I don't know if it was the converted service station that now serves as the city’s visitor’s center (designed in 1962 by Albert Frey, one of the preeminent architects of the period – yes, in Palm Springs even gas stations are significant) or the mountains (they aren’t in “the distance” – they are right there, in your face) or the Bloody Mary as big as my head (I discovered later that Palm Springs, once a Rat Pack playground, is known for the "long pour”), but all it took was one stop to get me hooked.
In order to truly understand Palm Springs, one needs a little history. Just over 100 miles from Los Angeles, it became a getaway, starting in the ‘20s, but primarily in the ‘50s and ‘60s, for the Hollywood elite. In the days that almost every major star was under contract to a studio, they were required to stay within a few hours of LA when shooting a film. Besides proximity, Palm Springs offered privacy for people who were constantly in the limelight.
At the same time, the area – with year-round sunshine and relatively inexpensive land – benefitted from a post-WWII building boom. Several celebrated architects of the period designed homes and commercial buildings, their "desert modern" style influencing architects around the country. The stunning views of the San Jacinto Mountains added to the appeal. It’s easy see what attracted some of the top architects to the area – and most of their buildings pay homage to these natural wonders – with lots of glass and outdoor spaces that embrace the views.
The city’s unique look and celebrity clientele helped create an aura unlike any other destination. It was – in the era of “cool” – the “coolest.”
Palm Springs lost some of its luster when times changed and the “jet set” took off to new destinations. However, with the largest concentration of mid-century architecture in the country, Palm Springs sat like a time capsule.
But in the ‘90s, nostalgic baby boomers began to rediscover what the “Modernists” had left behind. As the country began to embrace restoration rather than replacement – and classic cars, vinyl records, and “Mad Men” became all the rage – this mid-century oasis was in a prime position to became cool again.
Celebrating the mid-century
As any fan of “Mad Men” knows, the mid-century is more than just architecture. It’s an entire sense of style reflected in fashion, interior design, cars, music and lifestyle. (Did I mention the “long pour?”)
Folks in Palm Springs love the mid-century so much they created a festival to celebrate it. Modernism Week, now in its 12th year, is scheduled for Feb. 16 -26 and is a perfect showcase for everything that made – and makes – Palm Springs so special. With over 250 individual events spread over 10 days, Modernism Week offers a total immersion into a way of life that put Palm Springs on the map in the first place and has driven its revival.
Event tickets are now on sale and some events are already sold out, but new ones are being added all the time. Every event is sold separately, which can make it pricey if you get carried away, but offers the flexibility of being able to do as much or as little as you’d like.
Someone said to me that attending Modernism Week is like taking the intro course to Palm Springs. But for me, it was more like reading a stranger’s old love letters. I didn’t know anything about Palm Springs or the Modernists when I attended my first event, but now that I’ve experienced firsthand the passion they had for their work, the thoughtfulness they brought to their creations and the love they had for the natural surroundings, I understand how they launched a movement – and why so many want to preserve it.
(Pro tips: If you go, I’d recommend taking one of the bus tours (take a morning tour as it gets hot midday – even in February) which will give you an excellent overview of the city and its history. Also, take advantage of the opportunity to get inside one or several of the homes that have limited access - like the Abernathy house (built in 1962 and beautifully restored) or Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate. One of my favorite events is the “Modernism with a Twist” where several creative locals put together short, clever and humorous presentations about mid-century life. Stay after for a drink with the presenters, who are a wealth of information about the city and the period.)
If you can’t make the February event, there are several other ways to get your fix. The Modernism Week folks also host a mini weekend version of the event every October, referred to as Modernism Week Fall Preview. And both the Palm Springs Historical Society and the Palm Springs Architecture and Design Center offer several outstanding (mostly walking) tours of different parts of the city between October and April every year.
Welcome to Palm Springs!
If you drive in, it’s that converted service station/visitor’s center. If you fly in, it’s the airport. Either way, you know you’ve “arrived.”
Palm Springs International (PSP) is a great airport. In fact, Smarter Travel named it is one of the top 10 stress-free airports in the country, citing the small size and open-air layout. (“Imagine waiting for your flight while sitting outside under the palms as you relax with a glass of wine.”) And it’s only two miles from downtown.
(Fun fact: The main terminal is named for Sonny Bono – of Sonny & Cher – who was once mayor of the city, and at the time of his death, the U.S. Congressman representing the district.)
But more than that, the design (of course the airport was designed by a pre-eminent Modernist) takes advantage of the spectacular mountain views. One East Coast transplant told me: “The first time I landed in Palm Springs and saw that view, they had me forever.”
So forget LAX – it’s a hassle and there’s always traffic leaving the city, turning the hundred-mile drive into a three-hour trek. Fly into Palm Springs. Most the major airlines have flights from various hubs (some seasonal, some year-round).
Once you’re here, if it’s your first visit, stay in Palm Springs, rather than one of the surrounding resort communities like Rancho Mirage or Palm Desert. While they’re lovely, it’s just not the same.
If you want to immerse yourself in the mid-century, there are a lot of great period homes – furnished and decorated appropriately, many with pools – available on Airbnb.com and VRBO.com. And while several chain hotels are doing their best to blend in, you might want to opt for one of the many restored hotels and motels for a true mid-century experience. Three iconic properties – The Del Marcos, the Hideaway and the Orbit In, all located in the Historic Tennis Club Neighborhood, have been restored to their past glory, as has L’Horizon in South Palm Springs.
One particularly fun option (also in South Palm Springs) is the Desert Star, with five restored studio units and a very cool, artsy couple (she’s a shoe designer, he’s a sculptor) who run the place and live in what was once the manager’s office and apartment. And the mountain view from the pool will take your breath away.
So now that you have the scoop on Palm Springs, I suggest you start planning a visit. (I wouldn’t recommend you wait for the summer, because – while prices will be more affordable – it is really hot). This time of year is just perfect, and will give you a chance to experience Modernism Week (but I’ve found the late fall to be fabulous as well).
Just don’t wait to discover it by accident, like I did. The sooner you see it, the sooner you’ll love it.