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Early Palm Springs:
Tourist Town on the Make
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Hollywood's Weekend Home
Building on the Harsh Terrain: Modernism in the Desert
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Early Palm Springs:
Tourist Town on the Make

Aerial View of Coachella Valley and Palm Springs -1932
1932 aerial view of PS

There was nothing in the early history of Palm Springs that would lead one to believe that the town would become an outpost for a new form of Modernism. The area is secluded by terrain and climate. The San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains to the west form a natural barrier to coastal clouds and weather patterns. The little San Bernadino Mountains to the east provide the boundaries for the expansive Coachella Valley, with Palm Springs tucked in to the northern end, surrounded by rugged desert stone. Underlying the region is a large natural aquifer that provides water—a natural oasis that has been tapped and pumped to the surface to sustain human populations and artificial landscapes. The Cahuilla Indians lived in the region for nearly 500 years before white settlers arrived, adapting to a harsh summer climate that sees temperatures regularly rise into the triple digits. The Southern Pacific Railroad began to pass through the Coachella Valley in 1876 and a few hardy tourists, looking for the restorative properties of the mineral hot springs amidst the gorgeous mountain views, came to the valley on the Los Angeles to Yuma line. Early efforts at settlement set about to create an agricultural center around Palm Springs, but bad luck in the form of floods and drought left those enterprises doomed. More success was to be found in attracting tourists for the springs and the climate. Outdoor pageants glorifying and most certainly embellishing local history were put on to attract overnight visitors, and a hotel and campgrounds opened for the season. (Cygelman, p. 26)

Lloyd Wright's Oasis Hotel -1924
oasis hotel

Pre-Modern Architecture
Architectural expression in Palm Springs prior to 1940 was most often in the form of rugged camps like the Smoke Tree Ranch that catered to hardy tourists, drawn by the restorative properties of the hot springs. While the natural beauty and therapeutic relief of the springs was a draw, the forbidding climate and remote location kept the area an exclusive and distant locale through the 1920’s. Building styles for residences and public structures in Palm Springs during this period were indistinguishable from their counterparts in other areas in Southern California, with Spanish influence dominating. Among the first important Modern structures designed in Palm Springs was, appropriately, a tourist hotel. The Oasis Hotel was built in 1924 by Lloyd Wright, the eldest son of Frank Lloyd Wright. Constructed fourteen years before his father’s Taliesin West, the Oasis offered a garden full of trees and flowers, a pond, trellises and rooftop terraces to enjoy the views, with a drive-in design perfectly suited for those traveling by automobile. Wright’s design displayed few of the elements of the style we would later see in the generation of architects that marked Palm Springs as a Modernist enclave, but he had established that new forms of architecture, suited to the desert and the local trade, could thrive in Palm Springs in one of the first designs built for the resort setting. Rudolph Schindler contributed to innovation when he built the Popenoe Cabin in 1922, featuring flat roofs, screened areas, overhangs and a central living/dining area, a vacation residence that offered a notable divergence in style from the Mediterranean norm. Within a decade, a new architectural style would take root and grow. Tourists with newly minted Hollywood wealth would begin to make Palm Springs a vacation paradise. They favored bold statements in their design choices, and were served by a generation of talented and visionary architects who took their cues from influences as varied as Bauhaus, Wright, Busby Berkeley and the Sonoran sunsets.

Rise of Desert Modern