Booze, Pools & Heartbreak – Palm Springs Modernism

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The original Frank Sinatra family

A portraiture of Frank Sinatra and his family in front of the Frank Sinatra house.

I just returned from the Palm Springs Modernism Week Fall Preview event that included walking home tours, open-air bus tours and individual home tours. Palm Springs mid-century architecture is still in full bloom and it’s storied past can be easily connected with the evolution of Las Vegas mid-century modernism as well. Las Vegas was known as the the first city to offer quick divorces, but, Palm Springs was the perfect storm for daily booze-infused pool parties that led to many-a-heartbreak and the boom of celebrity infidelities, weddings and divorces.

As Palm Springs discovered it’s first aquafer, and architects enticed the Hollywood movie studio to come down and play, mid-century modern lifestyle came to life with cutting-edge architectural designs, raging pool parties and a cottage industry of marital divorce and heartbreak.

El Mirador Belltower in Palm Springs

El Mirador Belltower

The “gateway” to this new lifestyle could be attributed to the El Mirador Hotel which opened in 1928.  Developer & businessman Prescott Thresher Stevens promoted this 20-acre, 200-room hotel that included an Olympic-size swimming pool, the VERY FIRST 18-hole golf course and it’s infamous 60-foot Spanish Revival bell tower that has become a Palm Springs iconic landmark. Stevens was a genius promoter such that the El Mirador Hotel was quickly known internationally as “the” place to play and vaca.

Many attribute Stevens for the true birth of Palm Springs as the global audience would vacation for a few days, then a few weeks, and then ultimately wanting to build a second or third home in the desert. Architectural modernists flourished with commissions from the stars, using the city to explore architectural innovations, new artistic venues, and an exotic back-to-the-land experiences. Inventive architects designed unique vacation houses, such as steel houses with prefabricated panels and folding roofs, a glass-and-steel house in a boulder-strewn landscape, and a carousel house that turned to avoid the sun’s glare.

Edward Stone Home in New York

By Robert Skolmen Bobskol854 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Hollywood values permeated the resort as it combined celebrity, health, new wealth, and sex. As Palm Springs wasdescribed: “The bohemian sexual and marital mores already apparent in Hollywood intersected with the resort atmosphere of Palm Springs, and this new, more open sexuality would gradually appear elsewhere in national tourist culture. ” If there was a professional Actuary that studied the statistics of how many divorces were filed during the 60’s & 70’s, it would be an easy correlation to daily/nightly pool parties and the modern open bar poolside. Even though Palm Springs could be known for it’s booze, pools and heartbreak during this period, the overall lifestyle created in the desert and Palm Springs has built a foundation for future generations of an open lifestyle including being one of the world’s largest communities of the LBGTQ population.

In 1939, the city of Palm Springs boasted more swimming pools than any other place in the country. Not a surprise, with temperatures that beg for all cooling options available most of the year, where there aren’t 10,000 lakes (slightly different terrain than Minnesota). The early 1940s are considered Palm Springs’ heyday, with wealthy Hollywood types journeying to the scenic desert to enjoy an oasis for fun, socializing, golf, tennis, and lounging poolside in glorious sun-filled weather. Those might have been the glory days for getting Palm Springs on the map, but current times might best be described as roaring times for pool construction.

Another cottage industry that changed the concrete industry overnight was the use and design of concrete block and screen walls. Edward Durell Stone introduced the concrete grille in 1956 with his AIA-Award-winning Stuart Company headquarters in Pasadena, California. The highly influential building used grilles inside as well as out, prompting Architectural Record to describe it as possessing “an atmosphere of clean, bright, lush splendor.”” Instead of ventilation, grilles provided sun shading and privacy. Originally a response to tropical climates, the grille seemed quite at home in southern California. With this building,cemented the image of the screen block into the minds of architects, builders, and homeowners alike.

Moderism Week Fall Preview

Docent Roger leading the Indian Canyhons Golf Resort Walking Tour

Docent Roger leading the Indian Canyhons Golf Resort Walking Tour

Since I provide the event photography for the now wildly-popular Homes & History event here in Las Vegas, I wanted to attend the Palm Spring version and get a sense of when much of the mid-century modernism migrated to Las Vegas.  Amongst celebrities and the movie studio crowds, there was a trifecta of business networking between Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Las Vegas.

Well-known architects like William Krisel, Irwin Molasky, Clif May and others created a genre called “desert modernism”.  This could be considered an extension of the rowdy, fun lifestyles of people escaping the corporate confines of the Studios, heading to Palm Springs but then maybe doing a gig in Las Vegas.  Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack exemplify what was happening back then.

My first event was to do a walking tour of the Indian Canyons Golf Resort area.  Roger was our docent and he provided a great tour describing the history of this particular development with new residents like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Bill Lear (founder of the Lear jet).  Great MCM designs and you can only imagine the stories of nightly pool parties overlooking then then-new golf course living lifestyle.

The Movie Colony Street SignSaturday morning I had opted for The Movie Colony walking tour. Scott did a great job as our docent and the lore of this area would be difficult to aggregate into a simple 2 /12 hour walking tour.  The Movie Colony was the first stronghold of the rich and famous working in Los Angeles and the two hour commute allowed the residents to comply with the Hollywood studio’s “two-hour rule”;  requiring industry workers including actors to get back to Los Angeles in time for the next shoot.

Compared to the tour of the more-open Indian Canyons tour, the majority of these homes were privacy-protected by high walls restricted  visibility to the architecture.  Scott offered up great printed images so we could get a glimpse of the raucous lifestyles prevalent during this period (and, even still today with the new Coachella generation).

I would certainly give credit to the Modernism Week organizers creating an event that got me to Palm Springs, but, I have since discovered there are plenty of individual or small group tours available throughout the calendar year.  Tapping into the Palm Springs Modernism Week and makes it more affordable for tours and you end up meeting like-minded architectural and Palm Springs enthusiasts from around the country.
Photo Gallery Note: I opted to use a variety of HDR presets for my photo post-processing that depicted the period of what Palm Springs is known for.

The Walker Guest House in Palm Springs

The Walker House and Babies Exhibit

The Walker Guest House replica of a 1952 beach cottage, by renowned architect Paul Rudolph, is a shining example of the Sarasota School of Architecture movement (1941-1966). The house was designed by Rudolph specifically for the subtropical climate of Dr. Walter Walker’s property on Sanibel Island, Florida. The original structure is still used as a guest house by the Walker family.

Rudolph said: “With all the panels lowered the house is a snug cottage, but when the panels are raised it becomes a large screened pavilion. If you desire to retire from the world you have a cave, but when you feel good there is the joy of a large screened pavilion.”

What makes this unremarkable design remarkable nowadays, is how it can be unofficially considered the seed that has planted the Tiny House Movement. Tiny houses on wheels was popularized by Jay Shafer who designed and lived in a 96 sq ft house and later went on to offer the first plans for tiny houses on wheels, initially founding Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, and then Four Lights Tiny House Company (September 6, 2012). In 2002, Shafer co-founded, along with Greg Johnson, Shay Salomon and Nigel Valdez the Small House Society.

The Walker Guest House replica was purchased by a private party and will be relocated back to Florida in March of 2020.

Downtown Palm Springs has been reshaped by Braun with his development in front of the Palm Springs Art Museum that includes the Kimpton Hotel “The Rowan” and the future Virgin Hotel. Braun was intrigued by Černý’s work and funded the logistics of this ambitious project. The “Babies” are one of Černý’s best known installations.

David Černý first gained notoriety in 1991 when he painted a Soviet tank pink as a memorial to war in his native Prague. Since then his artistic acts of civil disobedience, grand scale installations, and exhibitions have continued to incite strong reactions worldwide. Creating extreme controversy with his work, this international sculptor has been described as “witty, exciting, kinetic, crass and provocative”.

Noah Purifoy – Outdoor Desert Museum

Noah Purifoy

Outdoor Desert Museum of Assemblage Sculpture

Noah S. Purifoy (August 17, 1917 – March 5, 2004) was an African-American visual artist and sculptor, co-founder of the Watts Towers Art Center, and creator of the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum. He lived and worked most of his life in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, California.

Purifoy was the first African American to enroll in Chouinard Art Institute as a full-time student and earned his BFA in 1956, just before his fortieth birthday. He is best known for his assemblage sculpture, including a body of work made from charred debris and wreckage collected after the Watts Riots of August 1965.

I do not wish to be an artist. I only wish that art enables me to be. / Noah Purifoy, 1963

I had paid for a Home Tours package with Modernism Week on-the-spot and even tho I announced my intentions as a photographer, no one informed me that photography is generally not allowed.  So, for me my work was done in Palm Springs and I opted to bail a day early and head home to Las Vegas.  I considered venturing into Joshua Tree but that would be more involved then I wanted so I remembered I had wanted to tour the Outdoor Desert Museum of Assemblage Sculpture.

Heading out of Palm Springs on Highway 62 towards Twentynine Palms, it took me approximately an hour to arrive at the  free outdoor museum (donations are accepted – they have a secure dropbox that really helps this sort of work).  You cannot help and ponder the mindsets of people that choose to literally live out in the middle of nowhere.  No trees except for the occasional yucca, just brown dirt.

Then, you wonder how Purifoy, born and raised in Alabama, Navy Veteran, then to become a Chouinard-trained artist, considered accomplished from his Watts Towers project, would end up way out here and  create this highly-creative outdoor museum.

Like much abstract art, the casual viewer might not comprehend the composition or expression, but, with time (and, maybe a docent) you can appreciate this remarkable gem of an outdoor museum outside Joshua Tree.

In the many years I have traveling from Las Vegas to the Indio desert region, I have always driven the I-15 / I-10 corridors but trusting Google maps (click this link), I really enjoyed a completely new path back to Las Vegas. You can learn more about Noah Purifoy at www.noahpurifoy.com

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ABOUT ROBERT BAKER

I have been shooting for $$ since 2000 opening my shop with the Nikon D1.  I am primarily interested in shooting adventure lifestyle and travel with a host of my  day-to-day clients being within the industrial sector.  Many of my editorial stock photos have been published in all major news outlets but my primary focus is distributing my images on a client-by-client basis to ensure their branding is unique and compelling.

I refuse to use Instagram as a marketing platform but you can follow me on my Flickr page.

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