The word "modern" often comes up when people talk about Palm Springs. It's a modern mecca for visitors. It's also a living museum of mid-twentieth century architecture, where homes and buildings look as if they could have been designed last week instead of in the last century.
In fact, you can't avoid seeing mid-century architecture in Palm Springs, and many people go there just to revel in it. This short self-guided tour will take you to some of the city's most gorgeous places, which are easy to see from the street or to get inside.
Why Is There so Much Modern Architecture?
If you were a movie star in the middle of the twentieth century and wanted to escape the hustle and bustle for the weekend, Palm Springs was the place to go. It was a practical matter: Palm Springs is as far away from Hollywood as a contract actor could get and still be back at the studio within two hours when they were needed.
The Hollywood A-listers hired the era's most visionary architects to design sleek, modern Palm Springs homes that embraced the desert environment. Their creations were suited to the desert climate, with lots of glass and clean lines, using innovative materials to create spaces for indoor/outdoor living.
Try This Trick to Get Inside a Modernist House
Before you set out, try this trick to get inside a modernist house without paying a penny. All you have to do is find property for sale where they're having an open house.
If you're using Zillow's mobile app, search for Palm Springs, click down arrow next to For Sale and apply these filters: for sale, built 1945 to 1960, by agent, open houses.
You might think of trying an app for your modernism tour, but unfortunately, none are super useful. The Palm Springs Modern App, for example, is difficult to navigate with, and it hasn’t been updated since 2014.
Tramway Gas Station
If you drove into Palm Springs from the north on Palm Canyon Drive, you went right past this unusual structure. In fact, it was designed to be the first building people would see on their way into town. It was originally an Enco gas station, designed by architects Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers.
The wedge-shaped canopy is hard to miss, and the design is classic modernist architecture at its best. Frey also designed the buildings at the Palm Springs Tramway just up the road, and you could take a side trip to ride the tram before continuing your tour.
The visitor center is a good place for a restroom stop, or to ask questions and get advice.
Address: 2901 N Palm Canyon Drive
Wexler Steel Houses
This stylish-looking house with the accordion-pleated roof was designed by Donald Wexler and Ric Harrison. If you thought pre-fabricated homes from companies like Blu Homes and Turkel Design were a new concept, these guys were way ahead of you. Combining prefab and on-site construction, they created homes designed to look like they were custom-built but took only a few days to assemble on-site.
Seven of the so-called Steel Houses were built in this neighborhood. House Number 2 (3125 North Sunny View Drive) is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Wexler Steel Houses are also the only Case Study houses in Palm Springs.
Address: 290 E Simms Road
House of Tomorrow
The Alexander Estate was built for a local real estate developer and called the House of Tomorrow. The design is based on four circles on three levels. The identity of its architect is still a mystery.
Today, it's known as the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway, the place where Elvis and Priscilla Presley honeymooned in 1967, and it's open for tours. Whether you're an Elvis fan or not, this house offers one of the easiest ways to see inside an original mid-century house in Palm Springs.
Address: 1350 Ladera Circle
Mid-Century Business District
Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center is in a 1961 savings-and-loan building crafted by pioneering desert architect E. Stewart Williams. It's in the middle of a mid-century business district that's worth taking a walk around. If you walk about two blocks south from the museum, you'll pass several other mid-century buildings.
Address: 300 S Palm Canyon Drive
Twin Palms Estates is one of the most exciting mid-century neighborhoods in Palm Springs. The housing development started in 1957, designed by William "Bill" Krisel of Palmer and Krisel and built by Alexander Construction Company. Most of the houses had private swimming pools, and they all had exactly two palms for landscaping.
Tract homes were such a big hit in Palm Springs that more than 2,500 of them were eventually built, about 90 in the Twin Palms neighborhood. With a price tag of about $30,000 in 1957 (a little more than $250,000 in twenty-first-century dollars), they were within reach for vacation homeowners.
A local realtor owns this house, and as you can see, it's mid-century right down to the cars parked in the driveway. And you've gotta love that exuberant landscaping.
Just down the around the corner is 1840 Caliente Drive, pictured at the beginning of this guide.
Address: 1070 Apache Road
Modernism Week is the annual mid-century extravaganza in Palm Springs. It happens in February. The week always includes a few tours that get you inside some of Palm Springs' modernist icons.
Among the houses frequently on tour during the week is the Frey House II by Albert Frey, an early-day tiny house that was both the architect's home and studio, Tours in previous years have also included the Edris House and the home of designer Christopher Kennedy. The house tours sell out fast, and you need to be ready to reserve as soon as ticket s go on sale, which is usually in August (for the February show).
If seeing all those mid-century modern creations gets you in the mood to buy something for your home, try the Uptown Design District on North Palm Canyon Drive between Alejo Road and Vista Chino. In that short stretch, you'll find boutiques selling modernist-inspired furniture, crafts, housewares, and art.
Guided Mid-Century Tours
Several tour companies in Palm Springs feature modern architecture. You can reserve a tour with any of these companies:
The Palm Spring Art Museum offers an architectural icon walking tour, but dates are limited. You can also take a docent-led tour at the museum's architecture design center.
Notable Modernist Houses That Aren't Easy to See
If you look at lists of the most important modernist structures in Palm Springs, it's easy to get excited. Unfortunately, in reality, some of them are seemingly impossible to get more than a glimpse of. And a few are completely hidden.
The Kaufmann Desert House above was designed by architect Richard Neutra in 1946. That view is all you'll get from the street, and that dreamy-looking swimming pool is completely hidden from sight. To see more, you're better off to browse the photos of it at Architecture Daily.
The Edris House is up the hill from the Kaufmann and also hard to see because it's elevated above the street.
John Lautner's Palm Springs creations, the Bob Hope House and the Elrod Circular House are both tucked away behind an entry gate that keeps visitors from getting in.
Homes and businesses weren't the only things under construction in Palm Springs during the 1950s and 60s. You'll also find quite a few places to stay that have that great mid-century style. Try one of these to top off your day of touring:
Mid-Century Lodging in Palm Springs
- Orbit In is a retro resort with lots of mid-mod style, designed by Herbert Bruns. You can even see the Frey House from the outdoor shower of their Frey Room.
- L'Horizon Hotel is the former vacation retreat of television Jack Wrather who produced shows like "The Lone Ranger" and "Lassie," designed by architect William F. Cody.
- Del Marcos Hotel was architect Bill Cody's first Palm Springs commission, setting the tone for post-war modern motels.
- Movie Colony Hotel was designed by Albert Frey. The exteriors still show his style, but interiors are more 21st century modern than mid-20th-century.
- The Desert Star looks like a classic 1950s motel, but each one-bedroom unit is individually owned. Some owners put their units up for rent when they're not using them.
Mid-Century Lodging in Desert Hot Springs
- Miracle Manor Retreat is a 1948 motel remodeled by architect Michael Rotondi that is now a bed and breakfast with a pool fed by a natural hot spring.
- The Lautner is a collection of properties designed by architect John Lautner. You can stay in rental units at The Lautner, stay in the Ranch House, or host an event in The Park.
You can also find some amazing mid-century vacation home and apartment rentals in Palm Springs. Recent changes in the city's regulations cut down on the number of properties available through Airbnb, but it's still worth a look. You can also check VRBO and VacationRentals.com.
You can even rent Frank Sinatra’s first Palm Springs residence (if you can afford it).