Palm Springs Desert Modernism and Midcentury Modern Architecture

July 19, 2018 1 Comment

Palm Springs Desert Modernism and Midcentury Modern Architecture

Last month our little team of five traveled to sunny Palm Springs, California on an inspiration trip for an upcoming flight of house plans. While we did make some time for exploring the town and relaxing by the pool, our main focus was to see and learn as much as we could about midcentury modern architecture. As promised, here is our long-awaited run down of this distinct Palm Springs style, and the architects that crafted it!

A Reason to Go

Palm Springs is often credited as the best place to see midcentury modern architecture in the US. Although you can see many great examples all over the southwestern states, Palm Springs has the most and highest concentration of well preserved examples.

The authenticity of restoration in most of these homes was a key aspect in our decision to go to California. We wanted to see architecture that was as close to the original as possible, not just an influenced design or modern adaptation.

A Palm Springs Style

Palm Springs’ specific form of midcentury modern is often branded Desert Modernism. It derived concepts from a German architectural movement called Bauhaus, which centered on simple cubic shapes, flat roofs and no ornamentation.

However, architects in the area adapted this European style to incorporate the rocky landscape and endure the arid climate. Thus, Desert Modernism was born. From the Palm Springs epicenter, the style expanded throughout the southwestern US and evolved into what we now know as midcentury modern.

Palm Springs Desert Modernism also has a specific emphasis on blending with the surrounding scenery and enhancing the mountain views. Exterior colors imitate the landscape, while homes are kept low, often tucked among the rocks, so as not to block the vistas. Roof pitches, if any, are small, and made to mimic the mountain slopes.

Common characteristics include flat, butterfly and cantilevered roofs, overhangs, clean lines, sharp angles, large windows, transoms, and open floor plans with smaller footprints. The materials are a mix of traditional, like wood and stone, with new, like steel and glass.

Midcentury modern design saw a shift from open and welcoming front elevations, with porches and large windows, to a more private street view. Windows on the front of the home became fewer and smaller, while front doors and entries were often screened off with breeze blocks or slatted walls.

Perhaps the most important element of this style is the significance of indoor/outdoor spaces. Designs were often centered around back patios or pools, with wide open views and rooms on all ends having outdoor access. Many homes even feature additional side or central courtyards, for extra outdoor space and privacy.

A (Very) Brief History

A number of factors contributed to Palm Springs’ eventual midcentury notoriety. Located just 100 miles east of Los Angeles, the town jumped from a sleepy hot springs spot to a fully fledged vacation destination with the growth of postwar development and the Hollywood boom.

It’s popularity among the LA elite lead to a surge of second homes and city development starting in the late 30s and on into the 60s. This celebrity and society clientele also helped entice many of the talented architects that would come to contribute to the particular style.

Fresh techniques and cheaper materials were readily available thanks to a boost of new construction and advancing industry across America, allowing for the fast growth and innovative style that swept Palm Springs.

A Who’s Who

Several different architects and visionaries played a role in the development of this unique style, with a special emphasis placed on a particular group of six men: Albert Frey, Donald Wexler, William Krisel, E. Stuart Williams, Hugh Kaptur and William Cody. Other notable architects include John Lautner, John Porter Clark and Richard Neutra.

A Grand Tour

I can’t even begin to tell you how many amazing homes we saw driving around Palm Springs. It certainly felt like immersing yourself in a different time period as you turn down row after row of midcentury neighborhood streets. (Read more about it here!).

Ranch Club Estates

The first home we got to venture inside of was this 1959 Hugh Kaptur gem that had been lovingly restored by it’s current owners. Kaptur created 5 designs for the Ranch Club Estates development, and this home was the “Lariat” floor plan.

The customary private entry leads into an open concept living and small kitchen, typical of the period as many were built as vacation homes. The back features a solid wall of windows looking onto the patio and pool.

The homeowners were passionate about preserving as much of the original design as possible, respecting the property as a piece of art more than a house. They even had the pleasure of welcoming Kaptur into their home once, and convinced him to sign the inside of the closet with a marker the same shade of bright orange as the front door!

Desert Star

The Desert Star is a 1956 hotel turned condo apartments designed by Howard Lapham. The most amazing feature of the condo we toured was the crisscrossing levels of cantilevered roofs that flowed straight from the exterior into the living room.

Wexler Steel Houses

Inspired by his own prefabricated classroom designs, Donald Wexler dreamed of an entire subdivision of steel tract houses. These designs capitalized on prefab construction techniques combined with new modernist style and the recent popularity of steel homes. However, as the price of steel soared, only seven of these homes were ever completed.

Fortunately, you can still find them today in the Racquet Club Estates neighborhood. All built in the early 1960s, each home follows the same basic floor plan, but with different rooflines and exterior designs to make them seem custom.

Tramway Gas Station

The Tramway Gas Station designed by Albert Frey and Robson Chambers is one of the most famous examples of Midcentury Modern architecture in Palm Springs. No longer a gas station, the building now serves as the Palm Springs visitor center, and lies at the start of a long windy road up to the aerial tramway station.

Frey is often considered the “Father of Desert Modernism” for his contributions to both commercial and residential architecture in Palm Springs. Other notable works by him include the Kocher-Samson Building, Palm Springs City Hall and his own private residences, Frey House I and II.

This is barely the beginning of all the famous and historical buildings in Palm Springs, but I just wanted to share a few of my favorites with you. The city is a veritable mecca of Midcentury Modern design, and we loved every second of the unique and lively architecture!

We are feeling ridiculously inspired and excited for our new Midcentury Modern flight coming early next year. If you’re excited too, join our interest list! Get exclusive insider information and sneak peeks before anyone else!


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1 Response


July 31, 2018

great read thank you … I love Palm Springs as a desert spot … the Architecture is always inspiring, a bit of a time warp. im headed there later this year also.

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