Selling the Palm Springs Cultural Legacy: Revival, Restoration, and Renovation

Palm Springs Villager.

It's an improbable town. Palm Springs always seemed like more of an idea than a town in some ways -- a fairy-tale of lush green lawns and thorny succulents, date-burdened palm trees, sun-bleached poolside cocktail parties, wide-brimmed hats, country clubs and hotel bars, celebrities in swimsuits, enough magazine spreads to flood the deep end -- and of course, some of the most photographed architecture in the world.

Palm Springs is a refuge, but it's no wilderness; it feels distant from city life in Los Angeles, though it's just two hours away. The allure of a nearby paradise has endured for more than half a century -- although it has seen its ups and downs along with other real-estate and tourism-based economies over the years. Yet with every new generation, it seems to make a comeback. A delightful and slightly creepy Mad Men-esque 1950s tourism video from the Palm Springs Rotary Club boasts they were the "convention capitol of the world," in addition to the "playground of the stars." It's almost 20 minutes long, and it starts with an inventory of its hotels and the highlights of its domestic architecture -- which includes a trailer park owned by Bing Crosby. The short film follows the weekend adventure of a middle class couple as they tour the sights from canyon hikes to working ranches, famous swimming pools to rustic ranges, star-studded tennis, swim, and golf clubs and high-fashion shopping. At one point, they attend a Louis Armstrong concert.

Vintage Trailer Show, Palm Springs.

Updated versions of this video have been produced (with different clothes and hairstyles of course) every decade or so since then; but no matter how many times the Palm Springs story gets a makeover, the attempt to reclaim those post-War glory days of high desert Xanadu shines through. This persistent myth of Palm Springs as an untouched artifact of a bygone era is almost a fetish. Palm Springs is the only place where looking dated is a good thing. Well, for the buildings, at least. The city seems to pretend that the 1960's progressive cultural revolutions never happened, reimagining that bright past we enjoyed before JFK, RFK, and MLK were gunned down. When Palm Springs' upper middle class felt their innocence lost, they went to look for it on the golf course. Consider this1963 story from television magazine Hollywood Backstage -- a piece featuring a candid interview with Sammy Davis, Jr. on the occasion of the first ever celebrity golf tournament, which Frank Sinatra founded as a charity benefit, in a bid improve his mean-guy image. Point of interest: they had the glamorous and insanely star-studded after-party at the legendarily decadent Riviera Resort -- which has recently been renovated in a kind of David Lynchian cruise-ship love-nest style in a bid to get the younger party crowd back on board.

Palm Springs Villager.

Palm Springs Villager.

These days Las Vegas may have claimed that convention-capitol title (and the young party-crowd title too), but as they say, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum -- or in this case, the Palm Springs Convention Center I've dubbed Flintstonehenge. Allow me to digress here in appreciation of the the majestic sweep of its thick-bottomed, roughly hewed desert-stone pylons and warm-toned, manicured dryscaping. The building nestles itself down into the baked earth on, or rather into which it is set, with a large shaded outdoor patio plaza before its long, shaded glass facade. Despite its mass and the rather unavoidable blandness of conventional convention center architecture, there is something about its low profile against the stony horizon that speaks to the character of the local aesthetic in a way that blends modernist grandeur with an affection for the primitive power of local materials. And in a way, the architecture of the centerpiece of the Palm Springs claim to the title of "convention capitol" -- a title they mean to reclaim -- is the best place to start taking stock of the city's current chances at winning it back.

Cody House.

Debrabant Residence.

R.M. Schindler first dropped an officially Modernist dwelling in Coachella in 1922, but the influx of glamorous movie stars on golf carts and deck chairs didn't really get going the middle to late 1940's, when Frank Sinatra's famous house with a piano-shaped pool went up in 1947 at the hands of E. Stewart Williams, who later built the Palm Springs Museum in 1976. And it wasn't until all the way in 1999 when the preservation-minded Modernism Committee formed to protect these landmarks in earnest; 2001 when the now world-famous Modernism Show started; and just this year when the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation unveiled its answer in the form of Spanish Weekend, which celebrated the pre- or proto-Modernist architectural legacy. Through it all, the story of Palm Springs has been told primarily through the prism of its unique architectural history. Well, that and the whole movie star, golf course thing.

Burnham Estate.

Burnham Estate.

Burnham Estate.

In just in the last few years -- even the last few months -- Palm Springs has once again emerged as a cultural hub and legit destination for serious devotees of the high-end art and design scenes. It has also become a stop on the national film and fashion festival circuits. Besides the cult-level popularity of Modernism Week, you may now count the Palm Springs Photography Festival, the recent inauguration and astonishing success of the Palm Springs Fine Art Fair, El Paseo Fashion Week, the International Film Festival, the Preservation Foundation's Spanish Weekend (which like the Art Fair also debuted this year) and a whole slew of high-profile food, music, travel, spa and automotive events.

The city operates a fairly generous system of incentives for hoteliers, corporations, developers keen on the use of recycled of materials and sustainable construction, and conventioneers of almost any kind -- all of which certainly plays a part in the current upsurge in the cycle of civic activity. Businesses are encouraged to permanently relocate there, especially science, marketing, and technology businesses, who are offered fat across the board tax credits. Film productions get their incentives, like they do in other California cities, and the use of many of the architectural landmarks as locations has increased as a result -- especially easy since so many have been converted into event venues and protected landmarks in the past few years. Of course, the area's buildings and surrounding natural vistas already have lengthy film and television resumes to add to, dating all the way back to the city's earliest days.

Del Marcos Hotel, 1947.

None of this current uptick in glamor, culture, or revenue is to imply that all is perfect in "America's desert paradise." As a city of extremes of wealth and poverty, issues of political corruption, immigration, race relations, environmentalism and other topical mainstream political interests are on the Palm Springs docket, too. White upper middle class America fell in love with, appropriated, and promptly started overrunning the local history and resources -- this is not an unfamiliar tale in the American West, and it has its backlashes to contend with. Also a city obsessed with documenting itself from the very beginning, there is ample opportunity to revisit the evolution of the lore. Just one example: among the extensive holdings of regional desert literature in the collection of the Spanish Revival-style Hacienda Hot Springs Inn in Desert Hot Springs, is a full collection of the magazine of local boosterism, nee Palm Springs Villager. A quick perusal of the self-consciously hip graphics of its evolving cover art over its many, many decades in print tells the story of dude ranches, sunbathing stars, the very apex of leisure-time punctuated with condescending, often borderline racist depictions of the area's Native American and Latino populations. But then again, this casually problematic past must be regarded in light of the present day's laudable attempts to recognize and preserve the very history thus denigrated.

As any architectural enthusiast can tell you, the occasional thoughtless destruction of an historic landmark -- whether by bulldozer, natural disaster, neglect, or extreme makeover -- is all too common an occurrence. Cary Grant's gorgeous cottage-style house in the Movie Colony neighborhood was partially destroyed when a tree was uprooted in a wind storm not too long ago. A private owner tore down a pristine 1962 Neutra House in 2002 despite the vociferous protests of preservationists from the city and around the world. And at the time of this writing, a huge controversy is unfolding regarding the city's summer plan to demolish the Donald Wexler-designed administration building on the High School campus, and the Preservation Foundation's battle to prevent the tear-down. The High School was among the first amenities lauded in the Rotary Club video posted above -- a source of pride for the citizens from the day it opened. A new generation of citizens is divided among those who would preserve this legacy, and those who would see it sacrificed on the altar of progress -- it's a new, no doubt architecturally progressive, performing arts center for the school and community. It's a project whose supporters no doubt feel will increase the profile and professionalism of the performing arts presence in the community, which is a good thing, right?

Palm Springs Resort.

Not far away, there was a skirmish regarding the dispensation of one branch of the public library, the Welwood Murray Memorial Library, which was endowed by its founder with provisions permanently linking it to its original location. Sometime after the posh new state of the art Public Library opened on Sunrise Way, the smaller library was quietly decommissioned, its collections dispersed, all rather sneakily at that. Its historic downtown building on Palm Canyon Drive is now a private library run by volunteers -- but without the benefit of most of its original holdings. The real scandal is that there doesn't seem to be much of a scandal about its near-death experience at the hands of developers and civic leaders operating under the guise of renovation. The ray of hope is that it was saved at all.

Betty & Veronica Digest.

So the question remains: how does the city reconcile its past with its present and move forward with its new round of expansions? Based on the popularity of the other preservation groups, the booming popularity of contemporary art galleries, organizations like the Architecture and Design Council of the Palm Springs Art Museum, and the contributors to the imminent physical expansion of the museum itself, support for cultural ambitions is high and healthy among both the permanent and seasonal residents of the area. But until the leaders from the business, culture, and political realms really get on the same page, this kind of conflict will continue to mean trouble in paradise. In the meantime, anyone within driving distance of this fascinating sunny and shadowy place should take advantage of all the culture-hub activity and see for themselves, before any more buildings come down, and on the off-chance that the current reign of the convention kingpin slows down and you have to wait 15 years for it to wind back up again.

Palm Springs Villager.

In a way, the language of the local architecture discourse itself provides the best framework for understanding the ongoing struggle for the soul of Palm Springs. The question of renovation, revival, or restoration speaks to every facet of the place's sense of itself. The differences between those terms have their roots in a very real architectural conundrum that pits enthusiasts against real estate agents and both against preservationists -- as well as sparking allegiances between them. The implications of these three central points of view go beyond the world of property treatment to indicate something of the city's relationship to its own broader history. Restoration: Strict adherence to expensive and inconvenient authenticity and the limits of available natural resources, with a scholarly respect for history. Renovation: Keeping an exterior shell in tact while gutting the inside and filling it with over-designed condominium chic, and being satisfied with pretense and gesture. Revival: Building from scratch with a precious attention to detail and an embrace of the spirit of the thing despite the use of new technologies and materials, often out of genuine love for the original pioneers. When it comes to Palm Springs, we will never stop asking the question: How does a city make its nostalgia ready for prime time?

Palm Springs Villager.

Aerial Tramway.

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Top Image: Palm Springs Villager.

About the Author

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles.
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