Palm Springs Midcentury Modernism

Problem: What to do to entertain ten hardened travel journalists who’ve “seen it all,” and simply can’t be “WOW”ed  (just ask them…)?

Solution: Immerse them in Modernism Week, mid-February each year in Palm Springs, when the California desert is at its peak of beauty and seductiveness, and tourists are captured by bold colors; sweeping, fluid design; industrial shapes in huge windows; bright, desert light on flat-roofed houses that seem to melt into the surrounding landscape

A dozen of us arrived by “press bus” in Palm Springs for a little R&R, having just completed a strategic planning retreat held in the local mountains. There was certainly no shortage of 50s and 60s eye candy. But really, there was so much, often the jewels we knew were there seemed hidden from the casual, wandering tourist. We decided, and decidedly recommend, that one of the local architectural guides be booked to assure you see the best and the most authentic. We picked long-time architecture lover Robert Imber, an erudite and thoroughly delightful advocate for Palm Springs modernism.

In a short ninety minutes, Robert introduced us to some of the meticulously maintained properties in the Movie Colony and Old Las Palmas that took us back to the abundant optimism and clean line modernism of La La Lands’ neighboring playground for the likes of Kirk Douglas, Gene Autry, Leana Horn and Jack Warner (Old Las Palms neighborhood) and Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dinah Shore (Old Move Colony neighborhood). They lived east or west of Palm Canyon Highway in what today is North Palm Springs. They brought style. On either side of Palm Canyon is a feast for the eyes and the gentle atmosphere of a desert winter afternoon.

Modernism brought us easy, seamless indoor-outdoor living. We were ready to move in, and move on to cocktails, but Robert had other ideas. Reluctantly, we “bussed up” and headed east of the museum (it is worth a visit) and south towards Indian Canyon, east of the southern tip of the main commercial center. There, inauspiciously nestled away from the main drag, is the Desert Star, a sumptuously restored set of six bungalows, now essentially a modernist “B&B” (without the last B). This one is classic.

The orange warms our spirit as light floods the front rooms through giant walls of glass including the workshop of owner, artist and shoemaker Arleen Katz. Robert directs us across the pool—sparkling blue and very inviting on a hot desert afternoon, to a secluded, quiet bungalow with its own outdoor patio. The real owner (below, left) eyes us, not ready any time soon to give up her special spot.

The modernist theme is reflected in homes, hotels and businesses throughout the city, so much so that Palm Springs is thought of as the Mecca of Modernism. Walking tours are the immersion technique of choice, but we found ourselves so captured by the iconic, organic pull of the shapes, colors, and designs, including slow walking Palm Canyon Dr., the main shopping drag in Palm Springs.

With land to spread new homesites and even neighborhoods, Palm Springs earned its reputation as a home for integrating the starkness of the desert landscape into the utilitarianism of the local design.

Architects leaving a distinct mark on Palm Springs included:

  • Albert Frey
  • Howard Lapham
  • William Krisel

Others in the area included Southern California and even international icons such as:

  • C. Martin
  • Welton Becket
  • Frank Lloyd Wright

No stranger to reinvention, the Palm Springs architectural heritage continues to produce distinctive eyescapes, at night as well as during the day. Along Palm Canyon Boulevard, new shops, galleries, and hotels vie for attention, day and night.

Driven by tourism and development, Palm Springs’ booming economy and ever-changing city-scape teases one’s artistic taste buds. Just the best possible cure for the “seen it all” blahs of this group of veteran travel journalists.

Come to Palm Springs for Modernism Week in 2019!
February 14 – 24, 2019
Learn more at

Two of the best guides are:

Robert Imber (our guide) from Palm Springs Modern Tours and
Kurt Cyr of Palm Springs Mod Squad