Troy Hightower

A Modern Christmas

In the low winter sun, bright blue sky and clear winter air, the San Jacinto Mountains tower over Palm Springs. I mean they are right there - rugged, and so dominating of the landscape. We are here for a winter break over Christmas, with good friends in a rented four-bedroom house which ironically was designed by one of the key modern architects of the mid 20th century, Albert Frey. It's ironic because mid-century modernism has fairly dominated our visit, and because this house, of vaguely Spanish colonial style, is anything but modern.

Palm Springs has more extant examples of this style of architecture than anywhere else in the world. There are residential areas devoted to modernism, commercial buildings which exemplify the style, a design district full of shops filled with modern furniture and objects, many architectural tours, and countless celebrity houses built in the 50's and 60's which are temples to modernism. 

Hotels are Modern, restaurants are Modern, bars are Modern--it seems like the Jetsons should be coming around the corner. The Bank of America building designed by Victor Gruen is an homage to Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp. The Tramway Gas Station built by Frey features a soaring hyperbolic paraboloid roof over its gas pumps and drive.

The top architects of mid-century modernism are all represented: the aforementioned Frey, Richard Neutra, William Cody, Donald Wexler, William Krisler, John Porter Clark, A. Quincy Jones and others.

Bob Hope's parabolic house designed by John Lautner hovers over the valley like a spaceship just landed; Frey's second personal residence nestles into at the edge of a craggy foothill with a mega-ton boulder integrated into the living room; Frank Sinatra's original low-slung linear house with piano-shaped pool designed by E Stewart Williams; Neutra's design for Edgar Kaufman's winter desert home is a striking example. And perhaps quintessentially, Sunnylands, the 25,000 square foot estate envisioned by A Quincy Jones in 1963 for Walter and Eleanor Annenberg, which presides over its 200-acre park in Rancho Mirage, is said to be the only serious residential estate in the country that is Modernist in design.

Local and transplanted New Yorker Michael Stern collaborated with noted architectural photographer Julius Schulman to produce the art book Julius Schulman: Palm Springs, packed with stunning photographs of the best and most famous examples of modern design. Michael also owns and operates the company Modern Tours, and it was on a sunny Christmas Eve day that we met him at his office to begin a three-hour tour of the Modern world of Palm Springs. He's a font of knowledge about the area, as well as Modern design, and a thoroughly delightful raconteur as well. We wended our way through the areas of Twin Palms (so named because every home came with two palm trees) filled with homes of identical design by Krisler, but different roof styles -- the butterfly roof, the flat roof, the A-frame -- built in the thousands by the Alexander Development Company designed by William Krisel.

Landscaping is an integral part of Mid-Century Modern design, and consists of infinite variations of cactus, yucca, agave, palms, granite boulders, stepping stones all set primarily in pea gravel, with some areas of turf. It's a look that fits and integrates, echoing as it does the boulders and rocks climbing up the steep slope the San Jacintos, and the native desert vegetation.

We make our way through Mesa, Vista Las Palmas, Las Palmas, Deepwell, and the Movie Colony. In Vista Las Palmas sits the Neutra designed Edgar Kaufman house. Department store magnate Kaufman is noted for having Frank Lloyd Wright execute his most famous commission, Fallingwater, in Pennsylvania. When Kaufman decided on a winter house in Palm Springs, he turned to Neutra for a more open style. It was said that "Wright was not amused" The low, rectilinear house sits on the mountain slope amid a jumble of boulders, Palo Verde trees and desert plants. In 2008, the house was put up for sale by Christies in a high profile contemporary art auction.

Toward the south end of town in what is called the Windy Zone (the hundreds of huge, white wind turbines climbing up the pass emphasize this) is a street of seven Steel Development Houses that were designed by Wexler in the early 60’s.. Interested in efficiency and cost effectiveness, the cores, with kitchen, bath and services were prefabricated in Los Angeles, trucked out, and placed by crane, and then the additional steel-framed, glass walled living areas, and exteriors were added.

Our final visit near the Movie Colony district was to the house that Wexler designed for himself and his family, a striking glass and steel structure that carries the "bringing the outside in, and the inside out" concept to it's epitome. Recently renovated and currently owned by an executive who resides in San Francisco, it's understated elegance, perfect desert landscape of gravel, stones, palms and angular plants makes it one of the most beautiful and tasteful examples of modern architecture, interior design and landscaping that I've ever seen.

The day after Christmas we drove east several miles on Ramon, turned south on Bob Hope Drive, crossing Dinah Shore and Gene Autry to arrive at the gate of the Sunnylands Center and Gardens. The Modern estate home of Sunnylands itself is available by advance reservation for tour, but we were here to see the 9 acres of native and arid-adapted plants that make up the Gardens around the Sunnylands conference center.

Designed by landscape architect John Burnett, the design concept of these gardens was to translate the style of the Annenberg's vast collection of Impressionist paintings—with Van Gogh’s 1889 Olive Trees as primary inspiration—onto the desert floor. This is accomplished by grouping swaths of like-species plants, 90 varieties in all, in contrasting drifts and beds: a sweep of milkweed, next to a few hundred Agave parryii, backed by organ pipes of saguaro cactus and flanked by groupings of aloe, beargrass and the twisting stems of a type of Euphorbia known as medusa head. The effect is striking and very photogenic. The view from the center itself west over a circle of lawn flanked by feathery green-barked Palo Verde trees leads the eye finally to the soaring 10,000 plus foot high San Jacinto Mountains in the distance.

The eye-poppingly colored Saguaro Hotel on Palm Canyon has been a local landmark for years, and we stop to cap our Christmas visit to Palm Springs with lunch at Iron Chef Jose Garces’ El Jefe tequila bar and taco lounge—margaritas, cerveca, quacamole, micro tacos and tostadas—a fitting end to a thoroughly Modern Chrismas.