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Celebrate Modernism Week in Palm Springs



modernism week in palm springs

In this article, Jim Farber shows us around the Modernism week in Palm Springs.

Celebrate Modernism Week in Palm Springs

In 1947, Frank Sinatra, then at the height of his popularity, decided to build a cozy getaway house in Palm Springs, a desert community east of Los Angeles that had become a favorite retreat for the Hollywood set. But when Sinatra arrived at the architectural firm of Williams, Williams and Williams and proposed they build him a Georgian mansion in time for Christmas, E. Stewart Williams convinced his client to jettison his old-fashioned notion and embrace the new clean lines of Mid-century Modernism.

Having the chance to stroll through Sinatra's “Twin Palms,” with its two towering palm trees, glistening pool in the shape of a grand piano, living room with built-in recording equipment and bathroom mirror smashed by a champagne bottle chucked by Ava Gardner, is just one of treats that awaits you as part of Modernism Week.

This year's festival will take place Feb. 15-25, highlighting Mid-century Modern architecture, art, interior and landscape design, and vintage culture. Now in its 13th year, the annual 11-day festival will feature a wide array of events that include the Palm Springs Modernism Show and Sale, tours of iconic homes in more than 23 neighborhoods (including the “Signature Home Tour” on both weekends), architectural walking, biking and double-decker bus tours, classic cars, garden tours, a vintage travel-trailer exhibition, nightly parties and a special series of talks about Frank Lloyd Wright, Preservation and Legendary Women of Design. All events are open to the public, and tickets are now on sale.

Through a fortunate combination of architectural development, keen-eyed preservation, good luck and an economic downturn that saved many a building from the wrecking ball, Palm Springs is now to Mid-Century Modernism what Victorian architecture is to San Francisco or Antebellum architecture is to New Orleans. It's everywhere, and it defines the look of the city.

As a preamble to Modernism Week, Palm Springs hosted a Modernism Weekend in October, a compressed version of the myriad events that will be presented in February.

A highlight of my visit was Charles Phoenix, who could be called the P.T. Barnum of Modernism. He celebrates every aspect of its style with exuberant enjoyment — from classic architecture and the juiciest star gossip to the purest forms of kitsch. For Phoenix a blinking neon sign or a Mickey Mouse watch is akin to finding the Holy Grail. His three-hour repartee-riddled double-decker bus tours are a must, even if (as he readily admits) half the information he recites is wrong and the other half he's made up. Neither is true, entirely. Visiting Palm Springs with Phoenix is a bus ride you will not soon forget.

While a bus ride may be the most comfortable way to cover ground, to really appreciate architecture you need to move at a slower pace, ideally on foot. Modernism Week offers a variety of walking tours narrated by volunteers who truly love sharing their knowledge.

This was certainly true of the tour I participated in with Jim West, who is an authority on the architecture of William Krisel, Albert Frey and Walter White (not of “Breaking Bad” fame), with whom I was unfamiliar until West brought his signature work to the tour's attention.

For three hours we explored the streets of Palm Desert, stopping often to listen to West's historical accounts of housing developments, resorts, motels and private homes. In one case the owners of a recently renovated home by Krisel were so happy to see us, they invited us in.

Of all the events that make up Modernism Week, none is more fun than the Cul-de-Sac block party, described as “Palm Springs' time-capsule experience.” It takes place in the pristinely preserved and restored Canyon View Estates designed by Krisel. The theme is a real-estate sale in the 1950s, complete with real-estate office in an Airstream trailer, costumed hostesses with bouffant hairdos, period cars in the driveways and any number of “open houses.” Any house with a “For Sale” sign in front, we are told, may be explored. It really is like a trip back in time. I could almost hear Rod Serling saying, “Look out, there's a signpost up ahead. You've just crossed over into Canyon View Estates.”

For a complete list of events and to purchase tickets:

Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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