By John Poimiroo
When I told my twenty-something son that his mother and I would be traveling to Southern California to research a story on mid-century modern architecture, he snickered, “How can they call that modern? It’s so old-fashioned.”
“How else would you describe linear homes of glass, stone and steel?” I asked. “Whatever,” he replied, dismissing the topic. And so, I drove south questioning whether the dream homes of my youth, promoted then as the houses of tomorrow, were yesterday’s story.
On arrival in Palm Springs, we checked into the Movie Colony Hotel, conceived by architectural pioneer Albert Frey in 1935. We, in our 50s, were the oldest guests there. Sweet revenge! Our son’s contemporaries had discovered what he hadn’t and we soon would, that mid-century modern architecture is as hot today as when it was introduced, with a new generation of retro-focused X-gens embracing its austere beauty. Modern? You bet it is, and Palm Springs and Los Angeles are where the best examples can be found.
To the uninitiated, modern architecture seems to be one concept, but in fact it is layered with different styles: prairie, art deco, international, art moderne, roadside vernacular, mid-century, googie, modern builder, contemporary builder, shed, and contemporary folk. All of these styles can be seen in California.
The zenith of restrained modernism and Zen-like livability occurred from the 1940s to 1960s; that’s when many of the most beautiful examples of modernist architecture were built. Some were the result of limited budgets. Others accommodated vacation life and were occupied only a few days each year, or were designed to provide exotic escapes for people from northern cities or represented their owners’ accomplishments. Still, others were conceived as quickly erected housing for burgeoning post World War II families. Then, too, architects found that modernist forms complemented desert and environmental aesthetics better than other styles or fulfilled new concepts about merging indoor and outdoor living. Whatever the inspiration, the results were elegantly minimalist structures whose light forms particularly complemented California’s mild climate and plein-air life.
For commercial and public buildings modernist designs caught the eye, invited entry, entertained or represented government hopes to be perceived as forward thinking. However, they were so evocative of their age that when designed on the cheap or not rigorously maintained in tasteful style, they appeared forever stuck in the past.
In any other part of the world, modernist architecture is the odd exception or is dismissed as being naively anachronistic, but in Southern California – particularly in Palm Springs and Los Angeles – its examples are maintained, restored, preserved and their importance elevated to cultural landmark status. Support for modernism, there, is evidenced in countless ways.
Each February, Palm Springs holds a Modernism Show with a week of tours, lectures, symposia, parties and an exhibition hall filled with vendors. As evidence of the town’s pride in its modernist heritage, the highlight of this year’s show was the addition of architectural photographer Julius Shulman to Palm Springs’ Walk of Stars along Palm Canyon Boulevard, an honor usually reserved for luminaries the likes of Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren and Ronald Reagan.
Appropriately, Palm Canyon Boulevard is the place to begin exploring mid-century modern architecture. We began by walking the boulevard and were surprised by the many modernist furniture, design and curio shops along it. One not accustomed to the style might mistake the pink and orange bead curtains, lime plastic furniture, and astro clocks displayed in store windows as representative of what the style is about. Far from it. All this is exaggerated eye candy for tourists and “Martini modernist” wannabees. If you want to really understand the style, peruse Adèle Cygelman’s coffee table book, Palm Springs Modern or Alan Hess and Andrew Danish’s Palm Springs Weekend or Pierluigi Serraino & Julius Shulman’s Modernism Rediscovered. Or better yet, join Robert Imber on an architectural tour of Palm Springs.
We met Mr. Imber’s “Palm Springs Modern Tour” at Starbuck’s on Palm Canyon Boulevard. In our group were Rich and Liz, advertising executives from Chicago, and Pam a marketing executive from Northern California who lives in a mid-century modern home and carried her weathered copy of Palm Springs Modern.
“This is where it all began,” Mr. Imber intoned, while gesturing toward the remnants of Lloyd Wright’s (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) 1923 Oasis Hotel, now housing nondescript shops. The Oasis was the country’s and, needless to say, Palm Springs’ first modernist resort. Wright utilized the then-new, slip-form technique of concrete construction to create horizontal shadow lines upon the International modern structure, and then topped it all with an art deco-like crest of ornamental concrete block on the hotel’s tower, “four to six years before art deco architecture appeared elsewhere,” described Mr. Imber.
Later added to the Oasis, where its front office had existed, was a classic E. Stewart Williams’ Internationalist style office building, whose rectilinear simplicity has, over the years, been diminished by uncharacteristic “improvements.” Still, Mr. Imber emphasized, Williams’ genius is apparent in: the building’s highly crafted aluminum and teak door pulls, how shadows play across corrugated metal siding and the symmetry of the building’s boxed facade.
Mr. Imber identified an important example of Spanish revival architecture across the boulevard, a precursor to today’s theater/shopping complexes, comparing it to the subtler beauty of John Porter Clark’s 1941 Wellwood Murray Library to its left… an elegantly restrained example of California mission revival architecture void of ornamentation, evidently influenced by Clark’s affection for modernism. And so, introduced to the style, we were off in the van to explore mid-century modern architecture as it evolved in Palm Springs.
You need not be a student of architecture to enjoy this tour. Anyone with an interest in design, history or celebrity will find it fascinating. Mr. Imber’s van passes Palm Springs’ most significant modern architecture, stopping briefly (though tour goers never leave the van to take pictures or enter the homes). Along the way, he provides an entertaining stream of anecdotes about how the style came to be established in Palm Springs, why certain styles were built, how the category evolved and who some of its more celebrated occupants were. As we passed through Palm Springs’ tennis club district, Mr. Imber directed our attention to architect Albert Frey’s compact hillside home, describing Frey’s revolutionary use of materials, “creating his own vernacular of concrete block and corrugated metal.”
Modernist architects were often exploring new technologies and materials, almost as if the materials themselves demanded application. In a way, these artist/builders were conceiving new ways of living from new materials. Or, as in Richard Neutra’s case, applying new materials to new ways of living. Neutra’s Miller House constructed in 1937 for an eccentric physical therapist was one of the early modernist homes in the Coachella Valley and, recently restored, remains as one of its best examples, with glass exterior walls and using thin steel support posts. Everything about the home was minimal except its understated beauty.
Nearly 70 years later, images of the home’s original interiors (shown to us by Mr. Imber) seem as fresh and new as if the home had just been completed. We ached to explore its compact spaces as we slowly passed the Miller House though were off to visit another of Neutra’s masterpieces, the 1946 Kauffman house. Built for the same architecturally enlightened family that commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Neutra’s Kauffman house with its aluminum, sandstone and glass exterior and luminescent Douglas fir interiors has been likened to a cubist machine rising from a “boulder-strewn desert plain.”
Remarkably, modern architecture – mechanical and industrial to the extreme and the physical opposite of nature in form – seems a better aesthetic complement to nature than all but a few truly organic styles (i.e., Pueblo Revival). At the Palm Springs Tennis Club, Imber said Paul R. Williams and A. Quincy Jones were faced with the dilemma of how to squeeze a restaurant onto a rocky perch overlooking a swimming pool. They did so by forming it to the hillside with glass walls seemingly rising out of a rocky slope. This use of glass to eliminate the difference between being indoors or out was carried to the extreme by local architect William Cody, dubbed the “master of thin” who employed impossibly thin support columns and rooflines. Cody’s glass walls would disappear. Uncased, un-curtained windows became invisible walls, looking out upon golf courses and the ruddy Santa Rosa Mountains. Modern architecture in the desert could do this because of Palm Springs’ unusually clement atmosphere (late fall through spring).
As you drive through Palm Springs’ various neighborhoods, despite the openness of these homes, their privacy impresses. Houses rarely look outward toward the street, but inward, embracing a central, secluded courtyard containing a swimming pool, patio and endless parties. “They built their homes for relaxation and cocktail parties. When the owners of these homes came to Palm Springs for a weekend away or for the winter, they were in resort mode,” said Mr. Imber who numbered many of the hosts among Hollywood’s glitterati.
The Palm Springs Modern tour is, however, no Hollywood homes tour. Mr. Imber’s greatest enthusiasm was not for its celebrity homes like Villa Nance - an ostentatious confection owned by Nancy Sinatra that is the architectural equivalent of a Chrysler Cordoba - or others occupied by Elvis Presley, Howard Hughes, Peter Lawford, Jack Benny or Frank Sinatra. He seemed only to point them out to satisfy the curiosity of his passengers, as when we passed near Bob Hope’s monstrous turtle shell-like home sitting atop a ridge overlooking the Valley. Imber mentioned that when Hope saw the model of the home he cracked, “Well, at least when they come down from Mars, they’ll know where to go.” Instead, Mr. Imber was energized by the ordinary places that have become extraordinary landmarks, like George and Bob Alexander’s development of tract homes at Twin Palms, so named because every new home included two palm trees. “Notice what’s common about all of them,” he encouraged, “Garage, breezeway, windows, wall (sigh) garage, breezeway, windows, and wall. No matter what roof was put on them or which direction they were turned on their lots, the layout was almost always the same... garage, breezeway, windows, wall.”
Like the “Case Study Houses” of the late ‘40s, many of Palm Springs’ most interesting homes were conceived to revolutionize home construction. Seven all-steel houses designed by Donald Wexler and constructed by the Alexanders were planned as models for a development of thirty-plus all-steel homes (a plan later foiled by escalating steel prices). Each could be erected in four to six hours on a concrete slab, the minimalist, modernist homes with flat roofs and interior floor plans that could – with some effort – be changed, sold in the early ‘60s for from $13,000 to $17,000, depending on interior detail and were offered in three roof styles including a stationary accordion roof that folded over the living room. Today, they have been tastefully returned to their 1960s character.
Because these homes are privately owned, they aren’t open for tours except rarely during festivals. One of the few exceptions is Los Angeles’ Schindler House an early modernist masterpiece that is open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays. A protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright and contemporary of Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler designed the house for himself in 1921 to demonstrate ways of living that he espoused. MAK Center Director Kimberli Meyer said Schindler “really took the idea of combining indoor and outdoor into one space. Rooms flow inside, outside and extend into the garden to the point that the boundary between inside and out is forgotten.
“Frank Lloyd Wright started this idea, but Schindler took it much further with outdoor rooms and courtyards that were integral to the house,” Ms. Meyer explained. Outdoor living rooms and outdoor fireplaces would have been impossible in Austria or Chicago from where Schindler came, but Southern California’s mild climate was the perfect place for Schindler and his wife, Pauline, to live their dream of indoor-outdoor living and openness to nature a philosophy shared by their friend and housemate, Richard Neutra.
Occasionally, the MAK Center is granted permission to escort tours through modernist homes, though Ms. Meyer cautions, “It’s difficult to get on one of these tours without a reservation.” Limousine tours of Los Angeles architecture are an easier matter. They’re offered daily by Architecture Tours L.A. or join one of the LA Conservancy’s many architectural tours or lecture programs.
For do-it-yourself tours, head to the Silver Lake district to see L.A.’s greatest concentration of mid-century modern homes. They’re identified in guides available at the MAK Center or buy the Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles by David Gebhardt and Robert Winter. A must stop for architecture-philes is Hennessey + Ingalls, California’s premiere architecture bookstore in Santa Monica.
Of course, the best way to experience mid-century modern architecture is from the inside. There are few more idyllic experiences than to stay in a mid-century modern hotel room open to the balmy climes of the desert, to be lost in a good book while lounging around the flickering, warming flames of an outdoor gas fireplace, or to enjoy an orangey, tart-sweet, Sake-based “Dean Martini” at the Movie Colony Hotel’s wine bar with all those retro thirty-somethings.
So, maybe, I ought to set my son straight and tell him what I found in Southern California… that buildings conceived 60 years ago can still truly be modern. Nah, let’s keep this to ourselves.
Linking Mid-Century Modern
Architecture Tours LA – www.architecturetoursla.com
Green Fairway Estates – www.desertmodernism.com/greenfairway.html
Hennessey & Ingalls - www.hennesseyingalls.com
John Lautner Foundation – www.johnlautner.org
Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee – www.modcom.org
Los Angeles Conservancy Tours – www.laconservancy.org/tours
Movie Colony Hotel – www.moviecolonyhotel.com
Palm Springs Modern Tours – firstname.lastname@example.org
Palm Springs Modern Committee – www.psmodcom.com
Palm Springs Modernism Week – www.palmspringsmodernism.com
Palm Springs Preservation Foundation – www.pspF.net
Palm Springs Visitors Bureau – www.palm-springs.org
Richard Neutra – www.neutra.org
Schindler House – www.makcenter.org
Swiss Miss - www.jetsetmodern.com/issue5/swissmiss.htm
University of Southern California Downtown Walking Tour - www.usc.edu/dept/geography/losangeles/lawalk/
John Poimiroo is a California-based travel writer, editor and communications specialist. http://www.californiafun.us