Have you ever found yourself driving slowly among the streets of Krisana Park or Arapahoe Acres admiring the butterfly rooflines and clerestory windows? Do you get goose bumps when you inquire about a friend’s pristine Eames lounge chair (and ottoman, of course) and learn that her parents paid $100 for the set at a moving sale in 1962?
If you can identify a clerestory window and/or know the value of that Eames chair today, then Modernism Week (which lasts 11 days—just to be cheeky) in Palm Springs, Calif., should be a part of your upcoming travel plans.
The event, celebrating its 14th year Feb. 14–24, grew out of the massive Palm Springs Modernism Show & Sale, a four-day gathering of 85 furniture and decorative arts dealers at the Palm Springs Convention Center (this year, Feb. 15–19). As local preservationist groups began offering tours and lectures in conjunction with the annual show, it flourished, and today the “week” includes more than 350 events—walking, biking and double-decker bus tours; a classic car show; garden tours; nightly parties; and compelling and informative talks and exhibitions—attended by more than 100,000 people from all over the world.
The setting is ideal. This area of the Coachella Valley features a truly remarkable concentration of mid-century modern architecture, born out of desert-dwellers’ desire for informal elegance and the simplicity and innovation dictated by post-war style and new technology. The era and location drew some of the most notable names in architecture—Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Donald Wexler, Albert Frey and many more—who created structures both residential and commercial and served both working class families moving from big cities and movie stars looking for weekend getaways (the “movie colony” neighborhood alone was a part-time home to Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Jack Benny and David O. Selznick to name a few).
So where to begin? Tour options abound, but a must-do is a double-decker bus tour, which offers upper-deck glimpses onto the grounds of such masterpieces as the 1962 William Krisel–designed House of Tomorrow (where Elvis and Priscilla Presley spent their honeymoon), Neutra’s stunning Kaufmann Desert House (Pittsburgh department store tycoon Edgar J. Kaufmann also commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater), Wexler and Richard Harrison’s Steel Development Houses (the only seven built of a planned 35 customizable, affordable prefab homes), and E. Stewart Williams’ legendary “Twin Palms” estate (which still boasts a chipped bathroom sink from former owner Sinatra throwing a champagne bottle at Ava Gardner). If possible, take the tour hosted by humorist and author Charles Phoenix as your guide for a fun and fabulous adventure.
Once you’ve absorbed the exteriors of many of the area’s most noteworthy abodes, you can go behind the brightly painted front doors of individual homes, such as the Cathedral City Cree house. Dubbed “the forgotten Frey,” this 1955 hillside residence has largely escaped the renovations that have befallen other homes of that era. Four additional feature interior home tours are notable this year, including Green Gables, a classic mid-century design currently undergoing renovation; La Vie en Rose, which highlights the work of famed interior designer Christopher Kennedy; the Axiom Desert House, showcasing how mid-century design carries into the 21st century; and the (possibly) last Desert Eichler to be completed in Palm Springs.
Blending the social and educational aspects of Modernism Week is “Mod with a Twist,” alternating evenings organized into “Life” and “Culture.” After walking in the footsteps of those who lived the mod life in the latter half of the last century, each night at CAMP (Community and Meeting Place, which houses the box office, gift shop, departure point for many tours, bar and café, and information desk), you can grab a glass of wine and settle in for a series of quick-fire presentations offering insight into the American zeitgeist in those years. Topics include the mob’s influence, the Flintstones, cruising, denim chic and flaming tableside food service.
Lest you think Modernism Week is all fun facts and iconic attractions, there are cocktail parties every evening. There’s an opening night party on Valentine’s Day at the 1962 Wexler and Harrison–designed Indian Canyons Country Club. The party’s in the clubhouse, and the fairways are lined with mid-century homes. Near the end of the run, there’s an event at the Sunrise Lanai condo complex—picture a cross between a Polynesian tiki hut and a Swiss chalet (the look was all the rage in 1961) with charming condos—complete with travertine flooring and often the original kitchen appliances—surrounding the pool. Guests at this event can sip cocktails from coconuts and tour several of the units as the gracious owners open their doors to share their Palm Springs style with visitors.
So break out your cat-eye glasses and don a LBD that would make Audrey Hepburn jealous and head to the desert for a trip back in time.
Tickets for Modernism Week go on sale the preceding November and many events sell out quickly. Each October there is a preview week offering several tours and glimpses into some homes that will be featured the following February.
Where to Stay:
The Hilton Palm Springs Resort is Modernism Week’s official host hotel, offering special room rates: 760-320-6868, hilton.com
Where to Eat:
Don’t miss Copley’s, located in Cary Grant’s former guesthouse on Palm Canyon Drive, copleyspalmsprings.com
Dana R. Butler is an editor, writer and self-described architecture geek, for whom Palm Springs Modernism Week was the ultimate vacation, giving her vast inspiration for renovating her 1955 Atomic Ranch in North Denver.
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