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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

I love signature events, and they don’t get any more “signature” in the Coachella Valley than Modernism Week. It has become the defining celebration of the things this city stands for—iconic architecture, glamour, sophistication, occasional hedonism and complete freedom.

What is modernism? Wikipedia says this: “Modernism is a philosophical movement that, along with cultural trends and changes, arose from wide-scale and far-reaching transformations in Western society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the touchstone of the movement’s approach towards what it saw as the now obsolete culture of the past.” Modernism transformed every aspect of society and the arts—and it still permeates our thinking and world view.

Volumes have been written, discussed and debated about the movement. Modernism Week focuses on the architecture that arose after World War II but does not limit itself to that. With more than 350 tours, lectures, screenings and parties taking place from Thursday, Feb. 14, through Sunday, Feb. 24, Modernism Week is simply far too large to cover in a single article … or even a single issue of a newspaper.

After hours of reviewing press releases and schedules regarding Modernism Week, I was left with a question and a thought. The question: How did a dusty, remote village in the Mojave Desert become a world-class destination symbolizing modern style and misbehavior? The thought: The appeal of Modernism Week goes far deeper than just an appreciation of architecture and interior design.

Many people credit the Hollywood studio system with the invention of Palm Springs. Starting in the silent-film era, movie stars were elevated to the status of royalty, instantly recognizable around the globe. However, a series of scandals involving sex, drugs and suicides threatened the very existence of Hollywood, and major studios began writing ethics clauses into their contracts—and any infringement of the strict moral codes would end careers immediately. Studio spies and gossip columnists were watching every movement and action of these new kings and queens.

The studios also required that its stars could not travel farther than two hours from the studio without permission, just in case reshooting was required. However, the exuberance and freedom from the status quo of the Roaring ’20s was far too great to be contained by a mere contract, and the opening of a tennis club in a desert crossroads exactly two hours from Hollywood provided a perfect escape from the watchful eyes of studio bosses.

Spanish colonial retreats surrounded by high walls and privacy hedges soon sprang up, creating the neighborhoods of Las Palmas and the Movie Colony. A town grew to service the needs of the Hollywood elite who congregated here. Word leaked out to the public about the luxury, the parties, the affairs and the licentiousness in this desert oasis. The legend of Palm Springs took root, and people flocked here to catch a glimpse of it.

After World War II, a new generation of stars, still under contract, sought to re-create Palm Springs in a new and modern way. The war had created new technologies, and a group of young architects were eager to employ these innovations. Large sheets of glass and steel girders provided these architects with a new palette, and they invented a completely revolutionary style of building for the desert environment.

With the demise of the studio system in Hollywood in the late 1960s, Palm Springs experienced a decline. Several decades later, a new demographic discovered its charms: Gay men of a certain age began arriving. They were drawn here by the mystic history and the inexpensive housing. They began to lovingly restore the Modernist neighborhoods.

Palm Springs experienced a rebirth.

Today, Modernism Week draws fans from all over the world. While the amazing postwar architecture is the centerpiece, the art, culture and lifestyle are also celebrated. There’s something for everyone, from serious architectural buffs to simply the curious,

Page after page of events are scheduled over the 11-day run. As I reviewed them, I was impressed by the breadth of topics and experiences. Then it struck me: Almost everything that mentioned Hollywood, movie stars, the Rat Pack, Las Palmas and Movie Colony were already sold out … and this was more than a month before opening day. There was something going on here.

It’s well-documented that, as a society, we are beginning to value experiences over possessions. I would contend that a nostalgia for the glamour, luxury, risqué behavior and lifestyle of cocktails by the pool that created and sustained Palm Springs throughout its history still runs very deep. People want to experience what went on behind those high walls and privacy hedges themselves. Who can blame them? What better way to appreciate these innovative structures and the modern living style than an icing of excess?

So, take a walking tour. Attend a lecture, Watch a film. Learn about shade block. Have a cocktail at Frank’s house. Maybe indulge in some bad behavior. (Just make sure it’s not too bad.) Immerse yourself in the mid-century.

This is our heritage. These are our traditions. It is our gift to the world. I, for one, couldn’t possibly be prouder to be a part of it.

Modernism Week takes place from Thursday, Feb. 14, through Sunday, Feb. 24, at locations valley-wide. For more information, including a complete schedule and ticket information, visit www.modernismweek.com.

Published in Visual Arts

Nejat Kohan is an Iranian Jew who, like many immigrants (myself included), came to this country in hopes of creating better life.

Kohan’s dream was to become a big-time developer. One of the first projects he was involved with here in the desert was the reconstruction of the historic Spanish Inn—nowadays known as Triada—the iconic hotel on Indian Canyon Drive in Palm Springs.

The property has been a hot spot for Hollywood celebrities since 1939. Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor frequented there, as well as Howard Hughes and Alan Ladd. In 1995, Los Angeles-based investor Hormoz Ramy bought the deteriorating hotel; Kohan stepped in as his business partner in 2002. Kohan threw all of his financial resources, time and energy into the reconstruction, he said.

“The project I was working on was a massive undertaking,” Kohan said. “There are three complexes within the 65,000-square-foot lot. The underground parking alone is 14,000 square feet.”

Since the property was a historic site in the famed Movie Colony neighborhood, the renovation was done slowly and carefully.

“Many of the hotel’s precious 1930s tiles have been restored to their original condition,” Kohan said. “Most of the damaged Spanish barrel roof tiles were replaced by ones from old 1930s homes located in the L.A. area. It took a lot to make it right.”

While Kohan was focused on the details, the city of Palm Springs began placing requirements on the developers—including the Movie Colony Traffic Calming Program.

“At first, I considered the city’s request for a traffic plan as a normal procedure when such reconstruction was under way,” Kohan said. “The city approved the shared cost of the street improvement with the clause about reimbursements.”

According to Kohan, the deal looked fine on paper, as the city’s demands obligated other surrounding properties to contribute; both the Spanish Inn and the Colony Palms Hotel were asked to put in an estimated $100,000 each.

But by 2007, as Kohan has indicated in documented complaints to the city, trouble was brewing.

“The city approved a covenant for Colony Palms Hotel, reducing its share for the street improvement from $109,000 to $45,000, without my knowledge,” Kohan claims. “That left me to cover the $362,000 cost for that project and then seek reimbursements from several surrounding properties.”

Meanwhile, the cost of the street improvements skyrocketed.

“In 2008, I finished the street plan at the cost of over half a million,” Kohan said, “and the Spanish Inn reconstruction was delayed by it for two years.”

By 2010, according to Kohan, his complaints to the city regarding reimbursement were accumulating—with no visible results. Kohan said he was quite desperate, and that is when the city’s mayor, Steve Pougnet, called him.

“On Monday, Sept. 27, 2010, Steve personally called me around 5:30 p.m.,” Kohan said. “He said: ‘This is Mayor Pougnet. I’m going to come visit your project, the Spanish Inn, right now! Would you also make a check for $500 to my campaign?’ I told him: ‘Yes!’

“The mayor came in a few minutes, and I toured him around,” Kohan continued. “The mayor told me that he was impressed with the progress of the project,” which was then about 80 percent completed. “I gave him the check. He spent about 10 to 15 minutes with me at the Spanish Inn.”

Kohan gave at least three other checks to Pougnet, too—all dated on the 27th day of a month, starting with a birthday check on Pougnet’s birthday, April 27.

“I attended the mayor’s birthday party in one of his friend’s homes and again donated the money to Pougnet’s campaign,” Kohan said. “Later, I was invited to a party at the mayor’s residence and contributed again to his campaign. I did feel that I was obligated to donate to Steve’s campaign in order to get his attention to Spanish Inn problems, particularly to the city’s agreement for the traffic plan.”

But it was all for naught.

“The city never paid anything for the traffic plan which was imposed as a pre-condition for building permits,” Kohan said.

After funding $7 million as a construction loan, the lender stopped financing the Spanish Inn project in 2011, Kohan said.

“I have lost about $2 million in my Spanish Inn investment and general contracting fees,” Kohan said. “Furthermore, there are some claims and liens up to $6.5 million for my personal guarantee. In 2011, the Pacifica Group bought the Spanish Inn in a trustee’s sale for $3.5 million.”

In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Colony Palms Hotel, about the same size as Spanish Inn, sold for $15 million.

Kohan said he questions Pougnet’s actions.

“I think I was discriminated against, and I believe that the discrimination was based on my origin,” Kohan said. “I also absolutely believe that Pougnet took advantage of my situation as a developer when he asked me for the donation.”

Pougnet did not initially respond to various requests for comment. However, after the initial version of this story was posted, Pougnet sent responses to some questions that had been emailed to him. He said he recalled receiving one “unsolicited contribution from Mr. Kohan in 2010.” In response to a question about whether he discriminated against Kohan, Pougnet responded: “Absolutely not!”

Marcus Fuller, the Palm Springs deputy city manager and city engineer, confirmed the street modifications were a requirement imposed on both the Spanish Inn and Colony Palms Hotel by the City.

Today, Nejat Kohan is no longer a developer. He is now an attorney—with an emphasis on business law and construction.

(Story updated at 5:35 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 18)

Published in Local Issues