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.

Vintage cars and mid-century furnishings rev things up at Palm Springs Modernism Week

Photos from the 50s and 60s might be in black and white, but judging from the colors seen during two of today’s Modernism Week events in Palm Springs, the mid-century was bursting with color and shine.

“They don’t make ’em like they used to.” No where was that more apparent than at the Vintage Car Show located outside the Palm Springs Convention Center. It was a sight of brilliant colors, shiny chrome, and decadent lines and curves. These are the cars of an era long gone, of free-wheeling creativity. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Lincoln Continental convertible.

Somewhere inside of me is a prolonged sigh–not for a past that wasn’t as good to some as it was to others–but for that kind of open-ended creativity and an “anything’s possible” attitude that created these kinds of cars.

Looooong daddy-oh. Looks like something Batman would drive.

When I look at cars today, I see only hints of the passion and flair of yesterday’s four-wheeled marvels. Where did it go? Maybe with all the rules and regulations about what a car must be today, there’s not room for that kind of passion in the car industry. Or maybe we’re just waiting for that next generation to come along and burst the seams of what we thought was possible.

All about the chrome, color, and massive hood ornaments.
Vintage Car Show at the Palm Springs Convention Center. Photo by Michael Dryja
Cherry red convertible Studebaker. Photo by Michael Dryja.
Chrysler New Yorker: Long, lean, and shark-like with its gills and fins. Gorgeous.
Inside the Chrysler New Yorker.
1959 Desoto.
Built in a time when kids were seen and not heard, ash trays dominated the back seats instead of video screens.

Outside the Convention Center the cars seduced with their chrome bumpers, curvaceous lines, and statuesque hood ornaments. Inside the Convention Center there was plenty to salivate over as well, thanks to the 12th Annual Palm Springs Modernism Show. All parts of a Modernist home were represented in warm shades of lacquered wood, blue vinyl, polished metals, and sparkly glass. Primary colors danced on metal orbs, rods, and squares. They saturated vinyl couches, were splashed across canvases, and were woven into fabrics.

Love this blue vinyl couch with built-in coffee and end tables. How about those fluffy, furry white pillows?
Large, colorful jacks decorated a glass fireplace surround.
Grouping of Transmission Tower Replicas at Christopher Anthony Ltd. in Palm Springs.
Not sure what material was used to house this radio. Stained wood? Melamine? It is marbled and unique.
Honeycomb bookshelves.
Colorful lamps that look like nuns bowed in prayer.
Simple, colorful, elegant clocks.

For more photos, check out the slideshow from both events:

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