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The modernist style of Palm Springs’ golden age

Posted: Sep 10 2014


The desert modernist style emerged in the 1920s but was widely adopted in the late 1950s, when the Alexander tract of more than 2,000 homes in Palm Springs – said to be the US’s biggest modernist housing estate – took shape, its properties crowned by V-shaped butterfly roofs by William Krisel. They cost less than $20,000 back then and now sell for up to $1.3m.

Architects including Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Donald Wexler flocked to the town to carve their niche with this new strain of modernist architecture that was inspired by local materials, and the earthy colours and sheer scale of the surrounding desert and San Jacinto mountains.

Hollywood’s A-listers also decamped to this hot, dry valley in droves: Monroe was a frequent visitor, while Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Steve McQueen and many others bought homes there.

Desert modernism is everywhere in Palm Springs; from public buildings such as the airport and art museum, to residential neighbourhoods including Twin Palms, Tennis Club and Old Movie Colony, you can’t miss the clean lines and large expanses of glass and polished concrete that make the most of stark vistas and bright light.

Although desert modernism went out of fashion in the 1980s and 1990s, the nouveau riche came to Palm Springs and started to build in a faux Spanish, German, French or whatever style, it has since enjoyed a resurgence of interest. It’s not just original architecture that is sought after, but contemporary homes designed by the new generation of desert modernists.

In the past five years, mid-century has become very hip again and people are waking up to a great style that had been ignored and forgotten for so long. As they say, everything old is new again.

When Frank Sinatra arrived in Palm Springs in the 1940′s, he brought allure and sex appeal to the formerly sleepy town. Soon after. Palm Springs became the ultimate destination for jet setters and Hollywood royalty, and the partying hasn’t stopped.

Sinatra’s “Twin Palms” estate is now open for luxury vacation rentals and events.

Steve Mcqueen’s four-bedroom, 4,300-square-foot house was designed by Palm Springs architect Hugh M. Kaptur, a contemporary of William Cody, Donald Wexler, Richard Harrison, Howard Lapham, and other desert architectural icons. Kaptur is responsible for many significant modern buildings here, going back to his 1957-58 Impala Lodge (now the Triangle Inn) and his 1964 yellow brick fire station at Via Miraleste and Racquet Club Road and continuing with projects such as the William Holden house, also on Southridge.

An August 1971 Sports Illustrated article described the house this way: “McQueen’s desert hideaway … is some decorator’s dream come surrealistically true. There are kongoni skulls and zebra skin pillows, the mounted head of a Boone and Crockett-class bighorn sheep, a gold-plated Winchester .30-30 ‘presentation model’ hanging on one wall.”

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