Palm Springs: Modern Marvel in the Desert

Explore modernist architecture and mid-century glamour in Southern California’s desert oasis.

Though it’s found almost everywhere, the architecture of the 1940s to 1960s, today called “mid-century,” originated largely in Southern California. Its bold angles and openness reflected this region’s promise of optimism and stylish ease. For homes, the open floor plans, glassy transparency and easy access to the outdoors perfectly suited California’s culture and climate. And the best place to savor the style today is in Palm Springs.

A Modern Mecca in the Desert

It’s no mystery why this desert resort 100 miles east of Los Angeles has such a concentration of modern houses—not to mention churches, gas stations, hotels, strip malls, government buildings and even the airport, all in the same mode. With postwar affluence, Palm Springs expanded rapidly. Many people found themselves able to build second homes. The Modernist style embodied informality, technological efficiency and a confident future. It was the built expression of its times, and a natural choice.

If you lived in Minnesota, wouldn’t you like to winter in this warm oasis? If you lived nearby in booming L.A., wouldn’t you enjoy a weekend place here? Dozens of stars did. People act more freely in general on vacation, and they tend to take design risks with their holiday houses. As Palm Springs expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, virtually everything built was exuberantly modernist—and you can experience these noted designs on your Palm Springs vacation.

Back to the Future in Palm Springs

Back then, building modern may simply have been what you did when you went to Palm Springs. Nowadays, modernism itself is the reason many people come here—and not just as tourists. The architecture—especially the uniqueness of the residential designs—has attracted a resident population of fierce modernism fanciers.

By now, most of the houses have had careful restorations. Dealers in period furnishings—often found elsewhere and brought here to sell—have found a lucrative market for their merchandise. Citizen activists work hard to prevent any more modernist buildings from being defaced or demolished. There’s even an annual festival celebrating the style, Modernism Week.

Modern Architecture Tours and Events

The Palm Springs Modern Committee came together in 1999 just to protect an iconic fire station that was threatened with demolition. Since then, it has become a major voice for the city’s modern legacy, not only defending buildings but producing educational materials and events.

If you’re driving from L.A., stop at the city’s Visitor Center on your way into town. It’s in a former gas station with a soaring roof, like the delta wing aircraft. There you can find books on the town’s architecture and purchase the committee’s self-driving tour guide, A Map of Palm Springs Modern. (It’s also available online at for $8 postpaid. The site offers lots of other background information as well.) Palm Springs Visitor Center, 2901 N. Palm Canyon Drive. Tel. 800-347-7746.

Specialty Tours

Even better than a tour on your own is one guided by Robert Imber. Originally from the Midwest, Imber spent his vacations in Palm Springs since childhood, and after moving here became a passionate preservation activist. Imber knows the architectural history of nearly every building in town, and gives fascinating three-hour tours either by minivan or Segway.

Palm Springs Modern Tours. Tel. 760-318-6118. Cost: $75 for mini-van tours, paid at the end of tour by cash or check; $125 per person for Segway tours, paid in advance by credit card or check. Downtown meeting location specified at time of booking. Tours are subject to availability, but generally run twice per day, at 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Advance reservations are strongly recommended as tours are small and sell out quickly. E-mail for more information:

You can see the (mostly former) homes of famous Hollywood folks on a 2.5-hour bus tour, given daily by Celebrity Tours. 4741 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tel. 760-770-2700. Cost: $39 adults, $35 seniors. [Read more about Palm Springs’ Hollywood Connection.]

Among the stars who flocked to Palm Springs were Elvis Presley and his wife Priscilla. They spent their honeymoon in a house he leased here, which Look magazine had dubbed “The House of Tomorrow.” 1350 Ladera Circle. Tel. 760-322-1192. Tickets: $25 per person on weekdays, $35 per person on weekends. Hours: Mon. to Fri. 1 p.m., weekends by appointment.

A Modernism Total Immersion

Every year Palm Springs hosts Modernism Week, a collaboration between the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, Palm Springs Historical Society, Palm Springs Modern Committee, the Palm Springs Art Museum and the Modernism Show. (The next one is February 12 to 20, 2010) There are exhibitions of vintage furniture, art, fashions and cars; architecture tours by bus; tours of individual homes; films, lectures and many related events. Ticket information available soon on the Modernism Week Web site. Tel. 760-322-2502.

Bringing Home a Mid-Century Memento

Palm Springs is a natural location for dealers specializing in mid-century furniture, art, lighting, tableware and accessories. The following shops, which feature vintage pieces—often including architect-designed, one-of-a-kind items—are representative, though there are many other shops don’t maintain Web sites.

Modern Way. 745 N. Palm Canyon Drive. Tel. 760-320-5455.

Hedge. 68-929 Perez Road, Suite F. Cathedral City. Tel. 760-770-0090.

a La Mod. 768 N. Palm Canyon Drive. Tel. 760-327-0707.

Studio One 11. 2675 N. Palm Canyon Drive. Tel. 760-323-5104.

There are also several shops specializing in contemporary modern (as distinct from vintage) furniture. And because Palm Springs has been an affluent and style-conscious place for so long, you’ll also find some terrific second-hand shops for vintage clothes.

Destinations: Palm Springs

Themes: Architecture

Activities: Sightseeing

User Comments

Great post, lots of good accurate information on Palm Springs!