PALM SPRINGS: Desert Modern

A hundred miles east of Los Angeles lies the desert city of Palm Springs. It has drawn visitors for over a century for its dry heat, laid-back vibe and mountain views. It's a popular retirement destination, a seasonal home for "snowbirds" escaping winter in other parts of North America and an escape from urban life for the residents of Los Angeles.

During the winter months, the city's population triples. This makes February and March a pleasant time to visit although, as in many parts of the world, early 2019 saw more extreme weather than usual! A cold streak and flooding let to highway closures and damage to housing. On the drive from LA to Palm Springs, snow can still be seen on the surrounding mountains.

The landscape during the drive is quite varied, taking you from mountains to desert. Thousands of wind turbines dot the landscape on either side of Highway Ten, just outside Palm Springs. Some are hundreds of feet tall, with wing-spans as long as a football field. They provide a green renewable energy source and are also a tourist attraction.

In the early 1920s, Palm Springs became popular amongst Hollywood stars who saw it as a place to escape, yet still close enough if they needed to go back to LA. It’s become that popular with the celebrities, who instead of staying in hotels would commission famous architects and interior designers to build their dream dream homes. The area is still celebrated for its innovative mid-century modern architecture - "Desert Modern" style.

Modernism Week is an annual event in Palm Springs that celebrates midcentury modern design, architecture, art, fashion and culture. Hundreds of events take place during the week, including a lecture on the landscape design of Disneyland followed by a cocktail reception which takes place at Walt Disney's former Palm Springs home at Smoke Tree Ranch.

A name particularly associated with Palm Springs is Frank Sinatra. In the 1950s and '60s, Palm Springs was the swinging getaway of Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack. Frank Sinatra Drive is one of the main streets in Palm Springs today.

During Modernism Week, tours take place of Sinatra's house, designed by Architect E. William Stewart. The basin in the bathroom still shows a crack from a champagne bottle, thrown by Sinatra during one of his (many) fights with his wife, movie star Ava Gardner!

Frank Sinatra's friend and songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen, is another famous resident of the Palm Springs area. Sinatra recorded more than 75 songs by Van Heusen, more than any other composer. In fact it was Van Heusen who first visited Palm Springs, and recommended it to Sinatra as somewhere to live. As part of Modernism Week Sinatra's grandaughter, AJ Lambert, performs a concert of a selection of Van Heusen's songs.

Van Heusen lived on a hilltop in Yucca Valley, 30 miles north of Palm Springs. The house is abandoned and in disrepair now, but next to it is still the helicopter pad Van Heusen used to fly in and out in his private helicopter.

Below the main house, the Pool Cabin has been restored by the current owners of the ranch and can be rented through AirBnB.

Photos by Maki Saito, Jim Burns & Roger Frankham.


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