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My hotel room has purple carpet, red walls and Mexican-style furnishings. Clusters of palm trees tower over the baby blue pool, which is surrounded by yellow umbrellas and dotted with pink flamingo floats. In the lobby of the Saguaro Palm Springs hotel, pastel-hued cruiser bikes are lined up next to the Ping-Pong table. It’s as if I’ve woken up in a Barbie Dreamhouse. In fact, there’s a wall in the lobby lined with dioramas: Barbie and friends at the pool, getting a massage, attending a wedding.
Welcome to Palm Springs, where it’s 2018 but most aesthetic references go back at least five decades — clean lines, organic curves, bold dashes of color, glass, steel, plastic. Some 100 miles east of Los Angeles, this winter haven for retirees and nature lovers is also an unlikely hub for the style known as mid-century modern, a period lasting roughly from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s (some define it more narrowly or broadly).
“It’s the deep freezer of unadulterated American mid-century modern architecture,” says Kurt Cyr, 54, the owner of Palm Springs Mod Squad tours. He has picked me up, along with several others, for a 90-minute outing and explains that Palm Springs was about as far as contract Hollywood actors could go and still be available for reshoots or studio calls.
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“When Palm Springs fell out of favor,” Cyr says, “the buildings were just left.” Fortunately, preservationists did their part, and when interest revived, much of the architecture was intact. That makes Palm Springs unlike any other American city.
There is much to see on this whirlwind tour: Albert Frey’s 1965 Tramway gas station, with its swooping roof (a “hyperbolic paraboloid,” Cyr notes); the 1961 Wexler steel houses, fusing a modernist aesthetic with prefab construction; the 1959 Bank of America building — blue and bulbous — inspired by Le Corbusier’s chapel in France; and the 1947 Twin Palms: Frank Sinatra’s home, the site of many a glittering party. (To help guests find their way, Cyr tells us, Sinatra would light up a palm tree and hoist a flag, signifying that cocktails were being served.) Not every landmark has survived; the Racquet Club of Palm Springs, frequented by Clark Gable and where Marilyn Monroe was discovered, was partially destroyed by a fire in 2014.
Many houses are in private hands, including the iconic Kaufmann House, designed by Richard Neutra in 1946. It’s a boxy, light-filled wonder, constructed of glass, stone and steel. Your best chance to see the interiors of private homes is to visit during Modernism Week, held every year in February, celebrating the city’s distinctive style with in-depth architectural tours, talks and swanky parties.
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While a tour provides context and commentary, you can experience Palm Springs’ modernist spirit whatever you do, whether shopping (Just Fabulous, Christopher Anthony Ltd.), dining (King’s Highway, Mr. Lyons Steakhouse) or sleeping. And don’t miss an afternoon at the Palm Springs Art Museum, with its excellent collection of modern and contemporary art.
Plus, as compelling as it is, modernism is not the only reason to visit Palm Springs, which is a fine base for outdoor explorations in Joshua Tree National Park, the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains, and the Coachella Valley.
On my last night in Palm Springs, I attend an event at what was Dinah Shore’s posh estate, now owned by Leonardo DiCaprio (and available for rental starting at a spendy $3,700 per night).
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I look around at the glass walls, pops of psychedelic color and palm-studded pool area of the 1964 house. This is certainly not the ’60s, I know, but it’s sure a nice place to visit.
Retro-chic places to stay in Palm Springs:
Holiday House. An adults-only hotel (28 guest rooms) originally built by architect Herbert W. Burns, it’s been redone to reflect the period. There’s lots of blue, plus art by David Hockney and Roy Lichtenstein. Average rate per night: $160 and up.
Saguaro Palm Springs. The 249-room property has a nighttime party vibe but delivers brightly colored kitsch and mod charm — reliably and affordably. Average rate per night: $119 to $299.
Orbit In. Also originally designed by Burns, this chic nine-room boutique hotel has fun modernist reproduction fixtures and furnishings. You can sip “Orbitinis” at poolside. Average rate per night: $139 to $269.
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