Even Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra enjoyed themselves in Palm Springs. The cheerful, colorful, eternally sunny desert village was considered the Capital of Cool back then – and is again today.
June 2021, Reading time: 14 minutes
Marilyn is back. An eight-meter-high sculpture of Marilyn Monroe in her famous high-flying white dress from “The Seven Year Itch” has adorned the Museum Way in downtown Palm Springs since late April 2021. Some like it hot – that doesn’t just apply to America’s platinum blonde diva, who was discovered by a Hollywood talent agent at the pool of the Palm Springs Racquet Club in 1949. It’s true that California’s desert jewel was considered a faded vacation oasis for golfing retirees and frail ladies with white toupeed hair (“Q-tips” in local jargon). But the image has changed – Palm Springs is shining again. If you’re lucky, you’ll see Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes shopping on Palm Canyon Drive or run into Diane von Fürstenberg, Charlize Theron or Tom Ford in the garden of the luxury hotel The Parker. But what are celebrities looking for in a village with 45,000 residents, two parallel main streets and 350 days of sunshine a year?
The famous Kaufmann House, designed by Richard Neutra in 1946, can be purchased at Sotheby’s for $ 16,950,000.
Classic Palm Springs style: pastel colors, butterfly roof, cacti in front of the door.
“It’s unfair,” says Jaime Kowal, “there’s so much more here: festivals, museums, bars, boutiques.” The Canadian photographer came on vacation in 2013 and stayed. She liked the cheerful atmosphere, the unpretentious demeanor of the often rich and famous residents, and the architecture. Especially the architecture. She is not the only one. Lovers of the so-called Desert Modernism have always been among the regulars of the desert city. It is thanks to the interplay of several coincidences that an architectural style with cult potential emerged in the desert. To make a long story short, Palm Springs was founded in 1883 by a San Francisco lawyer whose son suffered from tuberculosis. At the time, there was little that could be done about the disease except to move to a dry warm climate. This was available in southern California, in a vast plain with many springs surrounded by tall petticoat palms. Gradually, more and more people came with lung problems, and as the century ended, a handful of small sanitariums stood in Palm Springs.
In the 1920s, the first Hollywood stars showed up and it wasn’t long before the sunny desert town became a glamorous hangout for actors and their entourage. Everyone who was anyone was here: Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, Dean Martin, Cary Grant, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and, above all, Frank Sinatra, whose estate with wing pool on East Alejo Road is now rented out to paying guests for just under $2,000 a night. All these celebrities needed homes, and so architects flocked in, including a group of talented young Europeans who gladly traded the rubble landscapes of World War II for the ideal world of California.
Jaime Kowal, photographer, hotel owner (The Amado), Palm Springs fan.
The Swiss Albert Frey, the Austrians Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler and others turned Palm Springs into a gigantic experimental laboratory. They experimented with Bauhaus and Modernism and, together with their American colleagues, developed Desert Modernism, which dispensed with ornamentation and propagated a matter-of-fact, geometric formal language. In the warm desert climate and the grandiose landscape of the Coachella Valley, the desire arose to open spaces to nature and to merge buildings with their surroundings. Several thousand modernist buildings were built, many with the characteristic floating butterfly roofs.
Jaime Kowal owns one of them. When she discovered the apartment building, erected in 1955, it was in a neglected and dilapidated condition. She bought and renovated it, turning each of the former five apartments into a guest suite with a living room and kitchen. The Amado opened in 2013 and immediately became Palm Springs’ insider tip. “I couldn’t have pulled off a project like this in a big city,” the owner explains, “but here it worked. There were options, and the costs were manageable.” That’s changing now; real estate is getting expensive. But if you look, you can still find beautiful three-bedroom homes with terraces and pools priced between $500,000 and $700,000. Leonardo di Caprio spent a little more money when he purchased a 650 square meter mansion at 432 Hermosa Place in the coveted Old Las Palmas neighborhood in March 2014. The building ensemble, designed in 1964 by American modernist Donald Wexler for blonde Southern belle Dinah Shore, cost $5.2 million. Whether and how often the actor uses it, no one knows. Although one hears from time to time about sightings of Leo in Palm Springs, the star rents out his villa – in line with the Airbnb trend. Those who can spare from $4,500 a day live “in one of the finest examples of mid-century architecture.” So says the rental log.
“There are more beautiful examples,” says Brigitte Lehnert, who moved to Palm Springs from Los Angeles with her husband, André Boughtwood, in 2012, opened the Flow Modern store in the Uptown Design District, and sells exquisite vintage modern furniture and accessories to match the homes. Take, for example, the 1946 mansion designed by Richard Neutra for department store millionaire Edgar J. Kaufmann, considered a masterpiece by the Viennese architect. The intricate, multi-winged glass, steel and stone building has had many owners, including the singer Barry Manilow. It’s been expanded, remodeled, modernized, in short, scrambled several times. Beth and Brent Harris bought it in 1992 for $1.5 million. The two studied the blueprints and had the house reconstructed from the floor plan to the wall colors. They sourced the furniture of the original manufacturers; the kitchen is made of beautiful stainless steel. In 2008, after the couple’s divorce, the Kaufmann House went under the hammer at Christie’s for $15 million – however, the anonymous buyer dropped the deal, so the property is still owned by the Harris’ to this day and alternately lived in by both of them.
Or the Ship of the Desert, which actually sticks to South Camino Monte like a wrecked ocean liner. Built in 1936 in the most beautiful Streamline Modernism style, it belongs to fashion queen Trina Turk, whose exuberant style is also on display in her fashion store located in a gleaming white Albert Frey building on North Palm Canyon Drive. Like Modern Flow, the Trina Turk store is part of the Uptown Design District, where even Americans leave their cars and walk a few blocks. Every other store is called something with “Modern” in it and sells vintage furniture or new design pieces with a ’50s look to sometimes celebrity customers who barely make themselves known. “When Anne Hathaway came into my store, I had a long conversation with her without even guessing who she was,” says A La Mod owner James Claude, “She bought a pale pink Murano vase from Seguso and seemed very pleased with her find.” Hollywood has rediscovered Palm Springs: sometimes Cameron Diaz is photographed drinking a martini at Melvyn’s Bar, sometimes Kanye West is photographed dining at Copley’s. When Angelina Jolie checked into the Hotel Parker under a false name, not even the receptionist noticed. That’s the way it’s always been here: celebrities are left alone, even when they’re drinking their cappuccino in public. “No one takes themselves very seriously,” says Jaime Kowal, “which is why life here is so much fun.”
Jaime Kowal tested 37 shades until she found the right orange for the doors. Her hotel has no reception or restaurant, but five spacious and stylishly decorated suites grouped around a pool. Those who come with friends rent the Amado as a whole and have very private pool parties. Suite from $100, theamado.com
Kitsch or art? Either way, a modernist facade hides the favorite hotel of celebrities. Through the opulently designed lobby, you enter a gorgeous giant garden that hides self-contained guest villas, a restaurant, and a pool. Double rooms from $429, parkerpalmsprings.com
The super-chic and well-hidden 20-room resort with pool and mountain views was once the vacation home of MGM star Don Castle. Today, the slightly rustic flair mixes with contemporary art by Ruscha, Kelly, Katz, and Baldessari. Double rooms from $179, sparrowslodge.com
Foto: George Duchannes
For any true architecture geeks, this is a rare gem. John Lautner designed the four studios grouped around a pool for a Hollywood producer. Now each has become a lavish suite with wall-high windows and great views. Studio from $250, hotellautner.com
Foto: Mikey Schwartz
The gleaming white 25-bungalow resort was a popular Hollywood spot in the ’50s. Designed by Palm Springs modernist William F. Cody and surprisingly minimalist, it now belongs to Leading Hotels and is one of the most exclusive addresses in town. Double rooms from $350, lhorizonpalmsprings.com
Bright 27-room hotel with a successful blend of retro looks and desert style. While on vacation in Palm Springs, owner and designer Matthew Kurtz discovered the property, built in 1930 and expanded in 1940; and he transformed it into a chic, quiet, and comparatively affordable hideaway. Double rooms from $159, lescactusps.com
Local favorite hangout just off North Palm Canyon Drive. The secluded garden tempts with prosciutto & melon, pomodori & burrata and the best pizzas in Palm Springs. Plus: great cocktails, laid-back vibes and good music. birbaps.com
Foto: Audrey Ma
Chic uptown eatery with patio. The cuisine is creative Californian with multi-cultural accents, prepared from the best local produce. Popular items include the grilled Cuban sandwich, miso-glazed bream, Italian mushroom pappardelle, and cocktail. eight4nine.com
The Rooster and the Pig
The waiting patrons outside the restaurant speak volumes. This is one of the best places to eat locally, assuming you like Vietnamese food. Whether it is summer rolls, banh mi burgers, papaya salad or fish curry, everything chef Tai Spendley brings out of the kitchen tastes absolutely delicious. roosterandthepig.com
The garden restaurant at Hotel L’Horizon presents itself in decidedly Mediterranean chic. Italian chef Giacomo Pettinari’s menu includes truffled arancini, lobster ravioli, crispy fried squid and angler cod on chickpea puree. lhorizonpalmsprings.com
Workshop Kitchen & Bar
The long tube with a long central table and alcoves on either side has a very modern design and is very hip. Menu bestsellers include the mussels with saucisson in wine broth and the gigantic Iron House Ranch flat-iron steak. workshoppalmsprings.com
Foto: Audrey Ma
Cary Grant’s former Palm Springs vacation home is now a stylish restaurant with a secluded garden. Chef Andrew Copley combines modern American cuisine with tropical accents. Delicious finish: the basil ice cream. copleyspalmsprings.com
This elegant alternative for retro fans was opened in 1975 by Melvyn Haber who still holds court here almost daily and tells the best Palm Springs stories. Bartender extraordinaire Mark Myrick can do the same, mixing martini cocktails. inglesideinn.com/melvyns/
Nice little coffee shop right in the Uptown Design District. Gregory, the French manager, provides the best croissants and delicious charcuterie plates. You can order latte and cappuccino, as well as unusual beers and select wines. ernestcoffee.com
The tiny bar is decked out in the prettiest Polynesian style, with woven raffia mats on the walls and ceilings, diffused red-light lighting, Moorea and Cocoloco cocktails, and half-naked beauties on the walls. The vibe is as good as the vintage music. bootleggertiki.com
Brigitte Lehnert and André Boughtwood’s Mid-Century Modernism store is one of the nicest in town. It sells furniture from the ’40s to the ’70s, mostly locally sourced. Plus: enchanting glass objects from Italy and Scandinavia, and select vintage jewelry. flowmodern.com
This is the first of what are now 6 Trina Turk stores in the U.S. It’s the largest and arguably the most beautiful. Trina Turk’s chic, brightly colored creations are sold, along with shoes, bags and jewelry, as well as a small men’s collection and beautiful designer objects. trinaturk.com
Foto: Lisa Romerein
A La Mod
Owners James Claude and Miguel Linares have amassed one of the best and largest collections of vintage home accessories around. Their store features mid-century objects as well as rare, beautiful and sometimes expensive pieces from the 1980s and ’90s. alamodps.com
Elizabeth & Prince
The name picks up on the New York shopping and restaurant district whose urban flair inspired this lifestyle boutique’s offerings. In addition to fashions by Matta, Elizabeth Cole and Golden Goose, there are casual sandals, cool sneakers, beautiful jewelry and home accessories. elizabethandprince.com
Built in 1965, this former streetcar gas station with a cantilevered wing roof is probably the most famous of the 200 or so buildings Swiss-born Albert Frey completed in Palm Springs. Now the city’s visitor center resides here. visitpalmsprings.com
Palm Springs Art Museum
The building was constructed in 1976 according to plans by Stewart Williams in the Late Modern style. On display are changing exhibitions; a Robert Longo work show is on view starting July 1, 2021, followed by an exhibition of later work by abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler in October. psmuseum.org
Frey House II
The modest 75-square-foot house Albert Frey designed for himself in 1962 floats on the hillside above the Art Museum. It was built around a boulder that separates the sleeping area from the living room. The house is owned by the Art Museum, which organizes visits on request. psmuseum.org
Built in 1966 for billionaire publisher and philanthropist Walter Annenberg and his wife, guests at the estate have included President Nixon, Frank Sinatra and the Queen. The villa can be visited on request, and its park-like garden is freely accessible. sunnylands.org
PS Architecture Tours
Trevor O’Donnel leads groups of no more than five people to the most beautiful homes in Palm Springs. He specializes in Modernist architecture, and the fact that he used to work in the entertainment business doesn’t hurt: His tours are as informative as they are entertaining. psarchitecturetours.com