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A lot of historical quirks went into making Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley the tourism mecca that it is today.

In the big-studio era of Hollywood, actors were contractually required to stay within two hours or 100 or so miles of the studio … which helped make this a haven for stars who wanted to get away. On the less-glamorous side, a tuberculosis sanatorium once attracted people here, thanks to the 350 days of sun and dryness our weather offers.

These quirks also helped, directly and indirectly, lead to the construction of a lot of midcentury-modern buildings—and these pieces of architecture will be the stars of Modernism Week’s Fall Preview, taking place Oct. 19-22.

The list of talented architects who worked in the desert includes William F. Cody, Albert Frey, Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Donald Wexler and so many others. These men were responsible for the layout of areas like the Twin Palms neighborhood. (Why did they name it that? Because each home had two palm trees in front of it.) Of course, the midcentury aesthetic went well beyond homes; these ideals were used in schools, civic buildings, religious buildings, hotels, cultural centers and commercial designs, too.

Why is Palm Springs today such a haven for this architecture—so much so that the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Palm Springs to its 2006 list of America’s Distinctive Destinations? This was a question I asked Charles Phoenix, a performer, tour guide and long-time supporter/fan of all things midcentury; he will have a hand in a variety of Modernism Week Fall Preview events.

“It’s really the people here,” Phoenix said. “Palm Springs is the ultimate place to celebrate midcentury style and design. Palm Springs is a mecca of midcentury style, and it’s where all the kingpins and fans gather each October and February (during Modernism Week proper).”

So how did this happen here? “Being in the desert, I think they were allowed to be a little more experimental and break the rules,” Phoenix said. “The minimalistic style appeals to the residents here, so they didn’t have to spend so much on the details. Remember, most of these homes were second homes.”

Since the 1920s, visionary modern architects have been designing sleek, modern homes that embrace the desert environment. The modernistic use of glass, clean lines and natural/resourced goods helped create an indoor-outdoor living style that many people love. However, midcentury architecture has not always been so beloved.

“During the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, this style fell out of favor; people thought of it just not being in style. Architects during that time thought that midcentury was yuck!” Phoenix said. “Fortunately, there are some people out there who realized that Palm Springs was a diamond in the rough at that time. During the 1990s, a group of people highlighted a couple of properties and a couple of neighborhoods and started to bring in people from all over the United States for architectural tours. Then it just started to snowball. Palm Springs is still being revitalized and recognized as the center of the universe of midcentury modern, and it’s where the lovers of this form gather.”

As these sensibilities have changed, Phoenix has found himself being pulled ever more toward midcentury design. During Modernism Week activities, you can join him on one his double-decker bus tours around town (if they have not completely sold out already), or for one of his slide presentations with actual Kodachrome slides, many of which were just given to him. Some of them appear in his newest book, Addicted to Americana, released on Oct. 3.

Modernism Week’s fall preview takes place Thursday, Oct. 19, through Sunday, Oct. 22. Ticket prices vary. For tickets, a complete schedule and other information, visit www.modernismweek.com.

Published in Local Fun

“Mid-century modern” refers to a collection of architectural designs and styles built from the early 1940s to around 1970. What they all share, according to Elaine Stiles, an architectural historian, is “an emphasis on lifestyle, a new way of modern living centered around family and home. … This was the era of the patio.”

Those of us who grew up in post-war Southern California don’t always realize the impact of mid-century modern homes, while people from other parts of the country often have no frame of reference for what we take for granted: low-slung homes with lots of floor-to-ceiling windows and exposed beams, as well as open-space floor plans, and indoor-outdoor orientations.

Steven Keylon lives in a Herbert Burns-designed mid-century modern house in the Deepwell Estates neighborhood of Palm Springs. He and his partner, John De La Rosa, a metal sculptor, came to the desert about a year ago from Los Angeles. (The couple is pictured to the right.)

“I was always interested in art, design and music,” says Keylon, a landscape historian. “About 25 years ago, I got engaged with interior design and decorative arts. Then I got involved in architecture, working to get Baldwin Hills Village (in Los Angeles) declared a national historic landmark. I moved on to historical landscaping in California, studying landscape architects and the use of native plantings. When I focus on something, I don’t stop until I know everything!”

Keylon, 51, was born and raised in Sacramento. He has written and lectured about Southern California’s cultural landscapes while working part-time at a bank for the past 28 years. In addition to numerous published works and awards, he is currently a board member at-large with the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, as well as the president of the California Garden and Landscape History Society.

Ask Keylon about what mid-century modernism is, and you get a brief history lesson: “It includes the influence of 20th century modern art, the Art Deco styles of the 1920s, and the recti-linear buildings of the German Bauhaus movement, plus the desire to use new materials in an honest way. It was an outgrowth of the cowboy/frontier flat-roofed ranch-house style. It’s meant to bring indoor and outdoor together—a site-specific rational use of space, designed for how people were really living. For example, they didn’t need formal dining rooms anymore. What made Burns and the others who built in Palm Springs so distinctive is that they designed to harmonize with the desert.

“I had read about Herbert Burns,” Keylon says. “He was a kind of charismatic chameleon. He had been an engineer in World War I, studied electrical engineering afterwards, became a stock broker, survived a crash as a shuttle pilot in World War II—his wife was also a pilot—and after the war, he was an architectural and interior designer. He moved to Palm Springs in 1946. His signature is very evident when you know what to look for. I knew he had built six or seven hotels in the Tennis Club neighborhood, but I didn’t realize he had done private homes.”

While researching a book on Burns, Keylon discovered that Burns had been married with two children—and that he had, for some reason, changed his name. “One clue led to another,” he says. “I found a son and some other family members, so I reached out to them.”

I learned about Keylon while I was visiting a friend in Los Angeles; that’s when I heard Sharon Varnes talk about a recent phone call she’d received from him. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said, “when I got a call that this guy was writing a book about the architect, Herbert Burns. Herbert Burns was my grandfather, whom I never even knew!”

I decided to close the circle and meet Steven Keylon myself. Talk about a small world.

“We’re trying to restore our house to its original condition,” says Keylon. “We’ve contacted past owners and found pictures of what the house originally looked like, including not only the indoor paint colors, but even the furniture styles.” He proudly shows off his kidney-bean-shaped light-wood tables—which reminded me of where I grew up in Los Angeles.

“Every year, the Preservation Foundation focuses on different styles,” says Keylon, “so since I live in one of his houses, I decided to suggest we focus on Burns and his projects for the programs next March.”

“John and I had come down to the desert many times, but when we found the Burns house, we basically decided to move here. We’ve been together for more than 20 years, and the best thing about living here is it’s always such a feeling of relief to come off Interstate 10 into Palm Springs. And I get to come home to a Burns house.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

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).

Published in Visual Arts

Renowned local architect Hugh Kaptur will be, in many ways, the star of this year’s Modernism Week, which kicks off this Thursday, Feb. 13.

At 2 p.m., Friday, Feb. 14, he’ll be honored with a place on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, at the corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Baristo Road. This is just one of several Modernism Week events focused on Kaptur.

Hugh Kaptur was born in Detroit in 1931. His father worked as a designer for General Motors and Packard—so you could say that he had some design inspiration from his father. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, he moved to Palm Springs in 1956. He interned with Wexler and Harrison before being laid off; he then decided to strike out on his own and went on to design homes for the Ranch Construction Company. He designed the Palm Springs Fire Stations No. 3 and 4, as well as numerous homes, apartment complexes, office buildings and hotels, including the Casa Blanca, now known as the Musicland Hotel.

Matt Burkholz, a local Modernism historian and tour guide, will be giving a free lecture on Kaptur at the Palm Springs Library at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 22.

“Kaptur is the man for not only residential architecture in Palm Springs, but also commercial architecture in Palm Springs,” Burkholz said. “His most famous residential structures are the Steve McQueen house and the William Holden house. In terms of his commercial work, that would be pretty much everything on Tahquitz Canyon, which includes the 600-700 building right across the street from the Regal Cinemas, and the Fragen Building, which is a really early geo-berm building where the lawns go right up to the roof line. In fact, he even wanted grass on the roof.”

Burkholz says that the tour he will be doing at 1 p.m., Friday, Feb. 21 (tickets are $50 and available at www.modernismweek.com) will include the Ranch Club Estates, now known as the Desert Park Estates, and Racquet Club South, north of Vista Chino.

“In the ‘50s and ‘60s, (the homes) were really considered out of town—literally in the middle of Saharan-style sand dunes,” Burkholz said. “When the houses were finished, each homeowner was given a shovel to shovel blown sand away from their front doors, because it was that far out of town. Because the houses were out of town, and Kaptur is the kind of architect who is very aware of the area he’s designing for, the homes are extremely substantive and well-insulated—actually, much more so than the resort-style homes that are closer within town.”

While Kaptur’s work is considered part of the Modernism movement, elements of his work put Modernism to the test, and incorporate other architectural designs and a great deal of geometric inspiration.

“He’s not a purist Modernist architect,” Burkholz said. “He is interested in several different aspects of life here. A lot of the other local Modernist architects, like Albert Frey and William Cody, were influenced by Los Angeles architecture. Kaptur realized Palm Springs was an entirely different ecosystem and environment than Los Angeles. A lot of the things that were modern and stylish for L.A., aspects of them could work here. But we are more of a desert climate than a coastal climate, so he looked east of here to Arizona and New Mexico—things like … Santa Fe centennial architecture, and adobe architecture. They’re more substantive, and they can take the great heat, the wind, and can take the super-extreme conditions of our ecosystem here.”

There are some recognizable patterns and elements to Kaptur’s work. For example, he didn’t use that much steel.

“He didn’t think that steel heating up to 125 degrees baking in the sun was quite the right material,” Burkholz said. “He preferred stone, thick wood, and he did incorporate glass as well. He really looked around the area for his inspiration when it came to the mountains, to the east, to the Native American cliff dwellings, and caves. His style is not as sleekly futuristic. He lived so long and worked so long that as fashion and style changed, he moved from Jetsons futurism to more of an organic quality.”

Kaptur’s work is still relevant today, Burkholz said.

“He and his wife, Helen, are kind of an advertisement for life in the desert,” Burkholz said. “They’re older folks, but they’re great-looking; they live a fabulous life; they have a great home off Bogert Trail in the Southern part of town. Pretty much everyone involved in Palm Springs planning and Palm Springs politics knows him, because he’s been here since 1958. He’s part and parcel to the residential and commercial texture of the whole city.”

Published in Features