.”

For those of us considered amateur students of architecture, this home is deeply inspiring, a welcome embrace into the simplicity and philosophy of Modernism.

Thank you to the Palm Springs Art Museum and the Architecture and Design Council for making it available to we, your budding students, privileged to walk in the life and steps of people like Albert Frey. This tour has so far been the highlight of Modernism Week for me.

For more photos from our tour of this great house, see the slideshow below.

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