Palm Springs CA: Mid-Century Majesty

Frank Sinatra's house in the Movie Colony, Palm Springs California. Max Hartshorne photos.
Frank Sinatra’s house in the Movie Colony Neighborhood, Palm Springs, California.

Mid-Century Modern Majesty in Palm Springs, California

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

A homemade poptart at Wilma Friedas in Palm Desert, near Palm Springs.A homemade poptart at Wilma Friedas in Palm Desert, near Palm Springs. Palm Springs California is a true desert oasis, a refreshing town with walkable streets, a grand and storied history, and, looming up on the north, forbidding brown Mount San Jacinto, which helps make the city’s temperatures a little more bearable.

Driving the desert highway between Palm Springs and Long Beach felt like driving through a forest of wind turbines, and despite the brisk wind, many of them were not spinning. The many thousands of turbine towers seemed to cover the valley, in various sizes.

The San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm was built in the 1980s, when turbines weren’t the colossal size you see today. Many of these older turbines no longer spin, but the amount of power generated keeps increasing every year because the newer models generate more electricity. They eventually remove the old ones, every year.

Between the eerie turbine forest and the spread out, dusty highway with big box stores and crushing sunshine, arriving at the center of the small town of Palm Springs (only 48,000 residents) was a welcome relief.

The first thing we saw was the headquarters for a big annual Palm Springs event—Modernism Week. That’s truly the essence of the city, the hundreds of classic 1950s and ‘60s low, flat houses that were once the playgrounds of movie stars and musicians that today are like a wonderful outdoor museum.

It just doesn’t get any better for lovers of Mid-Century Modern architecture or lifestyle than Palm Springs.

Modernism by Bus

Our timing was impeccable; the festival was going on the whole weekend we were visiting. The next day, we jumped on a double-decker sightseeing bus and were toured around to see the city’s delightful assortment of classic homes as Jade Thomas, of PS Walkwithme tours, narrated.

Wilma and Frieda's in Palm Desert, near Palm Springs.
Wilma and Frieda’s in Palm Desert, near Palm Springs.

Thomas really knows his Mid-Century houses, and the people who made them famous here in Palm Springs. At one of the houses we passed, he mentioned that he grew up there with TV stars as step-siblings.

The tour was fascinating; a combination of Jade’s encyclopedic knowledge of this town where he grew up was interspersed with taped commentary from architecture experts about the details of the houses.

From “Swiss Miss” houses with their telltale upside down V fronts, to the lawns that are just circles of green (it’s the desert, and there’s a drought, remember?), the tour was a compendium of facts and fun and we learned a lot about this storied town.

Not only houses, but also well-known buildings with special architectural features were included. Some of these are the Palm Springs Visitor’s Center, which was once a gas station, and City Hall, near the neighborhood known as the Movie Colony.

And though many of the stars whose houses we gawked at are now long gone, like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Cary Grant, today’s stars, like Barry Manilow, keep the polish on Palm Springs fame.  The annual film festival draws many A-listers, and you’ll still catch stars walking down the main drag here. Palm Springs Architectural Tour is $85 per person, tickets available at the Palm Springs Art Museum

Indian Wells California, famous for tennis.
Indian Wells California, famous for tennis.

The Agua Caliente Tribe

The Agua Caliente Indian tribe, now just fewer than 300 people, own 32,000 acres, some of which is inside Palm Spring’s city limits.

We got a chance to learn about how the tribe lived hundreds of years ago on a Jeep trip that took us out into the desert to right above the San Andreas Fault.

According to Dick Hoffman, who has led Jeep tours out of Indio, California, with Desert Adventures here for 17 years, the most important plant used by the Cahuilla was the creosote plant.

“It was their drug store, for everything that ailed them,” he said, as we basked in the warm sunshine at the natural oasis formed below the fault line.

The fault runs for 800 miles right below us, separating the Pacific and the North America plates, and Dick said that there are 8-10 tremors here every day, happening one mile below the surface.

Lessons in the Desert

For anyone who loves learning about phenomena like earthquakes, Dick’s lessons about the fault line were very interesting and wide-ranging.

We began the tour in one of the company’s 15 1981-era Jeep CJ8s. These older Jeeps are perfect because they offer seven passenger plus driver seating, and Desert Adventures is the only operator allowed to take visitors up into the fault area.

Palm Springs city hall is a highlight of the city's many mid-century classics.
Palm Springs city hall is a highlight of the city’s many mid-century classics.

We started in a parking lot in Indio. We were in the Coachella Valley– on one side was the Chocolate Mountains, and on the other the snow-capped San Jacinto mountains.

Along the side of the main road were a series of irrigation canals, these, Dick said, are the key to how they manage to grow citrus and other crops in this stark and dry climate.

We were not far from Joshua Tree National Park, famous for its other-worldly tree formations and stark desert beauty. Joshua Tree is a popular day trip for Palm Springs visitors, with its eight million year old formations and size—Rhode Island could fit inside the park’s borders!

Tall Rock Formations

The Jeep Tour wound its way to a series of tall natural rock formations, some too narrow to drive or even walk through, and as we got out to stretch our legs, we took pictures with arms stretched from one continent to the other. Done a thousand times but still fun!

Then we stopped at at replica village of the Cahuilla, which showed how they lived in this rugged environment by building shelters and harvesting native plants.

Virgin Hotels Coming

Palm Springs aerial tramway.
Palm Springs aerial tramway.

Palm Springs has some big news for visitors: A new Virgin Hotel with 150 rooms is opening right in the middle of downtown! It’s slated to open, along with another large hotel, in 2018.

Another exciting development is seasonal air service direct to Palm Springs from New York, between January and May 1, with five roundtrip flights per week on Jet Blue.  Soon the airline will add service from Boston!

Jeep CJ 8, the perfect desert exploring vehicle.
Jeep CJ 8, the perfect desert exploring vehicle.

We stayed at an outpost north of Palm Springs, in La Quinta. This boutique Chateau at Lake La Quinta hotel has 24 water view suites and casitas that are pretty and comfy. So is the view of the lake, and downstairs they have a lively dining room and outdoor patio scene that’s very inviting.

The hotel’s field-to-fork restaurant, Melange, offers al fresco lakeside dining with heaters in case the temps drop. The food is very good, from chef Nestor Ruiz, features creative seafood and steak dishes with an emphasis on local and as he describes it,  “a lighter style with intense flavors.”

It was quite inspiring to hear that we were staying at La Quinta the same week as the leader of the free world, Barack Obama. He golfed at the PGA West golf course in La Quinta before jetting back to Washington, departing from Palm Springs Airport in Air Force One.

oasis ferns at the San Andreas fault line.
Exploring oasis ferns at the San Andreas fault line.

This story was written with assistance from Palm Springs Tourism, but the opinions are the author’s own. Find out more about visiting the city at the Visit Greater Palm Springs website.

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.
Max Hartshorne

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