Long before movie stars and midcentury design aficionados discovered this bit of scorched desert southeast of Los Angeles the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians made this their home for more than 500 years. To casual visitors, evidence of the first inhabitance of the area is not always obvious. The only encounter most will experience is walking by an obscure statue on Canyon Drive depicting two native women. But just a short trip to the foot of the mountains towering over downtown you will find yourself in another world, one of lush green palms, cool breezes, and bubbling brooks. This is where Palm Springs really began.
Think of Palm Springs today though and it is modern architecture and movie stars that first comes to mind. But why did this piece of remote sun-parched sand turn into a 1920s mecca for movie stars and their architects? Well, it’s really due to a quirk of geography, and the weather surely had something to do with it as well.
Back when actors were under the control of the Hollywood movie studios, their contracts always included the “two-hour” clause. This required them to show up on set within two hours notice no matter what. It just so happens that Palm Springs is as remote a place as you can get from Hollywood and still make it back in time to satisfy the studio bosses. So the stars made this their hideaway and hired a crop of young modernist architects anxious to experiment with their wealthy clients money.
For a time, Palm Springs languished. The stars abandoned their midcentury masterpieces and the place just gathered dust. But now the legacy of those early architects is hot and the sun is shining on Palm Springs again.
“Modernism Week” is when it all happens these days in Palm Springs. It’s a great event for lovers of midcentury design. But as with most popular spots, sometimes a more relaxed time can be had by visiting just a little off the peak. So we showed up just before the banners went up on Canyon Drive announcing the big event. We had the run of the place and here are some of the best things we found.
1 Ernest Coffee
Don’t miss it. Ernest serves ever-popular Stumptown coffee as well as a variety of local patisserie delicacies. A great place to hit when your stomach is rumbling and you need a little get-up-and-go. www.ernestcoffee.com
2 Dish Creative Cuisine
Jane Garcia-Colson is a former lawyer turned chef de cuisine. Hailing from New York, Jane’s fresh modern American menu focuses on seasonal and local ingredients. A real standout on North Palm Canyon Drive. www.dishcreativecuisine.com
3 Mr. Lyons Steakhouse
Evocative of old Hollywood glamor, Mr. Lyons it is one of the most beautiful dining rooms in Palm Springs. A staple in Palm Springs for over 70 years, it underwent a total makeover in 2015. Very Hollywood. Ironically it’s brand-new interiors feel more like the Palm Springs of old than they used to. With mirrored ceiling, black and white marble floors, brass fittings, leather and green velvet banquettes, a classic dining environment that harkens back to Palm Springs circa 1940.
The menu features an array of classic steak dishes. And the bar next door is a lovely place to meet with friends and enjoy one of Mr. Lyons signature cocktails. www.mrlyonsps.com
4 Bootlegger Tiki
Coinciding with Palm Spring’s midcentury period of major growth was the 1959 addition of America’s 50th state, Hawaii. With this exotic addition to the other 49, came a national fascination with all things Polynesian. One of the more famous midcentury buildings built in Palm springs which perfectly represents this age was the Hawaiian Estates, a strange mashup of stark midcentury architecture and Polynesian Tiki-laden pastiche by the architects Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison.
This housing development was the pinnacle of “Tiki” culture writ large. But alongside this were a myriad of other Polynesian expressions, most commonly in the form of bars. I guess the cocktail is the perfect vessel in which to express the Polynesian ethos, at least in the way midcentury Palm Springs understood it.
So we were thrilled to come across Bootlegger Tiki, a dimly-lit little bar that is often referred to as the “Tikeasy”. It’s a favorite with the locals in the know. With a wonderfully kitschy and nostalgic interior, you definitely feel the Tiki influence of old Palm Springs.
Try one of their signature craft cocktails like the Pod Thai or Jaspers Jamaican. www.bootleggertiki.com
5 Moorten Botanical Gardens
This one-acre private botanical garden was established in 1938 by Chester Moorten, a former silent movie star, and his wife Patrica. The couple spent many years collecting plant specimens from Baja to Mexico to Guatemala. Now it’s run by the Moorten’s son who still lives in the Mediterranean style house on the premises. The garden is open to the public.
Be sure to check out the exotic plants for sale. If your climate at home is suitable, What a great souvenir from your Palm Springs sojourn. www.moortenbotanicalgarden.com
6 The Palm Springs Air Museum
This was one of the real standout finds from our visit. Situated right next to the city’s Airport, the museum is divided into three hangars. Two are themed, one focusing on the European theater, the other on the Pacific.
Most of the planes on display are kept flight-ready and the volunteers on hand to answer questions are real veterans so they likely have first-hand stories to share about the aircraft on display. You can climb into many of the planes making it a very hands-on experience. A surprisingly pleasant way to spend a few hours. www.palmspringsairmuseum.org
7 Scoot Palm Springs
One of the frustrations of visiting Palm Springs is you constantly find yourself stuck in a car. For you Angelenos I am sure it is par for the course. But for those of us much more accustomed to legging it, it can lead to some considerable aggravation! So here’s a workaround, get out of your car and rent a scooter.
Proprietors John Allred and David Womack caught the Scooter bug while they still lived in Atlanta and upon moving to Palm Springs decided to assemble a small fleet and treat visitors to a wind-in-your-hair Palm Springs experience. Along with your scooter, John has prepared detailed maps complete with various routes you can explore. It really is the best way to see the city.
Pick up your scooter just outside of the Ace Hotel lobby. If you think you would like to give this a go it’s a good idea to get in touch with John in advance. Especially if you are a California resident. There are some odd regulations that apply depending on where you hail from. www.scootpalmsprings.com
On the periphery of Palm Springs is a district known as Cathedral City. Now this is not an area you would normally seek out but there is one destination there that’s a must-see for anyone interested in modern art and design. So for those of you like myself who are passionate about art, design and whatever falls in-between, make room in your schedule for a visit to Hedge.
The brainchild of Thomas Sharkey and Charles Pearson, Hedge originally started as a collection of furniture, art, and various objects and then, when just the right thing could not be found, Thomas and Charles started designing them. Their keen eye for curation is unique.
Between them, Thomas and Charles can sort most of your homes’ furniture, art and design needs. Thomas takes care of customers and focuses on the interiors while Charles’ specialty is garden design. An interesting side note, in a previous life Thomas was Shirley McClaine’s personal assistant so you know he comes by his relentlessly positive demeanor honestly. Seriously, from the moment we walked in Thomas made us totally feel at home. It was an absolute delight to spend some time with both him and Charles.
Charles let us peek into his office next door which is a treasure trove of works in progress and objects “not necessarily” for sale. And it is in this room that you get a sense for what a great eye and sense of design Thomas and Charles have. This space is the creative warehouse and you can feel the dynamism of various artworks and objects starting to be drawn together into collections or asserting their individuality. Their not-for-sale status makes these pieces all the more alluring. A quick warning, you are sure to fall in love with something at Hedge so be prepared to spend. www.hedgepalmsprings.com
9 The Fine Art of Design
A project of long time friends Nicholas Delgado and Marielle Luisa Ortega, this vintage clothing boutique in Palm Desert is a rare find.
Palm Springs’ period of glamor coincided with Hollywood’s golden age so closets of the day filled up with the most spectacular formal and leisure wear. And a lot of those closets are still sitting there waiting for their long-forgotten contents to be revealed once more.
Nicholas tells me that many of their consignments are “first hand” as the women who purchased and wore the outfits, for whatever reason, now choose to part with them. Says Nicholas, “They know exactly when and where they bought each of the items. Our pink sofa is often occupied with people sharing stories of the items they bring in.”
A favorite with fashionista far and wide, this not-so-secret Palm Springs gem has quite a following. www.thefineartofdesign.com
10 The Amado
A self-catered boutique hotel with five units and a great pool, it’s the perfect getaway for you, or you and all your friends!
There is a building typology that developed in Palm Springs from the ’50s onward consisting of a group of small apartments all oriented towards a central common pool area. One of the units is usually larger and real-estate sales literature of the time marketed these small multi-family complexes as a way to earning an income by living in the large unit and renting out the others as holiday accommodation.
By about the ‘70s many of these had become cheap rental apartments and had fallen into disrepair. The folks at the Amado recognized the modern potential of this great midcentury typology and picked up one, lovingly restoring it to its former glory. It is truly an authentic ’50s experience. You can live like they did when Palm Springs was in its infancy.
Since the Amado is sort of a cross between a house and a hotel, it is a great place to book for a week or more and work remotely. A working holiday of sorts to give you a fresh perspective on whatever projects you have going on. The perfect antidote to writers block or whatever other professions call a temporary loss of inspiration. It worked for us! www.theamado.com
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger