Frank Sinatra relaxing by his piano-shaped pool, a martini in hand. Bob Hope yukking it up on the golf course. Palm Springs evokes timeless black-and-white images of 1950s movie stars. But this moment in time was short-lived, and when the heyday of Hollywood in the desert faded, all that was left were relics of the past. Luckily for the city, these relics happened to include some of the country’s finest examples of midcentury-modern architecture.
Today, Palm Springs’s sleek, stripped-down structures are among its biggest attractions. After a period of decline in the seventies and eighties, young creative types from New York and Los Angeles began buying and restoring these modernist houses, and a wave of pristinely renovated hotels and resorts followed. Young, hip crowds started flocking to Palm Springs, and by the early 2000s, it was cool again.
This renewed interest in the desert resort’s architectural heritage gains greater momentum with each passing year, propelled largely by an annual event known as Palm Springs Modernism Week (February 16–26, 2012). Started seven years ago by a group of local arts, preservation, and cultural organizations, the eleven-day festival includes a packed program of lectures, films, swanky cocktail parties, and house tours that give participants entrée to some of the city’s most exclusive residences. More than 25,000 visitors attended last year (which was more than twice the number of attendees in 2009), and the numbers for 2012 are expected to be even bigger.
Those seeking to relive some of the glamour of Hollywood’s golden era can find it at Modernism Week’s opening-night soiree, on February 16. This year it will be held at the Elrod House, a breathtaking example of the desert modernist style that flourished in the region in the mid-twentieth century. Designed in 1968 by the celebrated modernist architect John Lautner, and made famous in the 1971 James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever, the domed, futuristic structure is perched on a rocky outcrop, offering spectacular views of the San Jacinto Mountains.
This renewed interest in the desert resort’s architectural heritage gains greater momentum with each passing year.
The party continues over at Frank Sinatra’s house, which is open for tours on February 23, and for private and corporate rentals year-round. Another stunning example of great midcentury design, the 1947 Twin Palms Estate, designed by architect E. Stewart Williams, embodies the breezy, laid-back atmosphere that defined the Palm Springs style: open floor plans, expansive windows, and clean geometric forms. Once host to some of the Coachella Valley’s most glittering parties, Sinatra’s legendary residence has been beautifully restored to its original splendor, complete with period furnishings.
Perhaps the week’s biggest highlight will be the exclusive peek at Sunnylands, the 1966 estate of the late philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg. Designed by the pioneering modernist architect A. Quincy Jones, the 25,000-square-foot home, largely hidden from view by a perimeter of pink walls, has been a source of fascination for decades. After an extensive renovation, the 200-acre site recently reopened as a high-level political retreat and arts center. Modernism Week attendees will be its first public visitors, after which the property will be accessible to the public through advance reservation.
Home tours of midcentury properties are among the festival’s most popular attractions, drawing the greatest number of visitors, and often selling out weeks and months in advance. But there is another side to Palm Springs Modernism Week, one that embraces the future and that anticipates how the city’s physical expansion will unfold as it also seeks to preserve elements of its storied past.
The festival’s PreFab Showcase Village gives attendees a look at how this development might occur, with an Epcot-esque exhibition of cutting-edge design and the latest alternative-energy and low-impact-construction technologies. Similarly, the New Moderns Home Tour features residences and developments by contemporary architects whose designs are rooted in Palm Springs’s midcentury-modern sensibility. Many of these properties—done in a style that is collectively referred to as New Century Architecture—make a minimal impact on the desert terrain by utilizing sustainable materials and building practices. This kind of development is not new to the Valley; in 2005, Los Angeles architecture firm Marmol Radziner—which was behind the restoration of Palm Springs’s famed Kaufmann Desert House—designed a striking minimalist prefab home in nearby Desert Hot Springs.
While preservationists see new developments as one of the biggest threats to Palm Springs’s cultural heritage, Modernism Week shows that if done sustainably and with respect for the region’s distinct identity, there is hope that the past and the present can coexist peacefully. Whether these new structures will live up to the legacy of their modernist predecessors is something for future generations to decide.
Alison Zingaro is a design writer and editor at Fab.com. She was formerly the managing editor of Matter, a quarterly publication dedicated to materials, architecture, and design.