Mojave Modern

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I've always found the two-hour drive from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, Calif., to be deeply dislocating, in the best sense of the word. Route 111, the main approach to town, veers suddenly off from Interstate 10 to cut a jazzy angle across the desert, unplugging you at last from the freeway grid. Past the turnoff, the six-mile drive into town, with its surreal juxtaposition of ancient mountains and shiny new energy-producing windmills, seems to further separate you from the everyday. And then the big, welcoming surprise: the sharply angled roof of the Tramway Gas Station looming over a low wall at the entrance to the desert resort, like a jet poised for takeoff. Tramway Gas, designed by Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers in 1965, is iconically modern. Balancing restraint and exuberance, it promises an infinitely perfectible future. And it opens the door not just to Palm Springs but to one of the richest collections of Modernist architecture anywhere.

It seems odd at first, all this low-slung elegance in the middle of a desert. In fact, it was almost inevitable, as Tony Merchell, an amateur architectural historian who has been deeply involved in the town's historic-preservation movement, told me. Wealthy Eastern and Midwestern business people followed movie stars to Palm Springs in the 1940s and '50s, at just the moment when Modernism was taking hold in California.

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The combination of wealth and a dominant regional style (plus, says Merchell, "a certain amount of keeping up with the Joneses") led to a flurry of Modernist-home construction that lasted into the '60s, and a parallel boom in Modernist public buildings and tract houses. The style fell out of favor in the '70s, and Palm Springs suffered a two-decade recession, from which it has only recently emerged. In 1997 a developer's threat to demolish Tramway Gas sparked a preservation movement and in turn a rush to snap up and restore the area's stock of '50s and '60s homes. Today, although the preservation community is far from having the upper hand, there is at least a fresh focus on the town's wealth of mid-century architecture.

There's much more of it than can be seen in a weekend. I like to go midweek, off-season, and spend at least three days.

"A Map of Palm Springs Modern," published by the Palm Springs Modern Committee (available at its website and at the visitors' center, 2781 North Palm Canyon Drive), is an indispensable aid to navigation. A word of warning: some of the very best buildings featured on the map are private homes, such as E. Stewart Williams' 1953 Edris House; Frey and Raymond Loewy's 1946 Loewy House; and Richard Neutra's meticulously restored 1946 Kaufmann House, famously photographed by Julius Shulman in what critic Alan Hess calls "one of the defining images of mid-20th century Modernism." These homes are accessible only during occasional house tours. (For more information, visit the websites of the Modern Committee and the Palm Springs Desert Museum; see box.) The map at least gives visitors a chance to view the houses from the street. It also gives locations for important but less lavish homes like Donald Wexler's Steel Houses. Cheap, strong and resistant to the elements, steel looked like the next big thing in modular-home construction when these demonstration houses were put up at the intersection of Simms and Molino in 1961. But the idea never caught on, and today the homes are in private hands. The nearby Racquet Club Road Estates area, also marked on the map, is worth a cruise for its huge stock of circa-1960 tract homes built for the George Alexander Co. (The houses, newly desirable on the local market, are known generically as Alexanders.)

Head for downtown, along Palm Canyon Drive south of Tachevah, for the biggest concentration of noteworthy commercial buildings. Some, like the office Frey shared with John Porter Clark, and the Kocher-Samson Building, produced early in Frey's career, have been unsympathetically treated and are barely recognizable. Others, like A. Quincy Jones and Paul R. Williams' Town & Country project, a mixed-use development from 1950, are in good repair but suffer from hard use. (Some of the once choice storefronts along the landscaped courtyard today are used for storage; the centerpiece Town & Country restaurant, now Zeldaz dance club, is intact but done over in a brutal '70s style.) The best viewing lies farther south, in a string of three banks designed by Williams, Williams and Williams. Two of them, Coachella Valley Savings Bank No. 2 (1956) and Santa Fe Federal Savings (1957), are vacant. The former is being offered for sale at just under $1.4 million and includes "an all-original GE all-electric kitchen"; the latter, one of architect E. Stewart Williams' favorites, is a glassy International-style beauty that seems to float lightly above a "moat" of black stones. A third Williams bank, Coachella No. 3 (now operating as Washington Mutual), takes the idea a step further, almost literally floating above a broad pool as cooling fountains play across the front.

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