Palm Springs is an architectural treasure trove. The best way to learn more about the ubiquitous desert-modern residences, outside of the wildly popular Modernism Week, in February, is to take a guided tour. We tried two this time: one by vehicle and one by bicycle, both excellent despite the latter taking place during a sandstorm on a cold January day. I highly recommend both, in addition to our longtime recommendation of the private Modern Tour led by Michael Stern.
Palm Springs Mod Squad
We saw the interiors of three desert-modern homes over the course of 90 minutes on our small group tour with Palm Springs Mod Squad. Guide Kurt Cyr, a local designer and midcentury expert, drove us to various neighborhoods while explaining more about Palm Springs and the signature features of midcentury homes: cantilever roofs, narrow clerestory windows, brise soleil and patterned brick/shadow block walls. Form follows function here, and all four of these features help protect against the harsh desert environment. Many houses have what are called “fortress fronts” and are “discreet to the street,” but inside they open up. For example, a home’s foyer may be in a confined area with a low ceiling, but then the space expands with large windows or step-downs — that’s compression and expansion at work. A lack of moldings makes walls look taller, and the transition from indoor floors to patio concrete is seamless to bring the outdoors in. Cyr was great at pointing out the small details you might not ordinarily notice that come together to create fine midcentury design. Highlights included a home within the former Desert Star motel and a Krisel reproduction containing Billy Haines furnishings. When the outstanding tour was over, he emailed us a list of recommended restaurants, stores and further reading on the movement.
Palm Springs Historical Society
Our travel advisor booked the Bike the Mid Mod Oasis tour for us through the Palm Springs Historical Society. It supplied us with seven-speed bikes and a headset so we could easily hear our guide as we rode. In about three hours we covered roughly 8 miles, visiting various neighborhoods on the south side of Palm Springs, including Deepwell Estates, Twin Palms, Indian Canyons and Warm Sands. We viewed a few of the 2,200 modular Alexander homes by George Alexander and his son Robert that brought cutting-edge architectural designs to average homebuyers in the 1950s and ’60s. The genius of these near assembly-line homes was that each looked like a custom build: There were five rooflines to choose from and different exterior details and orientations, but they had almost identical floor plans. And we saw sprawling residences owned by William Holden, Ray Bradbury and William Lear, the owner of LearJet Corporation, who reportedly called the police on an inebriated Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin after they ran out of gas, popped in to his Indian Canyons house and wouldn’t leave. Learning about the architects who transformed the city, and home-building in general, proved fascinating. The Palm Springs Historical Society offers two bike tours and 13 walking tours. If this one is any indication, they should all be of merit.