Feeling modern: modernist architecture in Palm Springs

Our writer discovers the classic delights of Palm Springs


Albert Einstein came to gaze at the mountains, Marilyn Monroe trysted with JFK in Peter Lawford's pad and Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor and Bob Hope actually moved in. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, there was hardly a star who did not decamp to Palm Springs for the weekend, thanks to contracts which stipulated they remain within a two-hour drive of their studios.

Today this desert oasis, virtually unchanged since its mid-20th century heyday, is as different as imaginable from hectic Los Angeles. Palm Springs is a relaxed, clean-air playground where visitors can get around virtually everywhere on foot or free trolley, and locals know each other’s names. On a recent visit, I was even greeted by someone who remembered me from my last trip 15 years ago!

Around the turn of the millennium, the town was starting to come back to life after 30 years in the doldrums. Design and hotel entrepreneurs were moving in, drawn by the fabulous wealth of modernist architecture, left undisturbed as there was no pressure to redevelop what had long been dismissed as a backwater for retirees.

Now the retired and middle-aged live side by side with the young and hip who have revitalised Palm Springs without disturbing its essential mid-century vibe — time-warp tourism perhaps, but charming.

And February is one of the best times to visit, not only for the guaranteed winter sunshine but the event of the year, Modernism Week. Think Homes of the Stars tours for grown-ups, as architecture buffs explain the distinctive features of the best celebrity homes from an open-top double-decker bus.

The fine mid-20th century buildings on the route include banks, City Hall and a synagogue community centre as well as sumptuous houses, not least Frank Sinatra’s home, Twin Palms. Like Sunnylands, the lavish estate built for former US ambassador Walter Annenberg, it’s the subject of a separate optional tour (the latter has a fine contemporary Israeli sculpture beside the pool).

The homes only viewable from outside include the Kaufmann house, built by Jewish starchitect Richard Neutra for another Jew, department store tycoon Edgar Kaufmann, and temporarily vandalised by yet another, singer Barry Manilow, said to have put up “bad wallpaper” during the years he lived there — before moving elsewhere in Palm Springs.

Considered one of the 10 best homes in the West, it is now back in mint condition, like the Dinah Shore house bought by Leonardo diCaprio, available as a vacation rental as is Sinatra’s own pad.

But although the bricks and mortar and an enduring Rat Pack vibe are its great glory, Palm Springs never lets you forget that it’s the magnificent mountains which made this resort the playground it is. You can get up them easily enough even if you don’t hike — the Aerial Tramway is one of the world’s highest, and ascending Mount San Jacinto in the world’s largest revolving cable car is a thrilling experience. Don’t miss the charmingly retro documentary about the building of the tramway in the cinema at the top.

For those who yearn to be up close and personal with the natural scenery, Jeep tours drive deep into the canyons, stopping at the foot of easy but thrilling hiking trails, led by guides who share fascinating insights about the Indian tribes who were the original settlers of this land. Fittingly, they still own most of the wealth brought by the popularity of the resort.

Finding a historic place to stay isn’t hard but it’s difficult to top the chance to stay in the room Einstein slept in. The Willows was built in 1925, before Jewish entrepreneur and community leader Samuel Untermeyer made these stylish lodgings the toast of the town and the holidaymakers started to come in droves. And once he had taken over in 1930, it’s here he entertained the feted genius.

Or for sheer style, the huge library room feels fit for a movie star with a spacious 30s-style bathroom and a beautiful private walled patio, while the waterfall views from the terrace would make a set designer sigh.

Next door sits the Palm Springs Art Museum, with an extension devoted to architecture and design on the town’s main drag, Palm Canyon Drive. But its greatest asset may be the exquisite little hilltop home of the town’s most famous architect, Swiss-born Albert Frey, perched in the mountains above. Rare guided tours invariably sell out, book ahead for this unmissable excursion if you’re visiting on February 23 for Modernism Week.

Even the food fits the theme. The Kaiser Grille purveys the kind of classic American food the Rat Pack would have approved of — think iceberg wedge salad — in a classic mid-century building, while tiki, Hawaiian/Polynesian-themed bar décor, is still a hot motif here. Get your mid-morning caffeine fix at Ernest Coffee, where the most famous of all tiki restaurants, Don the Beachcomber, stood in 1953.

As I cruised comfortably back to Los Angeles in a Tesla electric car — part of the Tesloop ride-share scheme — I decided this vehicle of the future certainly has its own benefits but for me, there’s no question that the vintage allure of Palm Springs is as potent as it was 50 years ago.


Air New Zealand flies daily from London from £514 per person. Premium Economy, with its luxurious private pods, costs from £853. 

Palm Springs is around a two-hour drive from Los Angeles. A one-way journey with Tesloop costs from around £24 ($30) based on demand, picking up at airport hotels with fixed drop-off points in Palm Springs. 

Rooms at The Willows cost from around £295 per night including breakfast. 

For more information on Modernism week and to book tours visit or

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