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29 Dec 2014

Mid-Century Marvel: The Palm Springs Art Museum's Architecture and Design Center Is the Star of Its Inaugural Exhibit

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The new Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center, Edwards Harris Pavilion. The new Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center, Edwards Harris Pavilion. Dan Chavkin

The building that is now the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center, Edwards Harris Pavilion, was built in 1961, and was recently designated a Class 1 historic building.

E. Stewart Williams, the architect who designed the historic structure that was initially the Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan, is recognized as a leading force in what has become known as the desert modern style. Therefore, it’s perfect that the recently renovated building’s inaugural exhibition, An Eloquent Modernist, E. Stewart Williams, Architect, celebrates both the building and the architect’s work here in the desert.

In other words, the building in and of itself is a work of art.

Built on the southeast corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Baristo Road, the exterior retains its initial character and demure presence. However, the building—raised a bit above the street level—makes a statement. Minimal desertscaping and floor-to ceiling-windows make the building inviting from the outside.

The inside no longer holds the guts of traditional banks. Gone are the spaces for tellers, bank managers and customer tables. Instead, visitors are met by a 13,000-square-foot open space that will feature different architecture and design exhibitions, and will house staff offices and storage facilities for the museum’s growing collection. There is also space to develop meeting areas. The pavilion contains a bit of whimsy: The bank vault is now the museum store.

The elegant sparseness of new exhibition space creates great versatility; the use of partitions can create intimate areas. This strategic use of partitions makes the E. Stewart Williams exhibit work. The curator, by dedicating each viewing area to one or two of Williams’ buildings, affords the visitor insights into the architect’s aesthetic and design process.

Williams’ architectural drawings are frequently paired with Julius Shulman’s dramatic black-and-white photographs of realized buildings. The combination creates “a-ha!” moments.

As might be expected, Williams’ architectural drawings, renderings and photographs of the former Santa Fe Savings and Loan (including one shown below) occupy the first display area. They’re meticulous in their detail.

Further south on Palm Canyon Drive, Williams also designed the Coachella Valley Savings and Loan. Now called Chase Bank, this structure retains the same architectural sensibility as the Santa Fe Savings and Loan building. Designs and images of this structure are presented within a separate partitioned alcove. Like the new pavilion, the Coachella Valley Savings and Loan building sits above street level. Both buildings also have metal façades in front of their floor-to-ceiling windows.

There are also differences. In the design drawings and photographs, the Coachella Valley Savings and Loan appears significantly taller than the Santa Fe Savings and Loan structure. Instead of appearing heavy, the building, even on paper, appears to float above the street.

Another exhibit space shows designs for the Frank Sinatra house, built in the late 1940s. Designed by Williams, with his father and brother, it was the first private residence Williams built in here in the desert. Images and designs for this low-lying residence appear to be predictors of other desert mid-century projects, both residential and commercial.

In another area of the exhibit, Williams’ expanded vision into city planning is shown. Drawings for the Palm Springs Art Museum, built in 1958 and expanded in 1962, retain a Williams commercial-building trademark: a structure, behind which are floor-to-ceiling glass walls. With the museum project, the architect’s vision expanded beyond the museum: With the mountains as the backdrop, Williams’ drawings call for an expansive open plaza in front of the museum.

Williams and his colleagues also completed extensive drawings for a revitalized downtown area. Plans for the project were filed with the city, but the project never came to be.

Two other well-known projects that Williams completed in the desert are documented in the exhibit: the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway’s mountaintop building, and Temple Isaiah.

An Eloquent Modernist, E. Stewart Williams, Architect, will be on display through Sunday, Feb. 22, at the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center, Edwards Harris Pavilion, at 300 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. The pavilion is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; and noon to 8 p.m., Thursday. Admission is $5 general, with discounts and various free-admission days. For more information, call 760-423-5260, or visit www.psmuseum.org/architecture-design-center.

Below: E. Stewart Williams, Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan, 1961, photograph by Julius Shulman, 1962 © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10).

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