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Preservation as Part of the Process

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Preservation as Part of the Process

Aerial View of Palm Springs - 2000's
aerial view 2000's

In response to renewed interest in the 20th century architectural heritage of the region, The City of Palm Springs set about to conduct a comprehensive survey of historic properties in 2004. The purpose of the survey was to look at 200 of the most historically and architecturally significant buildings. The survey included Spanish and Mediterranean buildings, mid-century Modern hotels, inns, restaurants, shops, schools, hospitals, commercial buildings and an airport. As opposed to the 1983 survey, which noted that fewer than 10% of buildings worthy of note belonging to the Modern category, the 2004 survey notes that the most significant architectural sites in the region are in the mid-century Modern category and that future efforts at preservation should be focused on those structures and locations. Further, the survey recognized that there are a concentrated number of historic resources that are less than 50 years old, along with potential undocumented historic districts. The 2004 report makes significant note that Palm Springs is "unique in its concentration of significant mid-century Modern residences and commercial buildings and as the location of innovative work by prolific local architects.”

Renovated Alexander Home
renovated alexander interior

By 2007, the notion that preservation of Modernist structures in Palm Springs was a civic responsibility was aided in part by increased codification and communication regarding how structures would be considered for preservation. The Palm Springs City Planning Department implemented a classification system of historic sites, developed a review process and was involved in communication efforts about the economic and cultural benefits of preservation. Pamphlets and documents concerning preservation featured mostly images of Modernist structures including iconic residences like the Edris House by E. Stewart Williams as well as the more modest steel houses by Wexler and Harrison. An Historic Site Preservation Board took control of the review process to determine which sites or districts would receive historic designation and what processes would be used in determining what is worthy of preservation, with all sites constructed before 1945 eligible for a six month stay of demolition pending survey and review. Further, the city backed up the commitment with property tax reductions, building code relief, and a recognition program. This did not mean that those charged with interpretation of preservation efforts would always see eye to eye on how federal and state laws would be applied and how the interests of developers and civic leaders would match with those interested in preservation of Modernist structures, but it was a radical improvement from just two decades prior. There has been public investment as well. Riverside County committed nearly $4 million in 2009 to develop plans and restore Albert Frey's North Shore Yacht Club building for use as a community center and museum.

Renovated Room at the Desert Hot Springs
desert hot springs hotel interior 2000's

There remain challenges for preservation at the institutional level. The City of Palm Springs does not have architectural guidelines enforced by an architectural review board. In early February 2010, the city approved the very first historic district designation for the Royal Hawaiian Estates condominium complex, designed in 1961 by Donald Wexler. The city does not yet have historic districts or specific planning rules to protect Modernist homes in any other area. An effort is underway by the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation to organize the community to help create more historic districts. The project would have citizens photograph buildings, pull building permits to confirm construction details and dates of construction, and gather information needed for the city to make designations of entire districts as historic. This process would help alleviate one of the obstacles to the creation of such districts—the lack of city resources to gather the amount of information needed. Further hindering preservation is that within the municipal boundaries of the City of Palm Springs, there are no properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the California State Historic Landmarks or the California State Points of Historical Interest. All designations of the historical or architectural significance of properties are maintained locally. The local review board makes recommendations to the City Council, which has ultimate authority over designation of sites. Codified penalties for failure to honor historic designations and even stays of demolition are weak, classed as misdemeanors with only small fines for violations. Until there are stronger measures in place to mandate preservation and more historic districts are created, preservation battles will happen plot by plot, building by building, risking arbitrary outcomes and private influence.

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