How historic preservation saved Palm Springs
The 1990s was an uncharacteristically gloomy period for Palm Springs, the fabled California desert city blessed with 350 days of sunshine a year.
This decade — or roughly the years that fell between the end of its debauched spring break days in 1991 and the arrival of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 1999 — was when the city suffered from what third-generation Palm Springs native Christine Soto calls a “loss of identity.”
This isn’t to say that Palm Springs fell completely off the map. Canadian snowbirds, golf enthusiasts and a growing number of LGBTQ vacationers kept the city’s economic lifeblood — tourism — flowing. But it was in serious need of resuscitation.
“When I was growing up, that was an intense period,” says Soto, a Level 1 sommelier who returned to her hometown in 2013 after living in Los Angeles. She opened Dead or Alive, a stylish watering hole with a highly curated beer and wine menu, at the end of 2015. “People were desperate for tourists because it wasn’t the same swinging Frank Sinatra crowd anymore. It wasn’t hip.”
Yet the ’90s, confusing and economically tumultuous as they were, did give way to a community-led movement that has help to redefine Palm Springs and, ultimately, save it in more ways than one: historic preservation.
Home to the largest collection of midcentury modern architecture in the United States per the National Register of Historic Places, Palm Springs in the 21st century is an architectural tourism destination without compare.
To be clear, people still flock to Palm Springs for golf, tennis and abundant sunshine. There’s still a lot of retirees. But it’s the bounty of historic buildings, many of which have been rehabbed, repurposed and/or saved from demolition, that are now a top tourism draw. In a revitalized and preservation-embracing Palm Springs, everything old is now cool again.
At the center of the city’s architectural tourism calendar is Modernism Week, an annual celebration of midcentury art, architecture, design and culture first conceived in 2006 and now held every February.
Modest in size and scope in the beginning, Modernism Week has grown to become the “premiere event for the city of Palm Springs” per Mary Jo Ginther, director of the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism. “It focuses on the DNA of who we are.”
Produced by a nonprofit of the same name, Modernism Week now spans 11 days and includes over 350 events including lectures, home tours, film screenings, symposia, parties and a signature design show. There’s also wildly popular double-decker bus tours in which the true stars are architects who designed the homes showcased on the tours, not necessarily the rich and famous folks who may have once lived in them.
“If anything, the economic and tourism decline [of the 1990s], helped preserve the architecture because people weren’t building more homes and tearing stuff down,” says Soto. “They were just leaving things as is.”
A place for drying out and going wild
No doubt Modernism Week has helped put Palm Springs back on the global travel map. But it’s also worth looking back at the earlier tourism trends that put this mountain-flanked resort town of 46,000 residents on the map to begin with.
First gaining popularity as an early-20th century wellness destination where the wealthy and infirm could convalesce at a number of high-end sanatoria while radiating in the Coachella Valley’s restorative dry heat, by the 1930s Palm Springs had morphed into a getaway for Hollywood stars prohibited from traveling no more than 100 miles from the studios to which they were contractually bound. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, Palm Springs was as exotic as it got for stars seeking an escape.
After the draconian travel restrictions imposed by the studios were lifted, Palm Springs remained a desirable spot for major Hollywood players to relax, unwind and behave badly. (As Kathy Leonard of the Palm Springs Historical Society puts it, “stars came here to recover from drugs, alcohol and to have their affairs.”) In the 1950s and 1960s, the number of nightclubs, resorts and part-time celebrity denizens — Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Hope, Elvis Presley, Dinah Shore and on and on — exploded, and Palm Springs’ reputation as a “playground for the stars” was forever sealed.
And as Ginther points out, the city’s status as a Rat Pack-era celebrity stronghold went “hand in glove” with the midcentury modern architecture movement. “It was synergistic,” she says.
At the same time, Palm Springs also emerged as a major spring break destination a la Daytona Beach and Lake Havasu City (but notably, sans a major body of water). To the chagrin of many, this freewheeling (and very profitable) tradition in which people, to quote Ginther, “were literally partying in the streets,” held strong until 1986. On March 29 of that year, a full-on riot broke out in downtown Palm Springs. Police were deployed, tear gas filled the air and by the time the alcohol-fueled melee died down, numerous people had been injured and hundreds more arrested.
The 1986 riot was the beginning of the end for collegiate binge drinking in Palm Springs. “After years of half-hearted support for the event, city officials began openly discussing their desire to get rid of spring break altogether,” wrote the Desert Sun in 2018. Still, the festivities continued albeit with a much heavier police presence.
Two years later, in 1988, Sonny Bono was elected as mayor. And with that, spring break partiers had met their match. Cher’s erstwhile other-half did everything in his power to put the brakes on the spring break bacchanalia, telling the Los Angeles Times in 1990: “If I could wave a wand and make it go away, I would. I wish I could send them up into the hills somewhere.”
While various measures such as prohibiting squirt guns and barricading off popular cruising routes proved effective, it was ultimately a 1991 ban on thong bikinis that killed spring break once and for all. With pesky spring breakers now vanquished, Bono attempted to usher in more wholesome goings-on, most notably the Palm Springs International Film Festival. But in the end, it wasn’t enough.
Preservation and a city in transformation
Although Palm Springs experienced economic decline in the 1990s, this doesn’t mean that things, to quote Soto, weren’t “brewing” under Bono’s 90s-era successors.
It was during the late 1990s that two of the city’s leading forces in the advocacy of historic preservation were founded: the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation (PSPF) in 1997 and the Palm Springs Modern Committee (PS ModCom) in 1999.
Loosely based on the Los Angeles Conservancy, PS ModCom was born from a (successful) rally to save a 1955 fire station designed by the godfather of “desert modernism” himself, Swiss-born architect Albert Frey, from being turned into a parking lot. Since then, the nonprofit has helped to save several other treasured buildings around in and around Palm Springs from either demolition or adjacent development including E. Stewart Williams’ Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan building (1960), a desert-fied riff on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion that’s now home to the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture Design Center.
“Our mission is to advocate for the preservation of the buildings,” explains PS ModCom president Chris Menrad, a stock trader-turned-real estate agent who moved to Palm Springs in 1999. “But you can’t just say ‘save them’ unless you tell people why. You need to educate people about the cultural value of the buildings.”
Echoing Soto, Menrad notes that Pam Springs was “essentially completely dead” until Coachella, which is held nearby in Indio, gained international attention in the early aughts. It didn’t take long for the city once referred to as “God’s waiting room” to attract an influx of younger visitors — and homebuyers — eager to engage with a treasure trove of midcentury architecture.
“There is some truth that Palm Springs was preserved in amber because no one wanted to do anything with it,” says Menrad. “Buildings were all in various states of repair, good and bad — and the idea was ‘it’s all old, it’s all awful … get rid of it and start fresh.’ And that was our task: to convince city hall of the economic benefits of cultural tourism” centered on preservation.
The Kaufmann House is one of the most photographed homes in all of Southern California. (Photo: Joe Wolf/Flickr)
In addition to hosting tours and events during Modernism Week, on the advocacy front PS ModCom has advised on the at-times contentious redevelopment of the Town and Country Center. A deteriorating and mostly defunct office and retail complex in downtown Palm Springs, the Town and Country Center was built between 1946 and 1955 based on designs by A. Quincy Jones and Paul R. Williams, both L.A. heavyweights of the era as well as frequent collaborators.
Marmol Radziner, the same architecture firm that oversaw the Santa Fe Savings and Loan building’s lauded rehabilitation, is also behind the redevelopment plans for the Town and Country Center. These plans, however, have received a mixed reaction from locals, many of whom are rightfully perturbed that fewer buildings on the property will be restored than the number of buildings to be demolished. This is all despite the fact that the entire complex was designated as a Class 1 Historic Site in 2016 following a “10-year political tussle” between developers and preservationists.
(Specializing in modernist restorations, Marmol Radziner also oversaw the five-year revamp of Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House, a 1946 project commissioned by the same Pittsburgh department store magnate who hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design Fallingwater a decade prior. Today, the Kaufmann House is arguably the most famous private home in Palm Springs.)
You can’t save them all
Palm Springs preservationists have also suffered significant losses, particularly in the early years when new development was on the rise and the city brass wasn’t as ardently pro-preservation as it is now.
“Palm Springs may appear to be a time capsule of midcentury architecture and we certainly capitalize on our built environment during Modernism Week,” says PSPF president Gary Johns, who is also a member of the city’s Historic Site Preservation Board and serves on the board of directors of Modernism Week. “But we’ve lost a lot of property. Over the last 20 years, we’ve probably lost equal to what we’ve been able to save.”
Like PS ModCom, PSPF is active in promoting architectural preservation with an emphasis on education. In addition to nominating individual buildings for Class 1 Historic Site designation and hosting a handful of hot-ticket events during Modernism Week, PSPF publishes “tribute journals” for individual architects and architectural movements that extend beyond desert modernism. The nonprofit is also lead sponsor of a new exhibition on the prolific (and still living) Coachella Valley architect Hugh M. Kaptur at the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center.
“The preservation movement was a losing battle for many years,” Johns recalls of early struggles to save threatened buildings. “We had to lose a lot of buildings, we had to change planning directors and we had to elect more sensitive city council members to turn the tide. It was all changed by mindset, individual mindset.”
And while the city’s elected officials are now enlightened to the economic and cultural benefits of historic preservation, challenges remain. Johns specifically mentions the autonomous nature of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (a sovereign nation headquartered in Palm Springs) and the Palm Springs Unified School District as being problematic. Both operate independently of the city and have the power to raze architecturally significant structures at will. And both have.
A particularly grievous loss was the 2014 demolition of the Spa Hotel complex. Johns notes that this ’50s-era collaboration between several top Palm Springs architects including Donald Wexler and William Cody was “second to the Kaufmann House, the most defining pieces of midcentury modern architecture in the city.”
A patchwork of neighborhoods, sans gates
Organizations like PS ModCom and PSPF have been invaluable in maintaining and promoting the architectural heritage of Palm Springs. But at the heart of its preservation-fueled rebound are the homeowners who moved to the city and began restoring neglected properties at a time when there wasn’t a whole lot going on.
“The buying public is what came in and essentially saved the residential architecture while the institutional architecture had to be fought for,” explains Menrad.
And, yes, Palm Springs does have its share of jaw-dropping estates, many of which are rich with Hollywood lore and hidden away behind formidable hedges in neighborhoods like historic Old Las Palmas, the Movie Colony and Vista Las Palmas, a midcentury enclave akin that doubles as a highly Instagrammable open-air architecture museum. It’s home to, among other landmark residences, the Kaufmann House.
Yet a majority of Palm Springs’ housing stock consists of post-war tract housing in the form of smaller single-family abodes with butterfly roofs, clerestory windows, backyard swimming pools and open living plans — all innovative-for-the-time features that reflect the optimistic outlook of the era. And while there are thousands of these homes spread across the 94-square-mile city, an impressive cadre of architects ensured that they were anything but cookie-cutter.
The renovated interior of Steel House #2 (1961), an innovative prefab home by Donald Wexler. (Photo: Jeff Marquis/Flickr)
As Johns explains, this was largely because these architects — including Wexler, Kaptur and Cody — lived locally and were not part of large, outside firms. They had good reason to make the entire city, even more modest residential neighborhoods, shine — they’d put down roots. “These were people who lived here, raised their families here, were invested in Palm Springs and created new and unique architecture for Palm Springs,” he says.
One defining element of Palm Springs’ residential landscape is that the patchwork of neighborhoods, unlike a vast number of neighborhoods in surrounding cities like Palm Desert, are gate-free. Johns estimates that 90 percent of homes in Palm Springs are not located in gated communities, and the neighborhoods that do have gates are new ones. The absence of gates has helped the city blossom into a place where visitors can freely walk, bike or drive through neighborhoods and take it all in.
Many Palm Springs neighborhoods, in addition to hosting home tours during Modernism Week and using the proceeds from tours to fund beautification projects and charitable endeavors, have formed community organizations that function as grassroots pro-preservation watchdogs — or “quasi-HOAs” as Menrad calls them. “If there’s a house getting torn town in a neighborhood, that neighborhood will rally and go to city hall on their own,” he says. “They won’t call us — they’ll just do it.”
Moving into the future with cautious optimism
By positioning its rich architectural heritage as an asset and championing restoration and reuse over potentially discordant new construction, Palm Springs has managed to keep one foot proudly planted in the past while still feeling fresh. It’s flourishing. (And yes, spring break has returned although in a much mellower form. “It’s a whole different model, says Ginther. “It’s not the crazy drunkenness that it was before. They’re bringing nice clothes to go to dinner and drinking hand-crafted cocktails.”)
Soto is encouraged by and optimistic about the flurry of activity and renewed interest. The more “modernistas” descending on Palm Springs, the merrier. Yet she maintains some wariness given her hometown’s history of ups and downs.
Despite all the “rah-rah” about Palm Springs’ renaissance, Soto explains that it’s “still not always an easy place to be a small business owner,” especially considering that the city is, at the end of the day, a tourist-dependent seasonal destination. She notes a stark difference between the “Instragram perception of Palm Springs” and the reality of living in a small desert city.
“We’re definitely on an upswing … but I’m never going to forget the ’90s,” Soto says.
And her caution is understandable. From Rat Pack infestations to spring break mayhem to numerous fights won and lost over landmark buildings, Palm Springs has seen it all. It’s a vibrant and diverse place to visit but, like any city, California’s mecca of midcentury cool sometimes struggles. This vintage postcard come to life, as it turns out, is complex.
Yet over the last two decades, Palm Springs has, at long last, found its identity. And it just had to look backwards to do it.
Inset photo: Matt Hickman
How historic preservation saved Palm Springs
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