Modernism Week in Palm Springs: An Annual Bucket-List Item for Modernistas

Longtime Midwest Home writer Camille LeFevre details her experiences attending this modern mecca.
One of the six houses designed by Jack Meiselman featured on one of the tours

Opportunities to explore midcentury architecture—houses in particular—abound, from Modern Phoenix Week (go here for a recap of the 2017 event ) to SarasotaMod, to Docomomo US MN’s annual fall Minnesota Modern Tour Day. Yet the event that’s truly a Bucket List item, even for people who return year after year, is Modernism Week in Palm Springs—a mecca of all things mid-century and modern, along with a fair amount of Hollywood Regency and Spanish Colonial, with a liberal dash of celebrity, fashion, sun, and swimming pools.

With weather this year wonky across the country, Palm Springs was unseasonably chilly, with rain and lots of snow on the mountaintops. Still, houses must be toured. Sites must be seen. So wearing every piece of clothing in the suitcase, including a wool cap and gloves, we embarked on the must-do Premiere Double Decker Architectural Bus Tour.

The Kaufmann House, designed by Richard Neutra

A terrific way to familiarize yourself with the outstanding examples of midcentury modernism throughout downtown and in the neighborhoods, this tour took us past several E. Stewart Williams bank buildings and Palm Springs Art Museum, as well as his Twin Palms (Frank Sinatra) Estate; offered  birds-eye views of the Richard Neutra-designed Kaufmann House and Donald Wexler’s Dinah Shore Residence; and showed off the town’s bookends, Rudi Baumfeld’s Bank of America, and Frey and Chambers’ Enco/Tramway Gas Station.

The next morning, the Celebrity Haven Tennis Club Neighborhood walking tour, conducted by the Palm Springs Historical Society, provided a terrific introduction to the many Herbert Burns-designed motels in the area (including Desert Hills, Orbit In, and The Hideway). Gloria Swanson’s former residence, now Amin Casa, was on the tour, as was the historic Tennis Club, designed by Paul R. Williams and A. Quincy Jones smack up against the mountains and featuring a circular pool (reportedly the most-photographic pool in the world).

Sunrise Lanai, a development of apartments (now condos) designed by Charles DuBois

On a bicycle provided by my Burns-designed motel, I pedaled over to the Las Palmas neighborhood to tour Sunrise Lanai, a development of apartments (now condos) positioned around a communal pool and lawn area. Designed by Charles DuBois, who introduced a style known as “Swiss Miss” to Palm Springs, the fantastic project features a variety of units, many with several private walled outdoor “sun dens,” original kitchens and appliances, and two grand A-framed condos. “Lanais were in vogue during the 1950s and 1960s – not just for shade but also as a focus for socializing around the pool,” according to the website. “It was all about sun and fun, so the lanai fit the bill perfectly.”

Sunrise Lanai
Sunrise Lanai

Back on the bike the next day, I traversed the Little Beverly Hills, Sunmor, Sunrise Park and Racquet Club neighborhoods to tour six houses designed by Jack Meiselman. Lovingly restored and maintained, with décor perfect to the period, each home featured a unique mid-century stucco pattern—diamonds, abstracts, lines or rectangles—as well as indoor/outdoor living spaces, a variety of rooflines (including butterfly), clerestory windows, and tongue-and-groove wood ceilings.

A home designed by Jack Meiselman
A home designed by Jack Meiselman

My first Modernism Week also included a tour of the Kenaston house, another Williams-designed residence, where the infamous Brad and Angelina photo shoot for W took place. When not gazing open-mouthed at the juxtaposition of metal, stone, and wood; the artwork; the spaciousness; and the magnificent detailing, I visited with the current owner as we pored over that issue of W, matching images with areas of the house.

Interiors of the Kenaston house, designed by Paul R. Williams
Interiors of the Kenaston house, designed by Paul R. Williams

With the weather making a turn, I also fit in a visit to the West Elm House; consumed a dessert of chocolate decadence at that Rat Pack den of iniquity and fabulous people watching, Melvyn’s; visited the Palm Springs Historical Society; crashed a party at The Hideway; and with a friend from Minnesota drove through some neighborhoods at night to view the sculptural ways in which lighting had been designed to cast cactus shadows against mid-century walls. The next day, the sun shone.

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