architecture

How Palm Springs' modernist villas redefined glamour

Updated 2nd February 2018
Designed by Palm Springs architect James McNaughton, Villa Grigio has recently been bought and renovated by the interior designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard.
Credit: Tim Street-Porter
How Palm Springs' modernist villas redefined glamour
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
In May 1947, Frank Sinatra showed up at Emerson Stewart Williams' office in Palm Springs, California, and asked for a Georgian-style vacation home. As the late architect recounted to Vanity Fair more than 50 years later, the singer's only other stipulation was that it was finished by Christmas.
The deadline was feasible. But when it came to the design, Williams had other ideas, according to Tim Street-Porter, the photographer behind a new book on the city, "Palm Springs: A Modernist Paradise."
"(Sinatra) wanted it to be in a period style, but the architect talked him into having a modernist house," Street-Porter said in a phone interview. "When he got it, he entertained in it. And because Sinatra was who he was, it got other entertainment industry people, like Diana Shaw, to get modernist houses there too."
Complete with a swimming pool, glass walls and a shady veranda for cocktail parties, Sinatra's home was typical of the mid-century modernism that swept Palm Springs after World War II. The city soon became a holiday playground for the stars -- from Zsa Zsa Gabor to Bing Crosby -- leaving it with one of the highest concentrations of modernist buildings anywhere in the world (Street-Porter puts the overall figure at over 5,000 houses).
While the photographer's new book omits Sinatra's home in favor of lesser-known residences, he uses the story to illustrate an important point -- that the Palm Springs modernist boom wasn't just about the whims of Hollywood. It was about the vision of the city's pioneering architects.

A mid-century phenomenon

Typical features of the mid-century modernism that swept Palm Springs after World War II include swimming pools, glass walls and a shady verandas.
Typical features of the mid-century modernism that swept Palm Springs after World War II include swimming pools, glass walls and a shady verandas. Credit: Tim Street-Porter
Architects began arriving in Palm Springs from the 1930s as modernism gathered momentum in the US and beyond. Chief among them was Swiss architect Albert Frey, who had previously worked under Le Corbusier and would go on to build some of California's most iconic houses.
Frey and his early contemporaries faced a challenge: As a hot, desert city, Palm Springs would have been considered inhospitable to your average Hollywood star. But the spread of air conditioning from the 1950s changed the clientele -- and the type of home available to them.
"The earlier houses tended to be more Spanish in style, where you'd have small windows and heavy, highly insulated walls," Street-Porter said. "But once AC arrived, you could suddenly have wall-to-wall glass. It was on sliders, so it could open up, giving you this indoor-outdoor (dynamic)."
Other classic traits of modernism can be found across the 17 homes selected by Street-Porter, including flat roofs, sleek colonnades and open floor plans. The Palm Springs aesthetic is completed by enviable views of the surrounding mountains and an abundance of palm trees.
The book's selection includes designs by some of the movement's best-known architects, like Donald Wexler and James McNaughton. With glitzy names like Villa Grigio and The Ship of the Desert, the houses reflect not only a historic aesthetic, but a glamorous post-war lifestyle
Morrison-Strasser Residence was built at the beginning of the 1970s, the decade in which modernist architecture began to fall out of fashion across the US.
Morrison-Strasser Residence was built at the beginning of the 1970s, the decade in which modernist architecture began to fall out of fashion across the US. Credit: Tim Street-Porter
"The climate and the wonderful light made it a real vacation place, and people wanted to entertain," Street-Porter said. "You could take drinks out onto the terrace -- from the kitchen or a bar -- and it became an ideal holiday or weekend environment."
Palm Springs' celebrity population has shrunk significantly in recent decades, but many of the homes remain in good condition thanks to private renovations and the work of local preservation groups.
The city holds the annual Palm Springs Modernism Week, showcasing some of its best examples to visitors. And even with its Hollywood heydays long behind it, the city still holds a unique sense of glamor for architecture enthusiasts.
"I was there last winter and all the mountains around the city were edged with snow," Street-Porter recalled. "It was like I was lying happily on my back at the bottom of an empty margarita glass, and I could see frosting all the way around the rim."
"Palm Springs: A Modernist Paradise," published by Rizzoli, is available from Feb. 6.