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Palm Springs Travel Guide
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This Retro Desert Town Is a Mod Design Mecca

Almost a century later, modernism is still the hippest thing about Palm Springs.

The culture of nostalgia can be found everywhere in Palm Springs, which has been a favored getaway of Hollywood stars since the silent era. But it was Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack who really put Palm Springs on the map with Polynesian cocktail parties, massive pools, low-slung desert modernism, and impromptu open mic performances at their favorite supper club in the 1950s and 60s. The mid-century modern design aesthetic associated with these celebrities, which included post-World War I interior design, architecture and graphic design, blends Bauhaus and Art Deco sensibilities in an aesthetic that is ideally suited to the red, sandy palette of the desert and its surrounding mountains. Perhaps that’s why Palm Springs is currently home to the highest concentration of mid-century modern architecture in the world.

Although some of the homes and buildings designed by great modernists architects like Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, Donald Wexler and Lloyd Wright have been renovated and updated for the 21st century, the open floor plans and dramatic flair that represent the movement are still the most attractive celebrities in the desert.

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PHOTO: Gary Bembridge [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr
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Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway

WHERE: 1350 Ladera Circle

It goes by many names: The Alexander Estate, The House of Tomorrow, Elvis’ Honeymoon Hideaway. But no one knows exactly who designed the spiraling tri-level of perfect circles on 1350 Ladera Circle. All that’s known is that it was built for one of the city’s most prolific developers, Robert Alexander, as a 5,000-square-foot family home, in 1960. The Alexanders enjoyed local fame with their Hollywood neighbors by hosting pool parties and gatherings under the desert citrus trees in the backyard.

The national press took notice, too. Look Magazine featured their unique home,  with its art deco interiors and endless living room carpet in a 1962 spread. But in 1965, the entire family died in a tragic plane crash, leaving the estate behind. After making appearances in a few films, the home was finally leased to high-profile tenants Elvis Presley and his then-girlfriend, Priscilla, in 1966. Nine months later, Elvis and Priscilla covertly flew to Las Vegas for the day to wed, immediately returning to Palm Springs to christen their post-marriage pad the Honeymoon Hideaway.

INSIDER TIPDaily tours are offered at 1 pm and 3:30 pm. Advance booking is appreciated during the busy Palm Springs winter season, and Modernism Week at the beginning of February.

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PHOTO: Palm Springs Then and Now/Facebook
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Purple Room Supper Club

WHERE: 1900 E Palm Canyon Drive

As the on-site restaurant of the historic Spanish-modern Hotel Trinidad, guests in the 1950s and 60s would often be treated to impromptu performances by frequent visitors Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. Sinatra owned a home nearby (see #6), and was reportedly a regular and favorite, according to the stories told by the bar’s staff and management.

However, the swingin’ 60s and funky 70s eventually did end, and one day, the place had completely gone out of style. But thanks to a renovation and restoration of the modernist interior design of the 1950s, the club enjoys hauntings of its former splendor with big-name bands playing standards of the era and 1960s musical impersonators. One of those is the club’s current owner, Michael Holmes, who dresses in drag to perform as Judy Garland on Sunday nights.

INSIDER TIPThe club has live performers with vintage acts every Wednesday through Sunday.

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PHOTO: Dan Chavkin
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Frey House

WHERE: 686 Palisades Drive

The legendary architect Albert Frey, trained in Beaux Arts design in Zurich, built some of the most admired modernist landmarks in Palm Springs, including City Hall (see #8) and the Aerial Tramway Gas Station (see #10). He moved to the city in 1934 and built two homes for himself over the course of his long career. The second, an 800-square-foot treasure built into a small plateau in the San Jacinto Mountains, is made of floor-to-ceiling glass windows and mountain boulders. Most furniture, shelves, and storage areas are built seamlessly into the walls and floors–a hallmark of the space-saving, sleek modernist aesthetic. After Frey’s death, he left the house to the Palm Springs Art Museum, which now hosts tours of the home and property atop Palm Springs.

INSIDER TIPDocent-led tours can be reserved by special request, allowing access to the house at the magic hour (sunset).

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PHOTO: Lance Gerber
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Palm Springs Art Museum, Architecture and Design Center

WHERE: 300 S. Palm Canyon Drive

The second location of the Palm Springs Art Museum is, quite naturally, a repurposed modernist bank building designed by E. Stewart Williams, constructed in 1961 in downtown Palm Springs. The flat roof, glass walls and steel frame of the raised structure sit inside a rim of desert cacti and is filled with a daily bath of sunlight. In 2014, when the museum took ownership of the building, it was renovated and restored based on the original design. Today, visitors can compare the adapted redesign to original photos in the lobby. Architecture exhibitions rotate inside the main hall, but it’s also a resource for architecture tours in the city. That includes public tours of the Albert Frey House (see #3).

INSIDER TIPEntrance is free after 4 pm.

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PHOTO: HUGO ROJAS PHOTOGRAPHY
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Nat Reed Gallery

WHERE: 333 N. Palm Canyon Dr.

With colorful canvases depicting the flat, simple planes of modernist architecture as well as the extravagant, colorful atmosphere of the mod lifestyle that came with it, Nat Reed’s work epitomizes the sun-drenched, happy-go-lucky soul of Palm Springs modernism. While some of the work re-creates Palm Springs landmarks, even the composite pieces evoke a forever-young Zeitgeist that stays in the air of the city. The artist’s gallery in downtown Palm Springs exhibits his work, which has also been featured in magazines and exhibitions across the city and in Miami, another modernist mecca.

INSIDER TIPVisit the “Nat Reed Room” at the Del Marcos Hotel (see #9).

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PHOTO: Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons
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Movie Colony Neighborhood

WHERE: Indian Canyon Drive, Alejo Road

The densest concentration of modernist homes—although sprinkled generously with their funky architectural cousins, Spanish revival style—can be found in the Movie Colony, a neighborhood named for its many celebrity residents. Many of the 170 homes in the neighborhood were designed by modernist architects E. Steward Williams, William Cody and Donald Wexler and its most famous landmark, the Twin Palms Estate, was designed by Williams for Frank Sinatra, who catered parties there for his swingin’ set of friends, like Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Gloria Swanson, Dinah Shore, and many other famous neighbors. Today, the neighborhood’s allure has returned to the architecture instead of the celebrities, with tours available from the Palm Springs Historical Society year-round.

INSIDER TIPCheck out the real estate listings in the Movie Colony if you’re considering a modernist icon for your own resort home purchase or rental.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Bootlegger Tiki
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Bootlegger Tiki

WHERE: 110 North Palm Canyon Drive

In 1951, the midcentury apartment and shopping complex Sunset Towers was opened to the public in Palm Springs. Two years later, it’s street-facing storefront was occupied by Don the Beachcomber, a tiki bar chain created in the 1930s in Hollywood, spawning the bizarre tiki bar culture that was popular from the 1930s until the 1950s. With dreams of Hawaii and Polynesia in mind, the proprietor of Don’s spun mystery around tropical regions that were mostly unexplored by Americans, marrying those legends with exotic, complicated and fruity drinks named after celebrity clientele. Don’s eventually closed and the building fell out of use for many years, but a sparkling, new renovation in 2014 restored its modernist design, fusing it with hints of that old, kitschy tiki-style spunk. The retro Bootlegger Tiki restores that mystery and fascination of tiki-times with a craft cocktail spin.

INSIDER TIPFor the classic tiki experience, take a dip from the punch bowl, a bartender-made, specialty mystery drink that goes down easy. It’s nice and boozy.

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PHOTO: Stephanie Braconnier/Shutterstock
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Palm Springs City Hall

WHERE: 3200 E Tahquitz Canyon Way

If it hadn’t been designed by four of the modernist architectural stars of 20th century Palm Springs, it would just be a bureaucratic building with another flat, rectangular portico in front of some windows. But the giant hole in that shade structure makes way for a trio of palm trees, just one of the many unique aspects of this building. Others include the shade screens made up of smaller, circular structures that let in just enough light while blocking the heat, and desert-classic turquoise underneath the facade. Designed by Albert Frey, E. Steward Williams, Robson Chambers and John Porter Clark, visitors can admire the synergy of the best of Palm Springs’ modernist minds, all while applying for permits and marriage licenses inside.

INSIDER TIPPhotos of the exterior are permitted, but if you go inside, ask first. This is an official government building.

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PHOTO: BL Snow [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons
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Del Marcos Hotel

WHERE: 225 West Baristo Road

As the first independent commission for architect William Cody, the Del Marcos Hotel has been popular and well-regarded since it first opened in 1947. The hotel integrates sandy red stones and redwood, two classic California materials, into its flat modernist design scheme, with floor to ceiling windows facing its pool and u-shaped courtyard. After being declared a historical landmark in 2012, the hotel underwent a deep-clean restoration, maintaining the building’s classic look while updating and modernizing some of the guest features. Each room today is clean, simple and minimal, livened with midcentury furniture, a touch of color, and just a few nods to celebrity clientele of the 1950s and 60s. 

INSIDER TIPAsk the hotel’s manager for an architecture tour to learn more about the secrets of the hotel.

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PHOTO: Uladzik Kryhin/Shutterstock
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Tramway Gas Station

WHERE: 2901 North Palm Canyon Drive

From the sky, it could be mistaken for the Starship Enterprise (or at least the Enterprise’s uniform logo). But no, the building that looks like a soaring triangle, thin and smooth, arching up ever so slightly into the desert sky, is actually a modernist icon designed by Albert Frey and his fellow modernist Robson Chambers in 1965. These architects worked together in the firm Frey and Chambers on many of Palm Springs’ modernist designs, but this one strikes a special chord with many visitors because it’s the first point of contact for anyone entering the city from Highway 111.

Today, what was built as a humble gas station at the bottom of Tramway Road has achieved landmark status, and is now used as a Palm Springs Visitor’s Center, welcoming mod-hunters and spa tourists alike.

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