Mojave Modern

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When it's time to call it a day, skip the overbearingly themed Ballantine's Movie Colony on Indian Canyon Drive and head to the neighboring town of Desert Hot Springs for a night at Hope Springs. Formerly a residential hotel, Hope Springs is a low-key and welcoming 10-room inn done over in an austere '50s style. Soak your tired feet in its flow-through system of three spring-fed mineral pools, and say hello to Hector, a wirehaired terrier rescued by manager Nancy Morgan from the surrounding desert. (The lobby fire pit, done over as a tile fountain, is Hector's unofficial water bowl.) Better yet, stay in town--at L'Horizon, where Marilyn Monroe always took Room 3C, or at Herbert Burns' 1957 Orbit In, which has been meticulously restored and impeccably decorated with furnishings by mid-century icons Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and George Nelson. It's hard to imagine another hotel whose devotion to style is so intense. The guest lounge is named after a local architect (the ubiquitous Frey), sports vintage photographs of his work (by Shulman) and invites visitors to simply look out the window for the best view in town of one of his greatest works--Frey House No. 2 (1963), which perches on the rocky mountainside directly over the hotel's pool deck. Manager Bruce Abney and assistant manager Patrick Richardson work tirelessly to make guests feel at home, and if you catch Abney at the right moment, as I did on my last visit, he will recount the whole history of the Burgess House, Frey No. 2's flashier neighbor, right down through its recent sale. An added bonus: the hotel is within walking distance of my new favorite restaurant in Palm Springs, the casually inventive Johannes, where--somewhat paradoxically, considering its location in the desert--my wife and I had the best sea bass of our lives.

All in all, Orbit In is pretty close to Modernist heaven. As you sip your complimentary Orbitini, listen to Mambo with Tjader on the poolside stereo and watch the sun slip behind the mountains, it's easy to forget that much of Palm Springs' architectural heritage is still at risk. Despite victories like the saving of Frey's Fire House No. 1, new threats arise every day. Tramway Gas--the building that started the preservation movement in Palm Springs and most recently housed a gallery--abruptly closed its doors last month and has been sold. Although it has the protection of historic-site status, the result of the 1997 flap, "we're worried about what will become of it," says Peter Moruzzi, chairman of the Modern Committee. "It's hard to know what's going to happen."

California never has had much use for the past. Every time that reality gets too oppressive, I know exactly what to do: I get behind the wheel and drive east, to an oasis of architecture that now and always looks to the future.

Bill Barol, a writer living in Los Angeles, has visited Palm Springs several times a year for the past decade

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