Sunday 8 December 2019

Palm Springs: Getting into the modernist mood in California

Celebrity stories and architectural tours are on the cards in a preview of Palm Springs' Modernism Week

Mid century style
Mid century style
Palm Springs modernist week
La Casa di Ucello Bianca-a post-and-beam home custom built in 1956-was recently restored by its owners
The Fontenell was bought in 1960 by Max Factor, the cosmetics magnate
A massive boulder splits Frey House II
Cheeky's serves breakfast only
Workshop
Katy McGuinness

Katy McGuinness

Driving from LA to Palm Springs isn't for the faint-hearted, but once you're out of the urban sprawl and over the terror of those enormous trucks looming behind you, the scenery starts to morph into desert and the worst is over.

Palm Springs owes its evolution into a glamorous playground for the rich and famous to a requirement that movie stars under contract to the studios be obliged to remain within two hours of Hollywood should they be required back on set at short notice.

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Among those who liked to hang out in Palm Springs during its heyday were Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, but there are movie star houses and stories at every turn. These days the city is populated mainly by retirees and has a large gay community. Children are noticeable by their absence - but designer dogs abound. The shopping, particularly for vintage clothes, jewellery, furniture and objets, is as good as you might hope.

I'm in Palm Springs for the Fall Preview of Modernism Week which takes place from February 13 to 23, 2020, a celebration of mid-century architecture and design. It's my first visit, and I'm looking forward to immersing myself in mid-century modern in a city that's rigorous about preserving its unique heritage.

In fact, Palm Springs is more correctly Greater Palm Springs, comprised of nine cities - Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells (one of the most expensive zip code in the US), La Quinta, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Indio and Coachella, famous for the music festival that happens every April.

Greater Palm Springs draws in tourists for everything from its mineral springs to medical tourism (facelifts are big business), but Palm Springs is the one that will be familiar before you even visit, and the focus for Modernism Week.

Checking into the boutique Villa Royale in Palm Springs, we're welcomed with a stiff shot of tequila and decide immediately that it's our kind of place. It's not super-luxe, but the Fireplace Suite puts us right in the modernist mood.

We're in time for a quick dip in one of the hotel's two pools; there's quite a cocktail scene around the bigger of the two in the evening, when the tall palms are silhouetted against the night sky, but we prefer the smaller, quieter one surrounded by bougainvillea bushes full of the hummingbirds that you see everywhere in Palm Springs.

Palm Springs modernist week
Palm Springs modernist week

Palm Springs is a year-round destination, but the locals decamp in the height of summer when temperatures become unpleasant; peak season runs from October to April - even in mid-October it's still reaching 36°C in the middle of the day, and you're a fool if you don't wear a hat or carry a sun umbrella, or 'sunbrella' as the yellow branded version from the Palm Springs Historical Society is called.

Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier are regarded as the pioneers of the Modernist movement in architecture, which rejects ornament and embraces minimalism.

It was the single most important new style or philosophy of architecture and design of the 20th Century, associated with an analytical approach to the function of buildings, a strictly rational use of materials and structural innovation.

Of course, we are all modernists now - if you have a replica of Hans Wegner's wishbone chair in your kitchen, or have lusted after an Eames lounger for watching telly, you are one too - but when modernism appeared it must have felt very new and almost shocking.

After World War II, a cohort of modernist architects became established in Palm Springs, drawn by an abundance of resources and natural materials, seeing an opportunity in the confluence of money and creativity that existed there at that time. The desert modernists, including William F Cody, Albert Frey and Donald Wechsler favoured a muted palette so that their buildings would blend into the arid landscape.

Our first Modernism Week event is a guided open-top bus tour, which takes us at a genteel pace through the historic Tennis Club District and past the famous Ingleside hotel, where you can book in for dinner at Melvyn's, if you want to make like a movie star and do Palm Springs the way that they used to.

A house built in 1956 by architect William Krisel
A house built in 1956 by architect William Krisel

Some of our fellow passengers are in full-blown modernist vintage; others have come from as far away as Australia to participate.

Gloria Swanson's former house is now a boutique hotel, and Our Lady of Solitude church, where JFK once went to Confession, still stands.

There are homes belonging to Liberace and the Johnson family of cleaning wax fame.

Tall hedges in the Old Las Palmas neighbourhood conceal where Bette Davis and Mario Lanza once lived, and there are glimpses through the foliage of the Spanish hacienda-style Elizabeth Taylor estate. In Ocean's 11, Elliot Gould's character, Reuben Tishkoff, lived in a modernist gem at 998 N. Patencio.

As well as the movie star houses, the bus tour takes us through Vista Las Palmas, affordable A-frame 'Swiss Miss' houses built in 1955, and the beyond fabulous Morse House with its swim-up bar.

Twin Palms was architect E Stewart Williams's first residential commission - his client was Frank Sinatra; sometimes there are tours of the interior during Modernism Week but they book up early and we missed it this time. Twin Palms is where Sinatra used to hoist the Jack Daniels up the flagpole to let his friends know that happy hour had begun. The house has four bedrooms and seven bathrooms, clerestory windows to preserve privacy and a pool shaped like a piano.

In Palm Springs, the fuel stations, airport, municipal buildings and churches are all modernist; William Cody designed St Theresa's where the sometime Mayor of Palm Springs, Sonny Bono's funeral took place.

Even KFC displays 'a nod to mod'. Everywhere you look there are houses with distinctive butterfly roofs, and others decorated with brise-soleil brickwork, just about the only form of decoration not frowned upon by the modernists. In Indian Canyons, the telephone wires are buried, so as not to interfere with the uncluttered aesthetic.

We take a 'Shangri-la of the Stars' walking tour with the Palm Springs Historical Society, and get inside some of the homes in Deepwell, one of Palm Spring's oldest neighbourhoods, where the desert-scaping using cacti and other plants requiring little water is spectacular.

The architecture talk is peppered with movie star trivia: Loretta Young's house by architect Bill Dody is entirely circular, with all the furniture made to order; Elizabeth Taylor's 'honeymoon hideaway' is where she holed up with Eddie Fisher after stealing him from Debbie Reynolds; a house that once belonged to Carmen Miranda and another that was home to the Gabor ladies.

"Eva Gabor was a beard for Merv Griffin," our guide tells us, "and in the Sixties you had to have at least one Gabor at your party or it was a bust. Between the four of them, they had 22 husbands."

My husband is an architect and for him the highlight of our trip was a visit to Frey House II, by Swiss architect, Albert Frey, a complex structure built into the rock above Palm Springs.

Another hit was the Cul de Sac Experience in William Krisel's Canyon View Estates, a mid-century time capsule experience during which you get to go inside half a dozen houses. These were originally built as holiday homes for people living in LA - a California equivalent of a mobile home park in Brittas Bay - but are now year-round homes for committed modernists.

If you are planning to visit for Modernism Week, my advice would be to book as many events as possible - tours, cocktail parties and the like - that get you inside the houses. After that, just enjoy them.

Take Two: Top attractions

Breakfast

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Cheeky's serves breakfast only

Get up early to land a table at no-bookings Cheeky's, open seven days a week from 8am to 2pm, serving breakfast only. Try the chilaquiles ($13) with a spicy Bloody Mary. www.cheekysps.com


Dinner

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Workshop

Workshop serves a contemporary menu; try the mesquite-grilled pork chop with roasted Brussels sprouts, pickled peaches and shallot bacon marmalade ($38). www.workshoppalmsprings.com

Getting there

* Rooms at Villa Royale during Modernism Week from $325 per night; www.villaroyale.com

* If you prefer to stay in a golf resort, about half an hour's drive from Palm Springs, rooms at JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa during Modernism Week are from $349 per night. www.marriott.co.uk/hotels/travel/ctdca-jw-marriott-desert-springs-resort-and-spa

* For more information about Greater Palm Springs, visit www.visitgreaterpalmsprings.com

* For more information about Modernism Week, visit www.modernismweek.com

* Aer Lingus, Ireland's only 4-Star airline, operates a direct service from Dublin to LAX, with up to 7 flights per week and fares starting from €209 each way, when booked as part of a return trip. www.aerlingus.com

NB: This story originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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