Fans of midcentury modern architecture descended on the California resort town for the recent Modernism Week — and go year-round for bus tours and house tours.
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — They came for the walking tours of Vista Las Palmas, the neighborhood so popular with Frank Sinatra and his crowd that it is known as the “Rat Pack Playground.” They rode buses up steep hills to view the gemlike house built around a massive boulder by Albert Frey, an architect known as a father of “desert modernism.” And of course they could not miss the outdoor show of vintage travel-trailers and the nightly parties in private homes rarely open to the public.
Before “Mad Men” made its debut, there were the “modernistas,” as aficionados of midcentury modern architecture are known. About 50,000 of them descended upon this affluent town in the San Jacinto Mountains this month for the 10th annual celebration of Palm Springs’ Modernism Week.
This year the events included an evening at Piazza di Liberace, which once belonged to the flamboyant pianist, and a 100th birthday celebration of Sinatra at Twin Palms, where he lived in the 1940s. Now a tourist attraction known as Sinatra House, the estate epitomizes the indoor-outdoor living that Californians are famous for, only this one designed by the architect E. Stewart Williams and featuring a piano-shaped swimming pool. Legend has it that its famous owner would run a flag up the two tall palm trees to let neighbors know it was cocktail hour — or “’tini time.”
“There was a style and sophistication that I think men today don’t tap into,” Chris Jordan, a 38-year-old social media specialist from Los Angeles, said at one of the week’s big parties.
Drawing the modernist tourist
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Palm Springs has long been a draw for the jet set, but more recently it has been marketing itself as a destination for fans of its slightly idealized past, playing up its credentials as a mecca of modernist architecture and celebrity culture. Images of “butterfly roofs,” the angled signatures of midcentury modernism, have replaced the golf club as the city’s aesthetic trademark, appearing on bus shelters, trail signs and even on local KFC and McDonald’s restaurants. Modernism Week represents an apex of sorts for the city, bringing in what organizers say is roughly $17 million over 11 days.
The average ticket price is $60, with fundraising events like the Retro Martini Party, a benefit for the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, costing $150. For devotees, the opportunity to open Albert Frey’s kitchen cabinets and poke around his property, albeit while watching out for rattlesnakes, may have been worth any cost.
Hundreds of midcentury modern houses have been purchased and restored to their original appearance by fans of the aesthetic, and there are stores in the city’s Uptown Design District — with names like Just Modern and Just Fabulous — to accommodate them. Many of these homeowners first discovered the city’s architectural wealth during Modernism Week and are now active preservationists.
“It’s the general public that has been the savior of Palm Springs,” said Peter Moruzzi, an architectural historian and founder of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, which scored a recent preservation victory with the City Council to turn aside a proposed expansion to the Palm Springs International Airport that would have compromised the original design by Donald Wexler.
One couple from Bangor, Maine, Russ Harrington, a real estate broker, and Walter Gary, a hairstylist, bought a Wexler in Palm Springs as their second home. They filled it with vintage midcentury furniture snapped up at estate sales in Maine.
“We paid a third of what it would cost in Palm Springs,” Harrington said. “Nobody wants it there.”
A fan from Tacoma
For Anja Pangborn, 35, who described herself as an “architectural stalker” from Tacoma,, the highlight of this year’s Modernism Week was a public discussion at the Palm Springs Art Museum with one of her idols, Nelda Linsk, a local real estate broker who appeared in a famous 1970 photograph by Slim Aarons called “Poolside Gossip” that is thought to encapsulate the Palm Springs lifestyle. For this event, Linsk wore a vintage bright yellow knit that matched the shade of the terry cloth outfit she wore in the photograph. She spoke of a sun-kissed era filled with stars like Dean Martin, Bob Hope and Sinatra.
“If we forgot a lemon for our martini, we told the butler to send it up in the dumbwaiter,” Linsk told the rapt crowd.
In this traditional bastion of Republicanism, a favorite haunt of presidents Eisenhower and Reagan, the phrase “I like Eich” refers today to Joseph Eichler, a builder who hired noted architects to design midcentury modern subdivisions in Palo Alto and other California communities.
Two New Yorkers who attended Modernism Week, Mary K. Humfield, 59, a retired American Express executive, and Sonia Manganaro, 50, who had a shop in Greenwich Village, recently bought their first house in the style called “Desert Eichler,” in Palm Springs.
“Mary had an emotional response,” Manganaro explained. “It was like she was buying a pair of shoes. She said, ‘I’ll take it.’”