Friday, October 25, 2013

ENDLESS Modernist Tour in Palm Springs

The sun-drenched desert of Palm Springs has been the ideal get away from the traffic jams and hustle of L.A. In the 1930s and 40s Hollywood was booming making this little oasis the destination for starlets and leading men. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Liberace, Barbara Streisand and James Brolin, all live or have had homes here. It’s little known that Depression-era Hollywood contracts forbid stars from traveling further than 200 miles from the studios. Just 90 minutes away, this glamorous town has been thriving ever since.

The hillsides of Palm Springs are dotted with wildflowers throughout the warmer months and it’s the only place in the U.S. where palm trees are native. While all this sounds picturesque, Mother Nature reveals her wicked side here as well. In addition to almost unbearable summer temperatures, which often reach 110°F, torrential rains cause water to come shooting down the mountains rushing into Palm Canyons with an unfathomable speed, etching its way into the hillsides as patterns of erosion. Michael, of The Modern Tour in Palm Springs explained, “Because it was an ancient lakebed, and because it’s so flat, if you go up 75 feet, the views are totally panoramic. At the same time, if you look at the mountains, you would think that they would suck water up like a sponge when it rains, but it’s just the opposite.”

In contrast to the rugged landscape of the desert the sprawling city of Palm Springs is dotted with mid-century modernist homes. Built mainly from the early 1930s through the mid-1960s, architecturally these homes were a reaction to the European Bauhaus and International movements. Characteristic of the homes are simple geometric decorative elements and the seamless blending of indoor and outdoor spaces. The homes often have lush gardens or ponds inside and out paired with low, clean interior lines. Our well-versed guide pointed out that the contrast of the low horizontal homes plays off the rugged verticality of the mountains, resulting in a harmonious relationship between the architecture below and the mountains looming above.

Along the way we stopped at a Twin Palms Alexander – constructed by architects William Krisel and his partner Dan Saxon Palmer, who were instrumental in shaping the post-War SoCal landscape. Some historians estimate that over 40,000 homes were built in collaboration with local developers by Palmer & Krisel in the 1950s and 60s. Krisel was instrumental in the development of Palm Springs – through housing tracts his constructions doubled the size of the community in the decade between 1955 and 1965 – with names like the Alexander Tract or the Twin Palms Tract. Two notable features of the Twin Palms Tract are the butterfly roofs and twin palms that still adorn many of the homes. Like other modernist architects, Krisel was detail-oriented, designing everything down to the cabinetry. These homes are highly sought after – once celebrated for their affordability, today if you’re lucky enough to find one on the market, it’ll probably cost you at least a cool million.

We hopped back into the car and sped off caravan-style to the next location – The Horizon Hotel by architect William Cody. L’Horizon, as it was originally known, is one of the only surviving mid-century modern hotels in Palm Springs. Cody created the expansively lush residence in 1952 as a weekend retreat for all around L.A. success story – producer, media mogul, oil tycoon, and hotel owner Jack Wrather and his wife Bonita “Bunny” Granville. You might know her as the actress on the popular Nancy Drew mystery film series and Wrather produced TV shows and films including Lassie and The Lone Ranger, among others. Much to our amusement, for 15 years he also owned the Muzak – the company that produces the maddening “music” usually heard in elevators and waiting rooms. Theirs was a home of relaxation and escape, on weekends they would fly friends out from L.A. to stroll the two-and-a-half acres, soak in the desert sun next to the pool, or yuk it up with other notable celebrities and moguls. The hotel was sold in 2004 and a complete restoration was executed with the addition of a few modern luxuries, such as a Jacuzzi and wireless Internet. The Hotel Horizon, now with 22 guest rooms, reflects the Palm Springs-wide dedication to preserving the details of these striking structures. Features, such as platform style beds, the merging of indoor and outdoor spaces, uncluttered interiors, and unfettered views over the surrounding mountains, bring this glamorous era to the fore.

After trying to picture Mr. Trip and I as moguls who flew friends in for the weekend, we moved on to Donald Wexler’s Steel House No. 2. Wexler started his career under the tutelage of one of the influential modernist architect Richard Neutra, where he adopted a responsive, no-nonsense methodology to technology and environment. This is one of seven Wexler-designed homes constructed completely of steel. The interior has a pinwheel-like structure with living and sleeping rooms radiating off a central living space - it was also one of the few homes we had the opportunity to enter, and immediately décor envy set in. Two white Barcelona chairs and a daybed assert a commanding presence over the design of the lounge and kitchen area, from which full height sliding glass doors open out to the pool and patio. This is just the beginning to this savvy interior, which evinces a sophisticated level of spatial and material exploration, one rarely seen in any other form of architecture from this period. It’s homes like these that continue to define the California experience.

One of the most striking homes we saw, albeit from a distance, was one of Albert Frey’s residences. Frey was a Swiss-born architect who moved to New York after working with Le Corbusier on the celebrated Villa Savoye on the outskirts of Paris. He headed West Palm Springs in 1939 after finishing the Museum of Modern Art. Distinguished as the only architect in America who had worked with Le Corbusier, his personal residence, Frey House II is “like a Swiss timepiece,” Michael told us. “It’s 700 square feet. He took organic shapes and played them off the geometrics.” The entire home is built around a massive boulder, which is both a supportive and decorative element. Functionally the stone divides the bedroom from the rest of the house, but symbolically it shows man’s conquest over nature. When we asked him who lived in the house now Michael noted, “When Frey died he left the house to the Palm Springs art museum, with the provision that someone had to live in it. He didn’t want it to be a museum house, so the CFO of the museum lives there now.”

Little Z’s reaction to all this modernism? “It’s all really pretty.”

Thank you for the ride Mercedez Benz, it was very pleasant. 


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