Midcentury Modern Architecture in Palm Springs, California

Mid-20th Century Desert Modern, Architecture of the Rich and Famous

Grand Piano-shaped swimming pool at Twin Palms Estate (1947) in Palm Springs, CA, designed by E. Stewart Williams for Frank Sinatra
Twin Palms Estate (1947) in Palm Springs, CA, designed by E. Stewart Williams for Frank Sinatra. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Mid-Century or Midcentury? Any way you spell it (and both are correct), the modern designs of world class architects from the "middle" part of the 20th century continue to define Palm Springs, California.

Nestled in the Coachella Valley and surrounded by mountains and deserts, Palm Springs, California is only a few hours drive from the bustle and tinsel of Hollywood. As the entertainment industry enveloped the Los Angeles area during the 1900s, Palm Springs became a favorite getaway for the many starlets and socialites who were making money faster than they could spend it.

Palm Springs, with its abundant year-round sunshine, became a refuge for a game of golf followed by cocktails around the swimming pool—a fast-lane lifestyle of the rich and famous. The 1947 Sinatra House, with a swimming pool shaped like a grand piano, is but one example of the architecture from this period.

Architectural Styles in Palm Springs

The building boom in the United States after World War II enticed LA architects to Palm Springs—architects go where the money is. Modernism had taken hold throughout Europe and already immigrated to the US. Southern California architects adapted ideas from the Bauhaus movement and the International Style, creating an elegant yet informal style that is often called Desert Modernism.

As you explore Palm Springs, look for these important styles:

Architects of Palm Springs' Modernism

Palm Springs, California is a virtual museum of Mid-Century Modern architecture with possibly the world's largest and best-preserved examples of elegant homes and landmark buildings constructed during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

Here is a sampling of what you'll find when visiting Palm Springs:

Alexander Homes: Working with several architects, the George Alexander Construction Company built more than 2,500 homes in Palm Springs and established a modernist approach to housing that was imitated throughout the United States. Learn about Alexander Homes.

William Cody (1916-1978): No, not "Buffalo Bill Cody," but the Ohio-born architect William Francis Cody, FAIA, who designed many homes, hotels, and commercial projects in Palm Springs, Phoenix, San Diego, Palo Alto, and Havana. Check out the 1947 Del Marcos Hotel, the 1952 Perlberg, and the 1968 St. Theresa Catholic Church.

Albert Frey (1903-1998): Swiss architect Albert Frey worked for Le Corbusier before moving to the United States and becoming a Palm Springs resident. The futuristic buildings he designed launched the movement that became known as Desert Modernism. Some of his "must-see" buildings include these:

John Lautner (1911-1994): Michigan-born architect John Lautner was an apprentice to Wisconsin-born Frank Lloyd Wright for six years before establishing his own practice in Los Angeles. Lautner is known for incorporating rocks and other landscape elements into his designs. Examples of his work in Palm Springs include:

Richard Neutra (1892-1970): Born and educated in Europe, Austrian Bauhaus architect Richard Neutra placed dramatic glass and steel homes in rugged California desert landscapes. Neutra's most famous home in Palm Springs are these:

Donald Wexler (1926-2015): Architect Donald Wexler worked for Richard Neutra in Los Angeles, and then for William Cody in Palm Springs. He partnered with Richard Harrison before establishing his own firm. Wexler designs includes:

Paul Williams (1894-1980): Los Angeles architect Paul Revere Williams designed more than 2000 homes in southern California. He also designed:

E. Stewart Williams (1909-2005): The son of Ohio architect Harry Williams, E. Stewart Williams built some of Palm Spring's most significant buildings during a long and prolific career. Must-see:

Lloyd Wright (1890-1978): Son of the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Lloyd Wright was trained in landscape design by the Olmsted brothers and worked with his famous father developing the concrete textile block buildings in Los Angeles. Lloyd Wright's projects in and near Palm Springs include:

  • 1923: Oasis Hotel, a distinctive Art Deco building with a 40-foot tower.

Desert Modernism Near Palm Springs: Sunnylands, 1966, in Rancho Mirage, by architect A. Quincy Jones (1913-1979)

Fast Facts About Palm Springs

  • Palm Springs is about 100 miles (2 hours) east of Los Angeles
  • Original settlers were Cahuilla Native Americans, called Agua Caliente or "hot water" by Spanish explorers
  • California became the 31st state in 1850
  • US surveyors first described the area of palm trees and mineral springs as "Palm Springs" in 1853
  • The Southern Pacific Railroad completed an East/West line in 1877 -  the railroad owned every other square mile surrounding the tracks, creating a "checkerboard" of property ownership seen today
  • John Guthrie McCallum (1826-1897) and his family were the first white settlers in 1884
  • Palm Springs became a health resort, its mineral springs a sanitorium for the treatment of tuberculosis
  • Incorporated in 1938. Singer/celebrity Sonny Bono was the 16th Mayor of Palm Springs from 1988 to 1992.
  • As early as 1919, Palm Springs was used as a ready-made set for many Hollywood silent movies. It quickly became a playland for people in the movie industry, because of its proximity to LA. Even today Palm Springs is known as "The Playground of the Stars."

Travel to Palm Springs for the Architecture

As the center of Mid-Century Modernism, Palm Springs, California hosts many architecture conferences, tours, and other events. Most famous is Modernism Week held in February each year. 

Several beautifully restored hotels in Palm Springs, California recreate the experience of mid-twentieth century living, complete with reproduction fabrics and furnishings by major designers of the period.

  • The Chase Hotel
    Studio rooms that recreate the 1950s.
  • The Orbit In
    Two sister inns, the Orbit In and the Hideaway, with a retro flair.
  • Rendezvous
    Nostalgic 1950s theme rooms and gourmet breakfasts. Hotel History and Details
  • L'Horizon Hotel
    Designed by William Cody in 1952. Hotel History and Details
  • The Movie Colony Hotel
    Designed by Albert Frey in 1935. Hotel History and Details
  • The Monkey Tree Hotel
    A 16-room restored boutique hotel designed in 1960 by Albert Frey.

Learn More

  • Palm Springs Weekend: The Architecture and Design of a Midcentury Oasis by Andrew Danish, 2001
    Buy on Amazon
  • Palm Springs Modern: Houses in the California Desert by Adele Cygelman, 2015
    Buy on Amazon
  • Palm Springs Modern Living by James Schnepf, 2015
    Buy on Amazon
  • Julius Shulman: Palm Springs by Michael Stern and Alan Hess, 2008
    Buy on Amazon
  • Palm Springs Paradise by Peter Moruzzi, 2015
    Buy on Amazon
  • Residential Architecture in Southern California by Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, 1939 reprint
    Buy on Amazon
  • Midcentury Houses Today by Lorenzo Ottaviani, Jeffrey Matz, Cristina A. Ross, and Michael Biondo, 2014
    Buy on Amazon

Midcentury Mania on the Web:

Sources

  • History, City of Palm Springs, CA [accessed January 29, 2016]
  • As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodations for the purpose of reviewing architecture in Palm Springs. While it has not influenced this article, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.