“Desert Modernism” architecture

The popularity of Palm Springs as a vacation getaway during its “golden age” in the 1940’s and 1950’s prompted many celebrities to set up house here, at least seasonally.  While looking to both escape the glare of Hollywood and impress their new neighbors, these luminaries relied on the talents of a number of genius architects to envision their dreams.  Thanks to their efforts, Palm Springs, and its nearby sister cities, have now become havens for the fabulous public and private “Desert Modernism” architecture that thrived in these decades.

Growing largely as an adaptation of the Bauhaus and International Style movement, “Desert Modernism” blended sleek lines and modern building materials with the natural hues, foliage and rock formations already present in the unique surrounding environment.  John Lautner, Albert Frey, Richard Neutra and William Cody are just some of the more prominent architects who have helped fashion the many notable buildings found throughout the city.  We love the organic, yet spacey, vibe of their contributions, especially when represented in such mundane practicalities like banks and/ or post offices.

With the onset of “hipster culture” in the past decade, a revamp of the city has swept through Palm Springs.  Many of the older hotels and bars that had seen better days have been dutifully revitalized and restored, and now act as the perfect starting point for any exploration of the region’s Mid-century treasures.  First up on the list are the “Alexander Homes,” a series of modern abodes nestled into the rocky hills of the Las Palmas neighborhood.  Famous for attracting the lot of Hollywood’s glitterati, the building project sold houses to Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, among many others.  These are the homes, mostly designed by Dan Palmer and William Krisel, that you have seen in all those design books.  Now, you can see them in person!

“Bananaz,” a random family-style “Tropical Grille” located in Rancho Mirage, is another location worth checking out.  Designed by renowned Palm Springs architect Kendrick Bangs Kellogg, the unusual structure resembles something out of The Flintstones, and could easily be described as a giant crustacean in building form.  Erected in 1981 for the Chart House chain, the establishment has changed hands several times since, but what hasn’t changed is the brilliance of the design, unique in that it is set into the side of a mountain and appears as though the bulk of it resides underground.  Having studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, Kellogg is well-known for his fluid, organic lines, and any visitor to “Bananaz” will note FLW similarities in Kellogg’s whimsical poured concrete effort.

While you can always cruise around town and find most of the hot-spots on your own, PS Modern Tours now offers three-hour long treks that tour the top architectural sites you simply cannot miss!  (At $75 USD per person, the tours are perhaps priced only for avid followers of “Desert Modernism.”)  In addition, Palm Springs is also now home to “Modernism week,” an 11-day festival that celebrates the town’s architectural history through a series of films, lectures, and other special events.  (Exclusive parties in some of the chicest Mid-century homes just may be the event’s top billing!)  The annual event is next held in October of 2013.

Of course, if you are looking for a more relaxed approach to soaking in the vintage vibe, simply check yourself into one of the classic “Googie” or Tiki-inspired hotels and spend the day snapping photos of some of the unique structures that abound from all angles.  (See "digs" for more information.)

Las Palmas/ Vista Las Palmas neighborhood - west of North Palm Canyon Drive from Alejo to Vista Chino, Palm Springs, CA  92262

Bananaz Tropical Grill (currently closed) - 69934 California 111, Rancho Mirage, CA  92270

PS Modern Tours - Palm Springs, CA  92262, (760) 318-6118

Modernism Week (October 11-14, 2013) - Palm Springs, CA  92262, http://www.modernismweek.com

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway/ Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area

While the windmill farm located just outside of town may get a lot of attention thanks to its proximity to the Interstate 10 Freeway, Palm Springs is also home to an exhilarating aerial tramway that segues visitors from the sandy dunes of the sea level desert all the way to the top of Alpine-esque Mount San Jacinto!  While in town to celebrate Doug’s birthday back in September of 2007, we decided to brave the 2 ½ mile trek on the “world’s largest rotating tramcar!”

From the base station just beyond the parking lot, the tramcar takes passengers on a somewhat heart-thumping ride through five different ecological zones.  While it was a very long, steep incline up the mountain, made slightly unnerving whenever the tramcar would pass under one of the supporting pylons, witnessing the vegetation change from desolate sagebrush to burgeoning pine forest was certainly inspiring.  And get this, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway cars can hold up to 80 people as they slowly rotate up and down the side of Mount San Jacinto!  (Have no fears, this thing is Swiss made, and they know what they’re doing when it comes to aerial tramways!)

Visitors who disembark at the top have a few choices.  Many opt to take in lunch, dinner or cocktails in the rather large chalet that offers stunning views of the surrounding Coachella Valley.  Set of Drifters tip:  If you are even the slightest bit prone to agoraphobia, this is a place you may want to be wary of!

We decided to check out the Mount San Jacinto State Park instead.  The wilderness area here spreads out over an expanse of 14,000 acres, with multiple trails available for trekkers of all experience levels.  Heck, Set of Drifter Brady even completed a trail in his flip-flops, though this is certainly not recommended!  That reminds us... make sure to watch out for local wildlife!  The State Park is home to mountain lions, falcons, and other such predators!

While traipsing along the Deer Springs Trail, we were reminded of Björk’s tune that features the lyrics "nature is ancient.”  Sadly, we did not spot any elves popping out from any tree stumps. We suppose that would be asking too much!  Nevertheless, an afternoon inside the Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area is nothing short of magnificent.  The natural beauty on display here is almost impossible to believe, especially since the forest is seemingly such a secret, hidden way at top by Palm Springs’ looming mountain skyline!  Set of Drifters tip:  What's behind all those trees on the other side of Mount San Jacinto?  Why, that would be the lovely town of Idyllwild!  Serious hikers can make the trek along the "Pacific Coast Trail," though desert dwellers would be best to drive the 45 minutes from Palm Springs in a car!  For more on Idyllwild, be sure to visit our section on "California getaways."

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is located just off the main highway in Palm Springs.  Signage will easily get you where you need to be.  (We recommend that you listen to Soundpool's "My Ethereal Daydream" while making the short drive up to the parking lot.)  Tramcars depart at least every half hour Monday through Friday from 10:00 AM until about 9:30 PM.  On the weekends, the tramway extends their hours from 8:00 AM until about 9:30 AM.  The cost is USD $23.25 for adults, USD $16.25 for children aged 3-12, and $21.25 for seniors.  (Guess they really need that extra .25!)  Tickets may be purchased on-line with additional packages that include meal options at the Pines Cafe.

The Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area offers “primitive” campgrounds in addition to its 54 miles of day-trip hiking trails.  In the winter months, snowshoe and and cross-country ski rentals are available from the park’s “Adventure Center,” weather permitting.  Set of Drifters tip:  Be prepared and bring a few different clothing options.  In chillier months, the snow all around you may give it away, but keep in mind that just because you are in Palm Springs does not mean that it is always 100 degrees outside!  Once you step off of the tramway, you are at an elevation of 8,516!  Unless it is the dead of summer, that means jacket weather!

Palm Springs Aerial  Tramway - 1 Tramway    Road, Palm Springs, CA 92262, (760) 325-1391, http://www.pstramway.com/

Mount San Jacinto State Park - 25905 California 243, Idyllwild-Pine Cove, CA  92262, (951) 659-2607, http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=636

planning your wedding at the Enchanted Garden Wedding Chapel in historical “La Plaza”

Vintage Palm Springs venues can be really fun to discover, whether part of a tour or by chance on your own.  You may have already surmised that your “Set of Drifters” love the Mid-century modern style that is so prevalent throughout much of the Mojave desert, but we can also appreciate more classic styles of architecture as well.  One such place that charmed us was historical “La Plaza,” a shopper’s “mini-village” located right in the heart of old Palm Springs.

“What is ‘La Plaza?’  La Plaza is a ‘one-stop center.’  It is a picturesque combination of every want.  You can rent a penthouse or an electrically heated bungalow with a wood-burning fireplace and maid service.  You can go to the movies, take a dress to the cleaners, or buy a lamb chop.  You can buy a leather-fringed riding outfit or a swish evening gown; an imported Shetland sweater or a Cadillac.”  So said developer Robert Ransom in his write up of La Plaza, following its 1936 construction helmed by architect Harry Williams.

Conceptually, La Plaza was one of the first outdoor shopping malls, featuring a series of stores situated around landscaped courtyards and a gleaming Spanish-style hotel.  The inherent beauty of the location once attracted high-end men’s and women’s wear retailers such as Desmond’s that catered to Palm Springs’ rich, and sometimes famous, residents.  These shops are now mostly a thing of the past.

Today, while there are still several boutiques and restaurants operating within the confines of La Plaza, the unique setting is virtually begging for more recognizable name brand tenants to help restore it to its former glory.  It seems that the populous has abandoned La Plaza in favor of a more modern (read: “clean”) shopping mall across North Palm Canyon Drive!

One thing we found fascinating while visiting La Plaza was viewing the now abandoned hotel that once featured several different cabana-style lodgings.  Spread out over two floors, the former hotel space now seems relegated solely to a random smattering of offices that unceremoniously suck out any remaining energy and charm that once existed here.  The “ruins of La Plaza,” as it were, truly suggest a great opportunity for renovation!  Boutique hotel investors, are you listening?

Back on the ground floor, a beautiful landscaped garden doubles as a somewhat hokey wedding chapel, complete with multiple gazebos adorned in silk flowers.  To be perfectly honest, the Enchanted Garden Wedding Chapel is, well, enchanting and offers guests unforgettable experiences starting at $195.  Check out their website for more information.

We enjoyed soaking in the local “La Plaza pulse” while dining at Bill’s Pizza and recommend a stroll through the area to glean further insight into Palm Springs’ tremendous history.  There’s even a shoe repair on the premises!  For a current roster of shops and dining opportunities, check out La Plaza’s website.

La Plaza - 115 South Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA  92262, (760) 325-1347, http://www.laplazaps.com/

Enchanted Garden Wedding Chapel - La Plaza, North Garden, 150 South Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA  92262, (760) 320-2233, http://enchantedgardenweddingchapel.com/

Bill’s Pizza - 119 South Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA  92262, (760) 325-5571, http://www.billspizzapalmsprings.com/

We also recommend in the area:

The Integratron - 2477 Belfield Boulevard, Landers, CA  92285, (760) 364-3126, http://www.integratron.com/

Giant Rock - about three miles northeast of the Integratron (ask the owners for a map), Landers, CA  92285

Humber Park (trailhead for Devil’s Slide and Ernie Maxwell trails) - located at the end of Fern Valley Drive (accessible via North Circle Drive/ South Circle Drive), Idyllwild-Pine Cove, CA  92549, (909) 382-2921, http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sbnf/recarea/?recid=26483