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Spanish Envy and Hard Times
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Spanish Envy and Hard Times
Changing fashions in the 1970’s led further to a falling out of favor as the minimalist, flat-roofed Modernist buildings that came to be seen as boring and out of date. The structures seemed connected to the worst parts of a bygone era, monotonous repetition devoid of soul, unlike the textured stucco and ornamentation of the Spanish style, which seemed to evoke California’s heritage to many. The appetite for Modernist architecture waned first in residential developments. Architecture and design began to take on more ornamentation as residents added their own spin on the homes. Ornate statuary, orange shag rugs, and other elements of 1970’s kitsch moved in to soften and alter the severe Modern aesthetic. Spanish Colonial Revival forms took over in every housing price range, making sections of Palm Springs indistinguishable from swaths of Southern California from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

Demolished Biltmore Hotel
demolished biltmore

By the late 1970’s, the city of Palm Springs, strapped for cash due in part to construction boom/bust cycles and the effects of Proposition 13, declared a moratorium on building. Developers moved outward to Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert and Indian Wells seeking opportunities to build and grow. New residents and young families began moving to the gated enclaves in these communities and Palm Springs lost primacy as the place to live and work. Also at this time, the city design review board was weakened, making the creation of a cohesive city plan difficult. Several notable downtown projects were torn down and landmarks including the Desert Inn (1909)were replaced by shopping centers and parking lots. The city limited design control to superficial elements like park benches and architects were left out of review board decisions. Spanish architectural detailing and colorful flourishes were welcomed as the antidote to severe, stark Modern architecture and Spanish-style commercial buildings replaced Modernist buildings. Bullocks department store was treated to a Spanish redo. “Following the unlikely lead of Anaheim and other resort cities, Palm Springs officials wanted to update its downtown in the image of Spanish Santa Barbara. The old Modern buildings were in the way.”(Danish/Hess, p.158)

Desert Fashion Plaza Strip Mall
desert fashion plaza
The general cultural perception of Palm Springs in the 1980’s is as one of the least trendy, hip, cool places on the planet. Seen as a geezerville, flush with snowbirds and recognized as a landing pad for old golfers, a benign neglect set in. Developers weren’t clamoring to knock down sites and build new resorts for the retirees that were still moving to the valley, drawn by the climate. As new residents moved in, their interests were not necessarily in synch with the Modernist aesthetic. They were not drawing their design cues from Modernism, which was viewed by many as a trend that had passed. Arriving from all over the country, they brought with them their own interpretation of California living, establishing the dominance of the Spanish Colonial form as functional and cheap 1980’s architecture. Country clubs and strip malls fully served the needs of the new inhabitants. There was less appreciation for the Modernist aesthetic among many residents, unable to view a phenomenon so recent and seemingly mundane as worthy of preservation or study. Civic indifference or outright hostility to the recent Modernist past allowed the shift to Spanish Colonial styles to continue unabated. Palm Springs was mocked as the home of oldsters who dressed poorly in more than one Carson monologue. New residential and commercial development continued the move to the outlying communities, where golf courses and spa resorts attracted the attention of development money. The city of Palm Springs, by comparison, sat neglected.
Give the People What You Want