Palm Springs Rendezvous
Palm Springs Rendezvous
Five Days at Modernism Week 2008
Words: Chris Osborne
Palm Springs Modernism Week is an annual event held in February. This is made possible with the combined support of the local preservation groups actively promoting the conservation of mid 20th century architecture and design. Palm Springs has a world class collection of modernist architecture in a unique desert location which is accessible from Los Angeles by shuttle bus or airline services to Palm Springs International Airport.
We booked the Desert Valley shuttle, which offers a convenient pick up service from LA airport and surrounding hotels. The early afternoon drive avoids the LA traffic jams and we arrive at our Palm Springs hotel ready to start Modernism Week events. We had chosen the newly renovated Rendezvous B&B Hotel on the northern end of town. This 1950s themed hotel offers large rooms or suites which are colourful and tastefully decorated. We booked the Rock’n’Roll suite which is highlighted in black, white and red, with Elvis poster art. At the Rendezvous all the rooms open onto the central courtyard, pool and spa. This creates a delightful communal atmosphere, and guests congregate daily at 5pm for complimentary blue martinis and hors d’oeuvres.
Each morning begins with a dip in the heated spa followed by a poolside breakfast, thanks to Jake and Betty. It is a picture postcard start to the day with the palm trees overhead contrasting against the blue sky and snow capped peaks in the distance.
Today is sunny with a cool breeze, almost tee shirt weather, as we walk down the main street heading towards the centre of Palm Springs on the lookout for lunch. Hamburger Marys looks inviting, we choose a booth and order a burger which is big enough for two. Today is a casual window shopping day and we are not disappointed, in fact exactly the opposite. A number of excellent mid 20th century furniture dealers are located on the main thoroughfare and we met Nilda and Glen from 20first who specialise in vintage furniture and lighting, they also direct us to the other vintage dealers in town. The first official event on the Palm Springs Modernism Week program is a presentation of a star on the Walk of Fame. An enthusiastic group of locals and dignitaries gather to present adulation and certificates of appreciation to famed architect Donald Wexler in a footpath ceremony outside a modernist commercial building.
Tonight is the Gala of the Modern Show held at the Palm Springs Convention Centre. This type of gathering of 20th century furniture dealers is a regular event across the United States. A jazz trio plays the night away as guests mingle amongst the collectible vintage treasures. The dealers are courteous and informative as we examine previously unknown (to us) American art and design objects, including furniture, lighting, fabric and fashion. The renowned architectural photographer Julius Shulman, now 97, is busy signing copies of his new Palm Springs book which also coincides with an exhibition of his photographs at the Palm Springs Art Museum.
A leisurely day in the winter sun and we stroll down the streets examining the sights of the Palm Springs streetscape. Just Fabulous is not only the name of a delightful local bookstore and gift shop but aptly describes the ambience of this designer desert town.
Tonight is the main event for the Palm Springs Modern Committee (PSMODCOM), with their annual fund raiser party. This year’s theme is ‘Black & White’, and everyone looks amazing in a range of magnificent outfits. As we enter through the architectural steel doors we are greeted by Jamie, the host, flanked by a pair of glam drag queens, also Peter, the president, and Nickie the vice president of the Modern Committee. We are initially a little apprehensive at the thought of not knowing anyone except Angela and Paul, our new friends from Canada, but the atmosphere is a social one and we meet many locals, out of towners and other Australians. The party venue is a private house, with a soaring roofline that stabs into the night sky, glass walls, polished concrete and modern art. The bar is a hub of activity and the crowd overflows out onto the terrace where the DJ is spinning discs by the glow of the illuminated pool. Who would ever believe this party back home!
The aptly named Palm Springs Art Museum, is a beautiful purpose built structure housing an inspiring collection of art. The aim of our visit is to see the Julius Shulman photographic exhibition. We find an inviting gallery space filled with stunning architectural images spanning decades of classic Palm Springs design. The other temporary and permanent exhibitions offer a varied selection of art from the 20th century. Afterwards we enjoy a leisurely lunch from the Muse Café in the secluded environment of the sculpture garden.
The Corridor is comprised of boutique shops surrounding a grassy courtyard. This is a popular hang out, scattered with chairs and people enjoying the winter sunshine with a book or coffee from Koffi. Inside the bookstore called Just Fabulous business is buzzing, and I meet Sven Kirsten who is signing his book, ‘Tiki Modern’. I get it autographed while chatting to his charming wife Naomi, who features a Louise Brooks hairstyle. I buy even more design books that Stephen the bookstore owner has recommended. We retire to the grassy courtyard where Richard is manning a drinks and nibbles table for todays bookstore promotion.
The Architecture and Design Council (ADC) offer a unique opportunity to visit Frey House II which was built in 1964. The house was constructed in the international modernist style as the personal residence of architect Albert Frey. Now owned and preserved by the Palm Springs Art Museum, it is open only one day a year and that’s today. Every hour a small group of eight people are transported by shuttle bus up the gated private road, arriving at a stone coloured cement block wall nestled into the rocky hillside. We are actually looking at the carport wall which is the supporting structure for the swimming pool; a stairway leads up to the house. This is a small house, using simple building materials but grand in concept. The main living area is one space comprising the bedroom, dining room (doubles as an office) and lounge room with fitted cabinets for concealed storage. The dominant feature is the natural boulder built into the house. Colour aspects of the interior design are a blue ceiling representing the sky, green curtains for the cactus and yellow curtains for the local desert daisy. The visual outlook highlights its position 60M (200ft) from the valley below. The hour goes quickly and we are then shuttled away to allow access for the next privileged few.
Another special interest group is the Palm Springs Historical Society and tonight they are presenting films in the Palm Canyon Theatre. The first film is a 2007 documentary offering a fascinating insight into the history and development of an exclusive Palm Springs estate, Smoke Tree Ranch, a western themed colony for the rich and famous. This is followed by a delightful 1954 short travelogue featuring the sights of Palm Springs. Lastly an MGM promotional reel from the 1930s ‘Stars in Palm Springs’, an all dancing girls excuse for a film featuring Hollywood stars of the era.
Robert Imber is a character, resplendent in orange shirt, yellow trousers and white framed sunglasses when we meet. He operates Palm Springs Modern Tours which offers a variety of architectural and design tours. This year for Modernism Week he is sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm with an eager group on a Double Decker bus tour of Palm Springs architecture. As we set off around the residential enclaves, we are able to view classic American house designs, Alexanders, Wexlers, the famous ‘Kaufmann House’, and numerous homes of the stars. The tour has a surprise stop to visit Frank Sinatra’s house from 1947,’ Twin Palms’. Todays trip includes both residential and commercial buildings, and Robert’s passion for architecture and design is reflected in his commentary and appreciation of the modest to the majestic.
Tonight the Architecture and Design Committee are featuring a lecture on sustainable architecture by an international guest speaker, Australian Ric Butt from Strine Design, Canberra. It is presented in the beautiful Annenberg Theatre at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Ric presents an informative lecture highlighting what is sustainable architecture and his design and construction philosophy. Afterwards at the reception as we chat to Ric and his wife Jan, it is amusing to realise that we had travelled halfway around the world to meet other Australian’s.
Qantas, Modernism Week, Desert Valley Shuttle, Rendezvous B&B Palm Springs, Palm Springs Modern Committee, Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, Architecture and Design Committee, Palm Springs Art Museum, PS Modern Tours, Palm Springs Historical Society, Just Fabulous, Koffi, Blue Coyote Bar & Grill, Hamburger Marys, Rick’s Restaurant, 20first, Studio One11, Modern Way, Galleria, Palm Springs Consignment, Dazzles, Route 66 West, Modern Shows.
Chris Osborne is a freelance photographer specialising in documenting musicians, artists and theatre. His work has been exhibited in numerous exhibitions and festivals. As a collector and researcher of mid 20th century Australian design he is the publisher of Brisbane Modern, a mid 20th century art and design magazine. The trip to Palm Springs in February 2008 for Modernism Week, with partner Susan, was a personal journey to examine mid century modernist architecture and its preservation in America.
Our host Jamie Kabler gives us the opportunity to experience first hand the exclusive neighbourhood of Las Palmas. Jamie’s Palm Springs home is decorated in his personal style, with classic mid century and modern furniture, artwork and design objects. Locally known as ‘Leisureland’ this is the party house for its owner and his guests. Built by the Alexander Company in the 1960s, and designed by architects Palmer & Krisel, this architectural style is termed Alexanders.
Palm Springs has two modernist preservation groups, each having their own specific interests, agendas and methods. The Palm Springs Modern Committee (PSMODCOM) concentrates solely on the preservation of mid century modern architecture, and The Palm Springs Preservation Foundation (PSPF) includes all architectural periods. Also involved in activities and awareness are The Palm Springs Historical Society and The Architecture and Design Council (ADC) which operates as an adjunct to The Palm Springs Art Museum. The art museum is a destination of its own, with its architecturally designed spaces and impressive modern art collection, combined with special exhibitions and the delightful sculpture garden.
An excellent map has been produced by the Palm Springs Modern Committee, available from the visitors centre and local bookstores. As Palm Springs is situated on the desert valley floor it is relatively flat terrain, lending itself to easy exploration of mid century architecture. For a guided tour you can’t go past local identity Robert Imber of Palm Springs Modern Tours. Robert operates vehicle and Segway tours to explore some of the beautiful modernist architecture in the area. He is both knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and memorable as a colourful character. We were also fortunate to be able to meet Bill Butler, a member of the board of the ADC, who gave us his personal view of some outstanding mid century architecture. With prior permission of the owners we were able to experience some very close up impressions of private homes, including Edris House, designed in 1963 by noted architect E. Stewart Williams.
In Las Vegas we organise to meet Richard Hooker a senior staff member with the Las Vegas Cultural Affairs Department. Our aim is to discover the old Las Vegas, away from the main tourist strip, examining the origins of mid century design in this desert city. We begin our tour at the south end of the strip, where the famous ‘Welcome to Las Vegas’ sign stands. This was designed by Betty Willis In 1959 and is now a designated historic site, the city recently installing parking bays in the area for this compulsory photo stop. An informal drive takes us north to view an older neighbourhood from the 50s and 60s eras, Paradise Palms. Although not as well preserved as Palm Springs, the bones of the modernist architectural style still exist, waiting to be re-discovered and appreciated. Although I was unable to make contact with the Atomic Age Alliance, this Las Vegas preservation group offer an excellent publication titled, Mondo Vegas: touring mid century modern Las Vegas, providing a detailed self drive tour, highlighting notable local architecture along the route.
In an area downtown called the Cultural Corridor, an arts and museum district, is the Neon Boneyard. This is the home of hundreds of old neon signs which have been saved from demolition, they are stored awaiting future restoration and display. A unique concrete shell structure, originally part of the La Concha Hotel (c1961) designed by architect Paul R Williams, has been relocated to the site and is being prepared to open as the visitors centre. Generous benefactors have allowed some of the original vintage neon signs to restored and they are now installed in the Fremont Street area, illuminating the night sky as tourist attractions. This older area has also been invigorated with a spectacular light and sound show every evening on a giant overhead screen running the length of Fremont Street. There is convenient access to this downtown area day and night, serviced by the regular Deuce bus, along the entire length of the strip.
The Junior League of Las Vegas, a charitable women’s organisation, have shown the way in preservation by successfully relocating and restoring the mid century Morelli House. A former President of the Junior League, Dedee Nave, greets us on arrival and enthusiastically explains the history and features of the house. Antonio Morelli was a band leader at the Sands Hotel Casino in the 1960s when he and his wife Helen built their contemporary home on the original golf course estate. The house in its new downtown location serves as the Junior League Headquarters and also as a venue for select community activities, its relocation saving it from certain demolition. Further donations and grants enabled the restoration and re-use of Morelli House, a fine example of mid century design.
Local knowledge and a car for transport can offer you a broader insight into the variety of mid century architecture in Los Angeles. If you don’t have this luxury and you want to see residential or commercial architecture then I suggest LA Architectural Tours. This company offers a range of guided tours and there is sure to be something to suit your particular interest. Morning and afternoon options are available and they will take you on an informative and interesting drive to see the neighbourhoods and architecture.
Always the tourists, we use the Starline Tour double decker bus which operates on an hourly circular route, with the flexibility to get on and off all day. We use this bus service to access the Los Angeles Centre of Modern Art (LACMA) and the new Broad Centre of contemporary art. You can also go shopping on Rodeo Drive, go sightseeing at Paramount Studios or visit a multitude of other local destinations. The bus company also operates a second Downtown bus loop which is connected by a shuttle service. Popular stops are the Broadway district and the Walt Disney Concert Hall (c2003) designed by Frank Gehry. This post modern building is clad in a curvaceous stainless steel skin, which twists and curves in every direction, catching and reflecting the light. In the building’s foyer we collect free self guided audio tours, allowing us to explore this incredible construction and see the various design features of this visionary architect.
Another day we arrange to meet local modernist preservation activist Adriene Biondo and her husband John Eng. An enthusiastic and delightful couple who decide to show us some highlights of mid century architecture in Los Angeles. We cruise areas such as Century City, Beverley Hills, Sunset Strip and the Hollywood Hills, viewing notable mid century architectural classics. A passing comment about Frank Lloyd Wright, and minutes later we are at Hollyhock House (c1921), and a unique opportunity to glimpse into the mind of one of the twentieth centuries iconic architectural figures. The Friends of Hollyhock House offer scheduled guided tours for a small fee. The house interior has been enhanced with recreated original décor and furniture, although relatively intact there is some deterioration which is under repair, but this does not detract from the experience of visiting this distinguished building. Hollyhock House is the centrepiece of Barnsdall Art Park, its prominent hilltop position looks out to the Hollywood Sign and the Griffith Observatory. We all enjoy our day searching out modernist architecture in residential and commercial buildings, and we decide to finish the day at a traditional diner. This is no recreated diner, ‘Panns’ has operated since 1958, and is still an outstanding example of the style and era. We relax in a booth, with drinks and huge plates of food, and discuss our specific interests. It is no coincidence that we happen to stop at this location as our hosts have spent years documenting roadside architecture of restaurants, neon signs and bowling alleys. We also discover that Adriene and John have secured a publishing deal and will launch their new book later in the year, Southern California Eats, a photographic essay of unique roadside restaurant architecture.
The LA Conservancy really has some sort of power and influence; apparently you can fight City Hall! The Modern Committee is a sub group interested in modernist architectural preservation; they meet at a different location on the third Monday of each month. Our visit coincided with one such meeting, with a good crowd assembling on this occasion. It was an interesting experience, reviews of current investigations, highlights of future projects, and reports on successes and failures in their activities. The membership have incredible confidence in their role as watchdog and protector of mid century architecture and design.
Another interesting day trip while in Los Angeles is a visit to Long Beach, the permanent home of the Queen Mary cruise ship. This is a unique Art Deco experience, visitors purchase a day ticket which enables access from the engine room to the bridge, to admire this monument of a bygone era. Nearby a free bus service operates, so you can continue exploring the Long beach area. Pick up the retro shopping guide and visit the 4th Avenue Retro shopping district for vintage fashion and furniture.
We return to LA International Airport especially to visit the Encounter Restaurant, a radical building design reminiscent of a flying saucer, encompassed by parabolic arches. This landmark building from 1961 was a joint venture designed by Pereira + Luckman, Welton Beckett & Associates and Paul R Williams architects. The building is currently shrouded in scaffolding for major restoration work, the bar and restaurant is still open for business. We take the elevator to another world, an amazing space age interior, good food and drinks with a panoramic view.
We are welcomed to San Francisco by our local contact Marty Arbunich, publisher and editor of CA Modern Magazine and the Eichler Network website. San Francisco also gives us the opportunity to visit another Frank Lloyd Wright project, the Marin Civic Center (c1957), only a short drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge. This large scale public building is not a museum, but a functioning public centre. The design influences are numerous, Japanese inspiration in the golden tower, Middle Eastern motivation in the blue domed roof and Art Deco details in the curved internal features and graphics. More unusual features are arrays of ball shaped lights clinging underneath the access arches of the building, like giant pearls in a cave. The horizontal exterior is a repetition of smaller arches decorated with a gold ball motive running along the roof edge line, underlined by blue. The visual imagery of this huge elongated structure wouldn’t be out of place in a Science Fiction movie and as we leave we wonder to ourselves what was Frank Lloyd Wright thinking when he designed this building?
We continue driving north in the San Rafael area to examine various neighbourhoods with a high concentration of Eichler homes. These modernist ranch style homes were built during the 1950s and 1960s by Joseph Eichler, they are a phenomenon in northern California. In Marin County there are approximately 1600 of these homes in five neighbourhoods: Marinwood, Sleepy Hollow, Terra Linda, Strawberry Point (Mill Valley) and the impressive Lucas Valley. The restoration, documentation, and historical recognition of Eichler neighbourhoods has achieved cult status.
The De Young Museum (c2005) was designed by Herzog & de Meuron to incorporate both art and architecture in the landscape of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It is an interesting study in textures, from the buildings skin of perforated copper sheeting, the internal courtyard’s stonework and glass, to the unusual twisted observation tower. During our visit we enjoy two outstanding exhibitions relating to mid 20th century design, Andy Warhol and his music and an Yves Saint Laurent fashion retrospective.
Early evening and a crowd gathers in the basement corridors of the Fairmont Hotel for entry to the popular Tonga Room. Happy hour offers half price cocktails and a light buffet in a setting reminiscent of a South Pacific island. Situated in what was once the basement swimming pool is now thatched roofed huts, bamboo decoration, ships rigging and a tiki bar. Additional tropical realism is created in the form of a thunderstorm, sound and light show, including rain courtesy of the sprinkler system over the pool.
One cool Sunday morning we gather just near Union Square for ‘Rising Steel’, an historical architectural walking tour co-ordinated by San Francisco City Guides and led by a knowledgeable volunteer. This tour examines the downtown area, and along the route we discover more than a 100 years of architectural styles, including San Francisco’s three most famous architectural highlights. The Hallidie Building (c1918) by architect Willis Polk, is a modest eight story office block, and is credited as the world’s first building to feature glass curtain wall construction. Secondly is the Xanadu Gallery (c1948) designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a distinctive brick arch façade and entry, with an internal curved ramp (a forerunner to the Guggenheim Museum). Finally our attention is brought to the prominent white skyscraper, an unusual tapered design by William Pereira, the TransAmerica Building (c1972) which is a feature of the modern city skyline.
Our final day in San Francisco and we enjoy a leisurely visit to the Museum of Modern Art (c1995) by architect Maria Botta. The art museum store offers an excellent range of funky objects and books, for last chance souvenirs of our modernist inspired tour.
Chris Osborne is the publisher of Brisbane Modern Magazine. In March 2009 Chris and his partner Susan Bennett returned to the USA on a modernist inspired tour of the West Coast region. This article provides impressions of people and places encountered during their visit.
Contact: Chris Osborne
9 Burchell Street
Carina 4152 Queensland Australia
T: 07 3395 4571