Escape to the Southern California desert for all things midcentury modern.

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Escape to the Southern California desert for all things midcentury modern.

By Dina Mishev

A tram, packed with visitors from around the world, climbs up the side of a snow-capped peak. From the top, you can see several other mountain ranges—some protected in a national park—rise in the distance. And then you can also see a giant wind farm, more golf courses than you can count, and sprawling development.

California’s Coachella Valley has some things in common with Jackson Hole, but it’s more different than not. This is especially true when it comes to architecture and design. “I don’t think it has been calculated, but I think it’s safe to say that Palm Springs has the greatest concentration of midcentury architecture and examples of it across a variety of different structures,” says Robert Imber, a trustee of the California Preservation Foundation, a founding member of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, and founder and guide of Palm Springs Modern Tours, the first company in Palm Springs to begin offering architecture tours (back in 2001). A three-hour driving tour with Imber takes in homes by architects such as E. Stewart Williams, Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Donald Wexler, Albert Frey, William Krisel, and William Cody. “Other cities will have more midcentury buildings, but our collection is much more concentrated,” Imber says.

While Palm Springs’ natural environment is decidedly different from Jackson Hole’s, the goal of the Desert Modern style—which grew to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s—is similar to that of some architects working in Jackson Hole today: creating understated structures that aesthetically unify architecture with the nature of the area. “The design and quality of work by talented and successful architects is always in response to its environment,” Imber says. “Jackson Hole and Palm Springs are one of those pairs of cities that are just enormously similar but completely different. You wear boots, and we wear thongs.”

Here’s how to make the most of Palm Springs’ architecture and design scene—in your flip-flops—and maybe a few other fun things to do in the desert, too.

 Get Your Architecture On

Shop for midcentury pieces at Just Modern

The Palm Springs Modern Tour starts at a gas station. Or what used to be a gas station. Today the Tramway Gas Station, designed by Albert Frey & Robson C. Chambers in the 1960s, is the Palm Springs Visitors Center. Enjoy a brief history of modernism in Palm Springs and an update on today’s preservation efforts before loading into Imber’s Dodge minivan, which guarantees no more than six people per tour. Over the next three hours, you’ll cover thirty-some miles through Palm Springs’ various neighborhoods, taking in noted homes and public buildings, all made more interesting by Imber’s commentary. $85, reservations required; 760/318-6118;; if you’re on a budget and don’t need Imber’s expertise, you can find a map for a self-guided tour at

Opened last November, the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center not only has exhibitions on architecture and design, but also is in a building that itself is an exhibition. The A+D Center was originally designed in 1961 (as Santa Fe Federal Savings & Loan) by E. Stewart Williams, one of the most important Desert Modern architects. This building is one of the prime examples of the movement. L.A.-based Marmol Radziner did the adaptive reuse rehabilitation, creating today’s 13,000-square-foot glass, steel, terrazzo, and anodized aluminum center. $5; 300 S. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/423-5260;



Bring It Home


Range15_i1_037_Page_1_Image_0003N. Palm Canyon Drive has the highest concentration of modern shopping in the valley, including Semihandmade, which customizes doors, panels, and drawer faces for IKEA cabinets, and a boutique selling classic midcentury modern furniture. “Midcentury pieces can go with all kinds of different furniture and architecture; one way to make them fit is to select the right upholstery or material that works well with everything else in the space,” says Jeff Lawrence, an architect at Carney Logan Burke and the co-founder, with wife Glenda, of Matterhouse, a multidisciplined shop in Jackson selling art and discovered objects of design significance (150 Scott Ln., “This being said, these pieces were often designed for more modestly scaled spaces than we often see today. If you’re planning on using a midcentury piece in a larger-scale space, I’d group it with other elements in a way that creates balance.”

Raymond | Lawrence carries a carefully curated selection of brands from around the world for both home (Art Style Innovation) and body (The Body Deli) at its flagship store. 830 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/322-3344;

Shag The Store is wholly dedicated to the art of Shag (Josh Agle)—modern, colorful, and with a wonderfully sly sense of humor. 725 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/322-3400;
In addition to lighting and accessories, Just Modern carries Eastvold furniture, Chandra Rugs, and Frederick Arndt stevotomic metal sculptures. 901 N. Palm Canyon Dr. #101; 760/322-5600;

Semihandmade just opened an outpost in Palm Springs last fall. 1005 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/363-0006;

Where to Play

There’s no definitive count of the number of golf courses in the Coachella Valley. Even the local visitors bureau isn’t sure, telling us, “We usually just say upwards of one hundred.” For the design- and architecturally minded golfer, picking a course isn’t so difficult, though. Escena Golf Club has a Jack Nicklaus-designed 18-hole course voted the sixth-best public course in California, an eclectic mix of outdoor artwork by artists such as Steven Rieman, Frank Morbillo, John Olenik, and Bruce Niemi, and a clubhouse that has won numerous architectural awards. Indian Wells Golf Resort has a Celebrity Course and Players Course, both known for being challenging and having stunning water features and views, and a 53,000-square-foot clubhouse that is a cast-in-place concrete and steel superstructure. Escena: 1100 Clubhouse View Dr.; 760/992-0002;; Indian Wells Golf Resort: 44-500 Indian Wells Ln.; 760/346-4653;

Grand Teton National Park has signs warning of large animal crossings. Joshua Tree National Park, about thirty minutes from Palm Springs, has signs warning of turtle crossings. At the confluence of two distinct desert ecosystems—the Mojave and the Colorado—Joshua Tree has miles of hiking trails, nearly 750 species of vascular plants, and is famous among rock climbers around the world.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway covers more vertical and does it more quickly than the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort tram. And its circular tramcars rotate, so you’re sure to get 360-degree views out over the valley and also down onto the craggy peak you’re speeding up. Even after climbing 2.5 miles up 8,000-some feet, though, the tram doesn’t get you to the top of San Jacinto Peak. That’s a hike up another 2,300-ish feet over 5.5 miles. Even though you might be here to hike, don’t neglect the architecture. Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers designed the Tramway Valley Station. E. Stewart Williams did the Mountain Station. $24; 1 Tram Way; 760/325-1391;

Rest Up



Need a break from midcentury? Sparrows Lodge is Desert Craftsman, aka elegantly rustic. Its twenty rooms have custom furniture carved from redwood, bathtubs made from seventy-five-gallon hammered horse troughs, private patios, and hand-poured concrete floors. What’s missing? Television and phones. There is a saltwater pool, horseshoe pit, and numerous outdoor fireplaces. Rooms from $199; 1330 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/327-2300;

Want to hang with the hip crowd? The midcentury modern Ace Hotel & Swim Club has a vintage photo booth, poolside DJs on weekends, and frequent celebrity sightings. Some of its 176 rooms come with record players (and records, naturally). All rooms have minibars stocked with addictive caramel popcorn. Rooms from $179; 701 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/325-9900;

Eat Well



From its food to its cocktail program and its architecture, “playfully creative” describes Workshop Kitchen + Bar. Sip a Carrot Penicillin cocktail—blended scotch, honey, ginger, lemon, Islay Scotch, heirloom carrot—while admiring the twenty-seven-foot-high cathedral ceiling trusses, architectural concrete, black steel, and earthy modern tableware (from Heath Ceramics). Located in the El Paseo Building (originally built in 1926), the space was reimagined in 2011 by SOMA Architects, and the remodel put Workshop at the top of the “Best Restaurant and Bar Design in the Americas” category (out of 667 entries) in the international 2013 Restaurant & Bar Design Awards. Open daily at 5 p.m.; 800 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/459-3451;
When it opened in 2010, Palm Springs Life recognized Escena Lounge & Grill as the area’s best new restaurant. Menus are eclectic American fusion—prime rib hash or homemade granola for breakfast, and blood orange-fennel salad and citrus scampi for dinner—and the executive chef cites everyone from his grandmother to other valley chefs as inspiration. We don’t disagree about the food being wonderful, but we love Escena Grill most for its architecture. Part of the Escena Golf Club, the grill is in the clubhouse, a classically angular, freeform structure in glass, steel, concrete, and rock designed by Arizona-based architect Douglas Fredrikson. The clubhouse has won numerous architectural awards including Golf Inc. magazine’s 2010 Best New Clubhouse Award. Open daily at 6:30 a.m., dinner Tuesday – Saturday; 1100 Clubhouse View Dr.; 760/992-0002;

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