Palm Springs: An Immersion Course in Midcentury Modern Architecture


“The first five days after a Palm Springs weekend are always the hardest”

-Lisa Ihnken

My recent trip to Palm Springs was equal parts modernism immersion and desert landscape exploration with a dose of old friends reunion mixed in.  The result?  A 100% nostalgic and enriching experience.  Despite the fact that most sane people would refrain from traveling to the Mojave desert in July, a spontaneous invitation to visit was extended and aside from the extreme seasonal heat, the timing was just right.  From the moment I rushed through the Palm Springs International airport in the 105 degree heat toward my ride, I felt like I might bump right into Don Draper and Roger Sterling any second. While my visit would include an architectural driving tour, hot spot shopping and visits to desert natural wonders, Palm Springs historic architecture and its iconic homes is the best place to start.

Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House built in 1946

I found my gracious host, longtime BFF and former business partner J. Chris Mobley waiting for me outside airport arrivals.  As we drove back to his place to wait for our dear friend and former Venice Beach neighbor Michelle Young (she was driving in from LA), he couldn’t help but show off a few neighborhood sites of interest on the way. Chris was appointed CEO of Modernism Week, Palm Springs biggest annual event last year after 5 years of managing its festivities as volunteer Chairman.  Not only is he that killer combo of super smart and fun to be with, he’s literally a walking encyclopedia on the city’s rich history of architecture and midcentury design.  In fact, Chris and his colleagues recently published a gorgeous book on the great modernist architects. To learn even more, get your own copy of The Desert Modernists:  The Architects Who Envisioned Midcentury Modern Palm Springs.

A typical home at Canyon View Estates

The next morning after coffee and a hearty breakfast at Sherman’s Deli, the three of us embarked upon the architectural tour portion of our visit at Canyon View Estates.  Modernist architect William Krisel, half of the renowned building team of Palmer & Krisel, stated in more recent times that “Palm Springs is known as the capital of the world for midcentury modern architecture, and it is the one city in America that really protects that design, advocates that design, and is proud of that design”.  Palmer & Krisel led the architectural design of the 180 homes that resulted in the Canyon View Estates.  A close inspection of their work here will show that although the all-white structures have a visually uniform appearance at first glance, they actually contain unique features that make each home one-of-a-kind. An illustrative example is the differing types of outdoor cinder block screens often featured outside these houses. While they were designed to provide air circulation and protection from the blazing sun, these breeze-block and shadow-block partitions provide an added visual bonus on property due to the way light and shadows are cast onto the surrounding walls and walkways.

The 1966 honeymoon hideaway of Elvis and Priscilla Presley


Outside the gate of Ol’ Blue Eyes estate

As we drove from neighborhood to neighborhood learning about the unique homes and features of each, Chris made sure to tour several of Palm Springs most iconic celebrity estates.  We stopped at the opulent former home of Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Twin Palms Estate (Frank Sinatra’s former house) with its piano shaped swimming pool,  Elvis Presley’s Honeymoon Hideaway (never mind that it’s the very spot Elvis first popped his then 14 year old bride- um, against the law much?), and last but not least, the expectedly flamboyant Piazza de Liberace. Chris explained that Palm Springs became a logical haven for movie stars in the heyday of the studio system, when stars were required to be under contract to the movie studios.  Contracts stipulated that stars were not allowed to travel more than 2 hours or 120 miles away from Hollywood unless they were filming, which is exactly where Palm Springs is located.

A historic Don Wexler Alexander Steel home in the Racquet Club Estates

A retrospective on midcentury architecture would not be complete without featuring the work of Donald Wexler.  He designed many iconic homes in Palm Springs, including the famed Dinah Shore Estate (now owned by Leonardo DiCaprio). Most notably, Wexler is the creator of Palm Springs’ unique Steel Homes.  Designed of steel to stand up against earthquakes, heat, swelling, termites and fire, the homes were thought to be economical and featured Wexler’s iconic folded plate roof.  Located in Racquet Club Estates, Chris explained that Wexler’s original plans included 35 homes, but he was unable to foresee that steel prices would soon shoot sky high.  Eventually, plans to continue building these homes were dropped.  Seven of the original steel houses still exist there, and all have been granted historic designation.


As our neighborhoods tour came to a wistful end, Chris pointed out the more recent exterior design trend of bright unexpected colors painted on modernist home front doors.  As we drove through Indian Canyons we spotted several cool examples of this eye-catching trend.  The owners of the revered door above  have been so inundated with invasive tourists and unwanted selfie-takers that earlier this year, they installed “No Photography” and “No Trespassing” signs on the front lawns (they’ve been temporarily removed for the off-season).  This property’s picturesque setting inspired an aptly named Instagram account followed by 3,000 of its ardent yet intrusive fans. Yet another stunning pink front door in Indian Canyons graces a midcentury Moroccan-inspired abode transformed by Palm Springs’ hottest renovation team at Thomboy Properties.  Jackie Thomas and DeAnn McCoy’s masterpiece graced the cover of the Jan/Feb 2018 Interiors Magazine. This dynamic duo is thrilling prospective Palm Springs home buyers with their expert ability to integrate local period homes into the land around them, and then their interiors into the architecture of the home.

Screen Shot 2018-08-01 at 10.09.16 PM
Photo Credit:  Interiors Magazine Jan/Feb 2018

As we returned to Chris’ comfortable midcentury modern digs to cool off and sip James Bond style martinis shaken but not stirred, we laughed until we cried as we looked at old photos, reminisced and waxed philosophic about old times together.  We also couldn’t wait for our next adventures of the trip:  a tram ride and hike up Mount Jacinto, a road trip out to Joshua Tree and Pioneer Town, and a stroll through the mod shops of downtown Palm Springs.  Stay tuned for more details on our action packed stay in the Coachella Valley and beyond!

©2018 Lisa Ihnken All Rights Reserved, except where noted

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