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Midcentury haven Palm Springs comes back to life

PALM SPRINGS — It was as if I were walking through an issue of Architectural Digest. I gingerly stepped on travertine floors with a pair of disposable medical shoe covers clinging to my beat-up sneakers. I wandered through minimalist rooms abutting sunny courtyards and then gazed longingly into shimmering swimming pools until I was temporarily blinded by reflected sunlight.

As I progressed through these midcentury architectural masterpieces in Palm Springs, the term “real estate envy” crystallized before my eyes. Touring the desert homes was like a dream, a dream that made me seriously rethink my Ikea furniture purchases and nudged me toward cleaning the red wine stains off my living room rug.


But at that moment I just wanted to pretend that I could live in such places. These dwellings smelled of optimism, innovation, and Windex.

The sleek steel and glass dwellings were designed in the 1950s and ’60s by such influential architects as Donald Wexler , William Krisel , Albert Frey , and Richard Neutra . These men introduced a generation to the concept of pared down, indoor-outdoor living. They are so revered in Palm Springs they are on the Walk of Stars alongside Marilyn Monroe, Kathy Griffin, and Elizabeth Taylor.

If you don’t recognize their names, you will recognize the style. Many of the houses wear flat or butterfly roofs, unfussy profiles, and expansive windows. It’s not only houses that were built in this style. The Bank of America is a historic landmark, a former gas station with a distinct cantilevered roof is now a visitors center, and even the KFC building looks modernist. This is the Disneyland of midcentury construction, minus long lines and a disturbingly large Jiminy Cricket lurking about.

Fans of 1950s architecture and culture descend on this desert oasis every year for Modernism Week, which is exactly what drew me here.


When I visited last year, I had an opportunity to see the exteriors of some of the city’s most famous properties. But I really wanted to roam the interiors. Modernism Week is the only time of the year you can get a peek inside homes without ADT calling the police on you.

The celebration of architects and their work has blossomed over the past decade. What started with a few hundred enthusiasts now numbers more than 45,000. Many of these retro-minded folks dressed in period garb for events such as the “Mad Men” cocktail party, the 100th birthday party for former Palm Springs resident Frank Sinatra, and a show of 1960s furniture at the convention center. I talked to a woman who resembled Lucille Ball, a burlesque performer dressed as Miss Modernism 2015, and a bouffanted woman strutting about in Jane Jetson-inspired couture.

A butterfly roof. Christopher Muther/globe staff

“Honey,” the Jane Jetson doppelganger said while giving me the once-over, “You’ve got to loosen up and look the part. This isn’t just about houses or couches — this is a lifestyle, sweetie.”

I need to point out that Jane Jetson and her Rat Pack idioms were at the extreme end of the spectrum. You don’t need to dress like Roger Sterling to have a good time, although it doesn’t hurt. I slipped into cocktail parties where women were resplendent in bold Trina Turk maxi dresses, and the gents wore smoking jackets or Hawaiian shirts. This was time travel at its finest.


A detail from a home designed by Palmer + Krisel Architects.Christopher Muther/globe staff

As more architecture buffs are drawn to Palm Springs, the population is starting to change. A friend once dismissed the city as “gay and gray.” Yes, there is a sizable gay community and a lot of retirees, but there is also a swell of chic newcomers. The proximity to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and the arrival of hotels such as the hipster haven Ace has brought in faces with fewer wrinkles.

“We’re experiencing a renaissance demographically, with more people in their 20s and 30s showing interest in the architecture and casual living,” said real estate agent Mary Moody-Lewis, who owns one of drool-worthy homes I toured.

The Los Angeles-based artist Josh Agle, who is better known as Shag, has seen a similar progression.

“The first time I came out here was 1984,” he said as we chatted in his incredible tiki-themed condo at the Royal Hawaiian Estates. “It was so dead. It was just old people. I didn’t see anything cool. It was a lot of golf wear shops and bad souvenir stores. I was kind of disappointed.”

He discovered more when he returned in the 1990s, but by the 2000s Agle said people began buying up and renovating the midcentury homes. This spurred new stores and restaurants.

Donald Wexler designed this 1955 home for his family. Christopher Muther/globe staff

“For people who love midcentury design and the mystical midcentury lifestyle, Palm Springs is the number one place in the world to experience it,” he said. “There are other places where you can have a retro vacation, like Miami or Hawaii, maybe, but Palm Springs has completely embraced it.”


I wanted to experience that embrace as much as possible. I went on tours of celebrity homes, dropped in on cocktail parties at show homes, visited the new Architecture Design Center, and attended lectures and films about the major players of the era. I even met Wexler’s son at a party. Palm Springs is a small town. (The permanent population of Palm Springs is about 46,000, a number that doubles in winter, according to the tourism bureau.)

Spend any time here and you’ll learn that this was once an epicenter of celebrity frolicking during the golden age of Hollywood. The denizens of the city love talking about Dinah Shore, Cary Grant, Liberace, Bob Hope, and the other stars who frequented posh neighborhoods. I heard so much of this chatter that I started fantasizing about golfing with Shore, and I don’t even golf.

By my fourth day, I wasn’t sure how many more midcentury houses and rum-based tiki drinks I could handle.

But that is the beauty of Palm Springs. It seldom rains, and when you need to recharge, you can usually find a swimming pool in the vicinity. I poured myself into a chaise lounge by the pool at the Saguaro Hotel , a run-down Holiday Inn before it found new life as a cool, Technicolor-painted hangout.

In Desert Hot Springs, north of Palm Springs, Hotel Lautner, designed by John Lautner in 1947, has just four rooms. Each is filled with mid-century Modern decor. Christopher Muther/globe staff

The years of decline in Palm Springs helped preserve its prized homes from the scourge of 1970s and ’80s renovations. As towns surrounding Palm Springs — Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, and Indio — grew and Hollywood stars retreated, the city went dormant and many homes were left untouched. Those gems were rediscovered and renovated as more people arrived. Even some of the stuccoed homes that were stripped of all 1950s charm have been meticulously restored.


There is more to do here than look at architecture, but during Modernism Week, I wasn’t about to miss any opportunities. I assumed everyone else was there for the same reason until I bonded with a pair of UCLA students.

I asked them how they liked the architecture, and they gave me a quizzical look.

“We came to party,” one of them said. “Our friends said there’s a good scene at the Ace.”

They were right. The Ace Hotel inhabits the old Westward Ho. It’s now the epicenter of the Palm Springs hipster scene. On a crowded Sunday night, DJ Ladypills spun Northern soul for a crowd of bearded men and tattooed women.

“You have a younger group that comes here to party, and some day those kids are going to be buying houses out here,” said J. Chris Mobley, chairman of Modernism Week. “What’s great to see is that Palm Springs is once again a hot spot. There was a time when it was forgotten, but we’ve been rediscovered.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.