CVIndependent

Sat10202018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

When it comes to boosting the curb appeal of your midcentury modern home, the rule of “less is more” is key.

Of course, Palm Springs has one of the greatest concentrations of midcentury homes around. These homes lend themselves beautifully to minimalist gardens, with clean lines and room to breathe between each landscape component.

I love large picture windows that look out on front and back yards. With these windows, you are sure to bring the outdoors inside by capitalizing on the view.

When you are designing with pots, replicate the lines of the midcentury home by thinking about the flow from one garden element to another. Use a simple repetition of plantings along with square and round pots with simple lines, and avoid a strong singular focal point. In the concrete planters with pedilanthus shown to the right, a little cleanup of the plants’ wayward branches will give a strong vertical element, as dictated by this period.

Your pot selection can include vase-shaped or cylindrical containers; if desired, add a punch of color.

Plants reminiscent of this time include hybrid tea roses; strong erect grass shapes, accomplished with flax, phormium and cordyline; succulents, including agaves (choose slow growing varieties), giant hesperaloe and pedilanthus; and water plants like the horsetail reed.

Flowers should have large blooms or a structure that creates the appearance of large blooms; pentas, calendula, dahlia, marigolds and geraniums all can be used well. In the picture at the top of this column, even large leafed greens are included—to add to your dinner salads!

Yes, less is truly more. This philosophy will keep both budgets and water consumption low—a plus for anyone who is a believer in sustainability.

Marylee Pangman is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the desert’s potted garden expert. Marylee’s book, Getting Potted in the Desert, has just been released. Buy it online at potteddesert.com. Email her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

When it comes to Modernism Week’s various tours, there’s good news, and there’s bad news.

The good news: This year’s 10th-anniversary edition of Modernism Week features more tours than ever before. Mark Davis, the treasurer of Modernism Week’s board of directors (and Modernism Week’s unofficial tour guru), said that more than 20 neighborhood tours are being offered in 2015. That’s up from nine in 2014.

The bad news: A lot of these tours are already sold out. In other words, if you’re interested in learning more about the unique and groundbreaking architecture of the Coachella Valley, you’d better head to modernismweek.com and get your tickets now.

The speedy ticket sales are a testament to the fact that midcentury modern architecture is as popular as it’s ever been (or, well, at least more popular than it’s been since the actual midcentury modern era of the 1950s and ’60s).

“During the sad years, people didn’t appreciate what (midcentury architecture) was,” said Davis, who fell in love with Palm Springs and its architecture when he started coming to the area in 1996. “Now, many of these places are being restored.”

In fact, it’s because of Modernism Week and all of these ticket sales that many structures and landscapes are being restored to their original glory: Modernism Week is a nonprofit which turns the money from these tours over to various neighborhoods.

“Last year, $240,000 went right back to neighborhood groups” from ticket sales, he said. “This year, it should be about $500,000. That’s cold, hard cash going back to the community.”

About which tours is Davis most excited? He mentioned a tour of midcentury modern homes in Indian Wells, of all places, adding that he’s been working on it since last August.

Then, alas, he said the tour had quickly sold out.

“We realized, ‘Hey, people really want to see new things,” he said.

Next, he mentioned a tour that, as of this writing, is not completely sold out: a walking tour of the Vista Las Palmas neighborhood, known as the “Rat Pack playground.”

“It’s such a beautiful neighborhood, and it’s mostly intact,” he said.

Finally, he mentioned another new tour, of the 1947 Trousdale homes of Tahquitz River Estates. As of this writing, tickets ($65) remained for this one-time tour, starting at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 21.

“These were the most modern, current homes you could find anywhere,” he said about these 68-year-old Trousdales. (Similar homes can be found in the Trousdale Estates portion of Beverly Hills, FYI.)

Now, if you’re not already a fan of architecture or the modernism movement, you may be asking yourself something to the effect of: Why should I care about a bunch of old, albeit really nice, houses? If that’s the case, Davis said you should consider a neighborhood tour anyway.

“Not everyone cares for (modernism), but I can’t tell you how many people, including personal friends, who have had no interest in midcentury modern architecture whatsoever, go on a tour … and fall completely in love with it,” he said.

Davis, who moved to Palm Springs after 30 years in the travel industry, speaks with a fervent passion for architecture; in part, he credits his upbringing near the architectural haven of Chicago for sparking that interest. He said he hopes locals and visitors alike can find something within Modernism Week to enjoy. Besides the tours, he gave a special shout-out to the 30 or so Modernism Week lectures—which, unlike many tours, don’t tend to sell out.

“It’s exciting to me,” he said about Modernism Week.

Modernism Week takes place Thursday, Feb. 12, through Sunday, Feb. 22. Ticket prices for the tours, lectures and other events vary. For tickets or more information, including a complete and up-to-date schedule, visit modernismweek.com.

Published in Visual Arts

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