Palm Springs' Mid-Century Marvels (PHOTOS)

As I toured some of the iconic desert modern homes, I suddenly got it.
06/28/2012 07:13 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A jewel in the desert. A marriage of small town friendliness and chic urban sensibility. A multitude of stars, both heavenly and human. This is Palm Springs, California.

Nestled at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains, this world-famous resort destination embodies stunning natural beauty, ancient palm groves, mineral hot springs and a purple mountain majesty that surrounds the dramatic Coachella Valley. Want more? Palm Springs can make the claim that it has one of the world's largest caches of mid-century modern masterpieces. Many luminaries made this desert their home: Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Sonny Bono, Bob Hope. Marilyn Monroe was discovered here, Elvis and Priscilla honeymooned here, Cesar Romero allegedly had an affair with Tyrone Power here, and Jack Benny and "Amos and Andy" broadcast their radio shows from here.

Oh, and Liberace died here.

Without question, architecture is the key to a flourishing Palm Springs. Eclectic and adventurous, it draws significant worldwide attention. This curious place where Hollywood stars once hid out in hacienda-style hotels (Garbo, Chaplin) and Republican presidents retired at exclusive golf clubs (Eisenhower, Ford) was also a mecca for modernist architects, including Los Angeles visionaries such as Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, E. Stewart Williams, and Donald Wexler, who designed everything from the Palm Springs City Hall to the airport, shopping centers, hotels, motels, private residences and even gas stations.

As I toured some of the iconic desert modern homes, I suddenly got it. Modernity really works here because there's something quite modern about this very desert landscape. It is clean and barren with harsh sunlight and strong shadows. One can have a home with floor-to-ceiling glass because it's never cold- a great marriage of geography and design.

All Or Nothing At All

We visited Sinatra's Twin Palms estate. He came to Palm Springs when he was 31, fell in love with the place and immediately asked Stewart Williams to build a home for him, saying his only requirement was that he wanted to be in by Christmas. As this was in May, Williams had people working 24 hours around the clock to get it done. The house has a warm, inviting feel to it, with its low-slung, redwood-clad roof and small, cozy rooms. Located far out in the desert, the singer had a pair of palms in his front yard illuminated at night so that his pals, including the infamous Rat Pack, could spot it from a distance.

One evening we took a stroll on Palm Canyon Drive with its Walk of Stars honoring pioneers and entertainment celebs. There are 300 sidewalk stars and the Walk meanders throughout downtown. Turning a corner, lo and behold, we spied Lucille Ball holding court on her bronze bench. Rounding another corner, her white skirt blowing in the breeze, none other than Marilyn, smiling brightly, her statuesque pose inviting all to come closer and take a photo with her.


California's Own Follies Bergere

Just steps away, we passed the historic Plaza Theatre, a charming, neon-encrusted old movie house and the scene of many Jack Benny radio broadcasts in the '40s. Today it is the home of The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies. We attended a Follies'performance, one of the most fun experiences ever. Dancing girls ranging in age from 55 to 85 with (still) gorgeous gams high-kicked to the music of the '50s, '60s and '70s in true Las Vegas style with costumes to match (don't worry, no bare tops are displayed!). This is a true Broadway-caliber production and one of the highlights of any Palm Springs visit.

On This Clear Day We Saw Forever

Another day, we visited the Palm Springs Art Museum, the cultural centerpiece of the community housed in an architecturally significant building. The museum contains a permanent collection of more than 55,000 objects featuring art of the Americas and 20th century California art. Then it was on to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. We climbed aboard the world's largest rotating tramcar to travel more than 2 ᅡᄑ miles up the sheer cliffs of Chino Canyon. The trip took just 10 minutes until we reached an elevation of 8,516 feet and experienced a cool, panoramic view of the valley floor and miles beyond.

Sunnylands -From Scrubland to Shangri-la

A very special pleasure was visiting the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, located in nearby Rancho Mirage, which opened to the public this past February. The Retreat incorporates the historic Annenberg Estate and the new Sunnylands Center & Gardens. Established by the late Ambassador Walter and Leonore Annenberg, its purpose is to host small, high-level retreats for the President of the United States and the Secretary of State to bring world leaders together for the advancement of international peace and to establish global understanding.

Sunnylands, the Annenberg's 200-acre, 25,000 square foot desert home was designed by A. Quincy Jones, one of the pioneers of mid-century modern architecture, and was completed in 1966. Several presidents have been guests here: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Regan; royal houseguests include Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, and Princess Grace. They came to socialize, exchange ideas and influence one another in a totally secluded and relaxed atmosphere. We toured the home's spacious open rooms, its vast stretches of glass walls offering views of the pool, the golf course, the purple San Jacinto Mountains, and the vision of lush green lawns stretching into the desert - a picture of serenity and solitude. Annenberg's priceless collection of artwork enthralled us: Van Goghs, Monets, Renoirs, Cezannes, Gauguins, Picassos, to name but a few. After swooning over the paintings we went outdoors to experience a golf cart ride through a nine-acre garden. I loved this journey amid the lush landscape covered with desert plants that are used to paint a living canvas of color based on the very impressionist paintings we'd just seen.

Ah, Sunnylands. In a word, breathtaking. However, that name can also be applied to this magical, quirky, wonderful place known as Palm Springs. Sunnylands indeed!

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