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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.