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Architectural Vigilance Pays Off for Palm Springs Preservationists

by Mike Singer

AIA Gold Medalist Richard Neutra's Kaufmann Desert House was extensively altered before its five-year restoration to original form by Marmol Radziner in the 1990s. Photo by Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo.

Albert Frey’s, FAIA, Mountaintop Home can be toured by architects and architecture students through advance arrangement with the Palm Springs Art Museum. Photo by Mike Singer.

Albert Frey's, FAIA, Tramway Gas Station was saved from demolition in 1997 when turned into the Palm Springs Visitors Center. Photo by Greg Day.

The Town and Country Center, designed by A. Quincy Jones, AIA, and Paul Williams, FAIA, failed to achieve Class 1 historic status, paving the way for possible demolition. Image courtesy of Friends of the Town and Country Center.


Saving Palm Spring’s mid-century buildings means educating City Council members, developers, property owners, and architects in the face of constant redevelopment pressures in this resort town of 48,000 residents just a two-hour drive from Los Angeles.

Despite growing citizen support for preservation, not a single Palm Springs structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and just shy of 60 structures have local Class 1 historic preservation status, granted by the City Council to prevent demolition and major alterations.

“Architecture is driving the city’s renaissance,” says Ken Lyon, senior planner for the City of Palm Springs. “Yet a majority of significant properties are still unprotected.”

Palm Springs Preservation Foundation board member Gary Johns showed just what is at stake during the city’s recent Modernism Week celebration with his lecture on “Lost, Saved, and Endangered Buildings in Palm Springs.”

Consider AIA Gold Medal Winner Richard Neutra’s 6,000-square-foot Maslon House. Built in 1962 in nearby Rancho Mirage, this modern masterpiece was demolished eight years ago. An over-the-counter demolition permit was issued less than 30 days after new owners bought the property from the heirs of the original owners in 2002.

Johns shared similar examples of irreparable architectural loss, including the demolition of Donald Wexler’s, FAIA, 1966 Standard Oil Gas station and the loss of Albert Frey’s, FAIA, 1957 Orchid Tree Inn, destroyed by a suspicious fire after many years of sitting vacant. William Cody’s, FAIA, Huddle Springs Resort was filled with Eames furniture when built in 1957. Now demolished, the Palm Springs site still stands vacant 32 years later.

A turning point for preservationists came in 1997, when a developer proposed a $40 million entertainment center that would have required demolishing a gas station designed by Frey, the first disciple of Le Corbusier to build in the United States. Thanks to preservation advocacy efforts, the Palm Springs City Council voted to save the station and restore it as the Palm Springs Visitors Center. Today, with its parabolic roof, the center offers significant display space devoted to the town’s mid-century architecture.

“We are going for Class 1 status for as many Palm Springs buildings as we can,” says Johns. While the city is a major sponsor of Modernism Week, he admits preservationists clearly have their work cut out for them.

During Modernism Week, preservations handed out fliers to ask residents to lobby their local officials to vote against a proposed new parking plan that would block roadside views of the Frey-designed City Hall, a Class 1 structure that Johns says deserves site protection as well as building protection. The local Desert Sun newspaper ran an editorial in support of the preservationist position, yet the outcome is still to be decided.

Last year, the City Council voted 5-0 against awarding Class 1 historic designation status to The Town and Country Center, a 60,000-square-foot mixed-use center that now sits vacant in the middle of downtown. Built in 1948, it was designed by A. Quincy Jones, Jr., AIA, and Paul R. Williams, the first African-American member of AIA. The developer proposal calls for razing the center as part of a mixed-use redevelopment of the adjacent Desert Fashion Plaza, but the city has yet to issue any demolition permits.

Local preservations argue that keeping structures like the Town and Country Center is essential to understanding the city's heritage and increasing economic development through architectural tourism. The city’s community design policies encourage developers to adaptively reuse sites with significant historic structures, when “financially feasible.” “Financial feasibility is key,” notes W. Thomas Lavash, a national real estate consultant based in Washington, DC. “The trick to sensitive and successful adaptive-use projects is to balance the enormous costs of land and development in places like Palm Springs with preservation, market demand, investment returns, and allowable densities. That delicate balancing act simply doesn’t pencil out in all cases.”

A significant adaptive reuse test will come with the former Santa Fe Savings and Loan, a stunning commercial example of mid-century modernism and a now vacant structure in downtown. Designed by E. Stewart Williams, FAIA, in 1960, it became a Class 1 protected structure just last year. The Palm Springs Art Museum hopes to raise enough funds to buy and refurbish the building as a permanent home for its architecture and design collection, which includes the archives of architects Frey and Williams. Leo Marmol, FAIA, whose firm Marmol Radizner achieved international recognition for its five-year restoration of Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, has been enlisted to help with plans to preserve the building as a museum.

“Why do preservations in Palm Springs have to continue to fight for each and every building?” asks Christine Madrid French, director of the Modern and Recent Past Program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She is working with local preservationists to use revenue data to show city officials the dollars and cents impact of saving threatened mid-century buildings, and hopes to take these lessons to other American cities.

Adds city planner Lyons: “In a time of an economic slump, now is the perfect time to work with building owners to gauge their interest in restoring their buildings and to educate them as to how architecture is the reason why people come here. We need to preserve as much as we can.”


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