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Palm Springs Modernism Week: the Mardi Gras of Modernism

by Mike Singer

Architectural drawings for the Elrod House by John Lautner, FAIA, are featured at the Palm Springs Art Museum's current exhibit John Lautner: Between Heaven and Earth. Photo by Julius Shulman and Juergen Nogai.

Butterfly roofs, rock gardens, and walls of concrete and glass are common in Palm Spring's mid-century homes. Photo by Mike Singer.

Dinah Shore's former residence, designed by Donald Wexler, FAIA, in 1964, was featured in a celebrity house tour, one of 45 events in Palm Springs' Modernism Week. Photo by Mike Singer.

The first residential commission by E. Stewart Williams, FAIA, is Frank Sinatra's Palm Springs home, opened for visitors during Modernism Week. Photo by Jonathan Becker.


The now five-year old Modernism Week in Palm Springs, Calif., is proving the power of architecture to draw large crowds, spur spending, and create civic pride. Held in February this year, the festival drew more than 15,000 attendees, dozens of sold-out events, and more than $4 million in local revenues.

“People from all over the world are flocking to see our mid-century gems,” says Mary Jo Geitner, director of the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism. “People are inspired that our city continues to preserve our history and unique architecture.”  

Running the gamut from an architecture film series to double-decker bus tours of Bauhaus-inspired homes, events in this volunteer-run “Mardi Gras” of Modernism help visitors understand how this town of only 48,000 attracted and supported so many renowned architects.

Jeffrey Jorge Cohen, AIA, formerly of Gensler, recently started his own Washington, DC-based consulting practice and found Modernism Week a reminder of how architecture can still be practiced in an age of omnivorous firms.

"This week was about the legacy of the buildings, the sites, the architectural attitude and approach,” Cohen says. “ But it was also an inspiration on how to be a one-or two-person architectural shop in business for yourself. Before the age of computer assisted designs, these former AIA members were sketching and getting things built with great attention to detail and the environment."

Influenced by the auto culture and growth of the leisure and recreation economies of post-war America, young architects flocked to Palm Springs in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, designing homes and public buildings with elements of the Modern style. The desert offered a climate that supported glass walls, butterfly roofs, boulder gardens, and new ways to meld indoors with the outside.

“Cool, cutting-edge architecture is all around us,” says local architect J.R. Roberts, AIA, and vice president of the Palm Springs Modern Committee. “People may come here for the golf, leisure, and warmth, but in Palm Springs we convert many visitors into lovers of architecture in a day.”

Robert Imber, the owner of Palm Springs Modern Tours and chair of the strategic planning committee for Modernism Week, offers twice-daily tours of the city’s mid-century buildings year-round, and sees how architectural tourism propels economic growth.

“All during Modernism Week, people came up to me to say ‘I took your tour two years ago and we are now homeowners,’” says architect Imber. “Others ask—‘Can you recommend a home we can rent?’”

If prompted, Imber could refer short-term renters to Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms Estate, the first residential commission for local architect E. Stewart Williams, FAIA, awarded to him by then 31-year old Sinatra in 1947. The house, now restored and privately owned, is available for overnight rentals. Ditto for the former Elizabeth Taylor-Mike Todd estate. Both homes, along with those of Dinah Shore, William Holden, and Frederick Loewe, were featured during Modernism Week’s first-ever celebrity home tour.

At a retro martini party, a fundraiser for the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, 350 guest sipped drinks at John Lautner’s, FAIA, Elrod House, commenting on how fun it was to be inside a sculptural concrete home that millions know from its space-ship shape in the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds are Forever.

Across town, at the Palm Springs Art Museum, more than 700 attended the opening night of Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner, the first comprehensive overview of this significant modernist master. The Elrod house also was the final stop in a day-long Lautner symposium, featuring leading architecture and preservation scholars who traced Lautner’s days as a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice at Taliesin West to the launch of his own practice.

Mixing serious architectural analysis with a renewed interest in mid-century culture, program organizers included design in all forms in venues that showcased the town’s architectural renaissance. A vintage fashion show of mid-century couture was held at the Riviera Hotel, which just underwent a $80 million renovation, generating new tax revenues for the city. Tours of mid-century chrome airstreams and vintage travel trailers were held outside the recently opened Ace Hotel, which three years ago was a boarded-up, vacant building.

Yet, while fun to experience, the mid-century timeframe presents serious policy implications. Christine Madrid-French, director of the Modern and Recent Past Program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), noted that neither Lautner’s Elrod House nor any other building in Palm Springs is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Of the 80,000 properties on the National Register, only 2,500 or so are less than 50 years old. If the Register is supposed to be the master list of what is considered significant by historians, we have to facilitate a more accurate representation. There is no other building in the world like the Elrod House--and many others in Palm Springs are nationally significant--yet still not on the Register. The Trust hopes to work with Palm Springs leaders to change that.”


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