The Only Palm Springs Architecture Guide You Will Ever Need
As you cruise into Palm Springs on the 111, the first thing you notice are the San Jacinto Mountains. Often snow-capped, they are breathtaking and majestic. It’s easy to see why Palm Springs was once the playground to old school Hollywood stars. But the real stars are the architectural gems scattered throughout town: Neutra, Frey, Cody, Krisel, Ellwood, and Wexler. The list goes on. And so do the clean lines of the striking, mid-century modern butterfly roofs on many of the houses.
Admittedly, I’m no Julius Shulman, but jump in this time machine with me and join me on the only Palm Springs architecture guide you will ever need, won’t you?
First up is the Albery Frey designed Tramway Gas Station, built in 1965, which now serves as the Palm Springs Visitor Center. As you’re greeted by this impressive roofline that seemingly juts out of the mountains you instantly realize you’re in for an architectural treat. Of course, if you don’t like mid-century modern, then turn around because this structure serves to tell you that Palm Springs has the highest concentration of mid-century modern architecture in America. Drool. Moving on…
From the Visitor Center, cruise on over to the Racquet Club Estates where there is no shortage of breeze blocks and colorful front doors. You can find these cool, retro houses in the vicinity of Victoria Park, just to the north and south of E. Racquet Club Road, bordered by Avenida Caballeros and North Indian Canyon. Upon first glance, many of these homes appear to have fallen in disrepair over the years, but are on their way to becoming chic abodes once again. This neighborhood is filled with with cute ranch style homes dubbed “Alexanders” because they were built by The Alexander Construction Co. from 1959–1961, and spearheaded by starchitect William Krisel. There’s also an abundance of “Meiselmans” built by Jack and Bernie Meiselman and these are a post and beam architectural dream come true. While touring this neighborhood make sure to stop and admire the Donald Wexler Steel Houses, built in 1961, at 290 Simms and 300 East Molino. Donald Wexler is one of the most innovative architects because he was the first to combine prefab and modern principals. And even more impressive, these houses could be built in two days and sell for around $14,000. The rising cost of steel would eventually put a stop to building more and ultimately only seven were built. Six of the seven steel houses have been restored to their original condition and are classified as a Class 1 Historic Site (the most prestigious historic designation).
When you’re done with the Racquet Club Estates, it’s just a quick trip over to Neutra’s masterpiece, the Kaufmann Desert House, built in 1946. Pretty modern and foward thinking for 1946, eh? The back of the house is even more spectacular but you only get the street view. And that’s enough to satisfy your Neutra needs because, damn, that is a sexy house. Moving on because we have a lot of desert awesomeness to cover!
You’re now in the vicinity of Vista Las Palmas, my personal favorite. Let’s explore! This neighborhood came together in the late 50’s when The Alexander Construction Co. hired William Krisel and Charles Dubois (responsible for all the fab Swiss Miss A-Frames) to design over 300 homes that would sit at the base of Mt. San Jacinto. Some of these backyards are literally a giant, rocky mountain (which is hard to see in these photos because it was so rainy and foggy the day I drove through). Famous residents over the years include Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Dinah Shore, Kirk Douglas, Debbie Reynolds and Marilyn Monroe. Now that’s some serious star power. This neighborhood is bordered by Mt. San Jacinto to the West and North Via Monte Vista to the East, Vista Chino to the North and West Crescent Drive to the South.
Staying within the Vista Las Palmas neighborhood we will visit the following houses, so buckle in:
The Alexander/May House @ 424 West Vista Chino: Edward Fickett designed this home in 1951 for his friend and colleague George Alexander, of The Alexander Construction Co., who later sold it to Tom May, of the May Department Stores.
The Marilyn Monroe House @ 1326 Rose: this ultra chic, classic bungalow has all the style and glam of Marilyn herself. It is said to be where Marilyn lived several months before her death. As you can see below, it’s heavily planted just how Marilyn liked it. To this day, it is one of the most well known houses in Palm Springs.
Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway (AKA The House of Tomorrow) @ 1350 Ladera Circle: This house was built in 1960 and designed exclusively for Robert Alexander (of The Alexander Construction Co.) and his wife. The house was rented to Elvis and his bride Priscilla in 1966. There’s some controversy over who actually designed the house. Some speculate it could have been John Lautner or Frank Lloyd Wright. Regardless, it’s a striking house measuring approximately 5000 square feet! And I’ll be touring it next time I visit.
The Dinah Shore Estate @ 432 Hermosa: You may not be able to see much of this estate from the street but what you can see is a modernist’s dream house made of glass and stone. This low-profile masterpiece was designed by Donald Wexler in 1964 and sits on 1.3 acres! This is what I call timeless mid-century modern. After Dinah Shore, Broadway composer and lyricist Jerry Herman lived here. Hello, Dolly indeed! Leonardo DiCaprio currently owns the home and when he’s not using it rents it out. But it’ll cost ya — rates start at $3750/night.
Anne Miller House @ 457 Hermosa: Just across the street is a classic, Spanish terra cotta roofed house that once belonged to actress and singer Ann Miller, best remembered for her work in the musicals of the 1940’s and 1950’s. You can’t see much from your street view but admire it quickly and move on!
From Vista Las Palmas you can cruise on over closer to the heart of downtown Palm Springs and check out Liberace’s former residence at 226 West Alejo. Knowing this house belonged to the bedazzled pianist, I expected this property to be far more flamboyant, but it’s pretty tame and appears to be rather small. It served as a hotel in 1960’s and many have speculated that Liberace died here in 1987. Marvel at it and move on because there’s lots more to see!
Take a moment to admire the Del Marcos Hotel, designed in 1947 by architect William F. Cody. Also located against the San Jacinto Mountains, this hotel is a great example of early modernism.
If you have time, see if you can book a tour of the Frey House (not accessible to tour on your own). This house is the definition of desert modernism. If you’ve ever done any research on modern architecture then you’ve surely seen pictures of this awe inspring house located high above downtown. Built in 1963, the house is made of rock, metal ceilings, and glass walls and is sure to blow you away. It is now owned by the Palm Springs Art Museum (which you should absolutely visit if you have time!)
The Palm Springs Art Museum was built in 1976 by E. Stewart Williams and is a fine example of brutalism, a hulking concrete structure located against the San Jacinto Mountains. Note that there’s free admission every Thursday from 4–9. Score!
When you’re done scoping out all the impressive mid-century modern homes located uptown, head on over to 426 East Sonora Road and 402 East Sonora Road to check out some “new” construction. Introducing The Desert Eichler’s! Located in the heart of Palm Springs, these brand spankin’ new houses have all the modern features and conveniences of new homes but the charm of mid-century design by Joseph Eichler.
Let’s head to a different part of town, shall we? Head South on Palm Canyon Drive and pass by the old Coachella Valley Savings and Loan. Built in 1960 by E. Stewart Williams, this bank, now occupied by Chase, features arches galore. Take a beat to swoon and keep driving.
Here we’re gonna set sail on The Ship of the Desert, located at 1995 Camino Monte. This is a prime example of streamline moderne and was dubbed “The Ship of Desert” by Sunset Magazine in 1937 due to its nautical elements. The house was originally built in 1936 but was later damaged in a fire. The house is currently owned by the fab throwback clothing designer Trina Turk, who hired an architecture firm in Santa Monica to restore it. The new design, although modernized, stays true to the original vision featuring beatiful redwood balconies that look like just like a ship’s deck.
Heading over to the Deepwell Estates, you will find a neighborhood subdivided in 1952 that was once home to an apricot orchard and dude ranch. Many of these homes were designed by Howard Lapham and Barry Berkus. This neighborhood was once home to Elizabeth Taylor, Loretta Young, Jack Webb, William Holden and Jerry Lewis. And although it’s one of the oldest neighborhoods in Palm Springs it’s very well preserved. Deepwell gets its name from a well that was drilled on the land in the 1920’s. To find these houses you’ll want to locate yourself north of East Palm Canyon Drive, between South Sunrise Way, Deepwell Road and Mesquite Avenue.
From Deepwell, you’re just a few blocks away from Twin Palms and this is a neighborhood you won’t want to miss! Twin Palms is made up Alexanders, the majority which were spearheaded by William Krisel. This neighborhood was developed from 1956–59. Is roof porn a thing? It is now. Located South of East Palm Canyon Drive, between South Camino Real and South La Verne Way (behind the Ocotillo Lodge) you will find some of best mid-century modern specimens ever built. And some really fun and uniquely designed yards!
And now for something a little bit different! Let’s take a drive just west of the Palm Springs International Airport (maybe even stop at City Hall to check out the unique facade designed by Albert Frey in 1952) to view the Sunmore Estates. Bordered by East Andreas Road to the South, East Tamarisk to the North and Farrell Drive to the West, the Sunmor Estates neighborhood dates back to 1955 and these homes were designed by architects Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison. I believe there are even some Krisel’s sprinkled in.
From Sunmore, proceed to El Rancho Vista Estates located Northeast of the airport. These homes were the first tract homes by Wexler and are a wonderful example of late 50’s modern architecture featuring lots of breeze block, interchangeable rooflines, and floor to ceiling windows helping to combine indoor/outdoor living spaces. Donald Wexler even lived in one at 1593 Via Roberto Miguel.
To conclude, let’s explore some other noteworthy houses sprinkled in and around Chino Canyon and Little Tuscany. Some of these are difficult to view from the street but you’ll find some real treasures along the way. These include the following:
Carey/Pirozzi House @ 651 W. Via Escuela: This house is set up on stilts due to the sloping hillside and was designed by Albert Frey.
Raymond Loewy House @ 600 W. Panorama Rd.: Albert Frey also built this house for famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy. You’re more familiar with Loewy’s work than you think because he designed the iconic Coca-Cola soda bottle! Sadly, this property, which is on the national historic registry, isn’t visible from the street but I found some wonderful pictures here.
Edna Root Shaprio House @ 711 W. Panorma Rd.: this house was built in 1969 by Michael Black for San Francisco heiress and art collector Edna Root Shapiro.
Franz Alexander House @ 1011 W. Cielo Dr.: In my opinion this 1955 jewel, designed by Walter White (not that Walter White), is one of the highlights of the desert.
Palevsky House @ 1021 W. Cielo Dr.: This modern, minimalist house was commisioned by Intel Corporation founder Max Palevsky and designed by Craig Ellwood. Palevsky’s love of art extended well beyond painting and sculpture and he also commisioned Ellwood to design the Scientific Data Corporation’s headquarters. Ellwood is often referred to as “California’s Mies van der Rohe.” And because of the house’s stark design people often find it difficult to describe. See for yourself!
Edris House @ 1030 W. Cielo Dr.: And last, but certainly not least is the Edris House built in 1953 by E. Stewart Williams. This fine specimen has been designated a Class 1 Historic Site. As you can tell from the photo below, this house looks like it’s literally sprouting from the ground which makes it a perfect example of organic design.
Are you exhausted yet? There’s plenty more to see but these are the staples. Yes, it’s a lengthy list, but you can do it all in a weekend (I did!) Surely, you’ve worked up an appetite looking at all this droolworthy architecture, so here are some of my favorite eateries to stop at in no particular order: