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Retro Palm Springs

From motels to martinis, visitors can experience the mid-century style that's making the city sizzle again.


PALM SPRINGS — At a cemetery on Ramon Road, where the Crayola-green lawns of this desert community yield to sand and tumbleweeds, Frank Sinatra is buried. His plain, flat gravestone bears an epitaph taken from the title of an early '60s song he recorded: "The Best Is Yet to Come." But beyond its comment on death, no quotation could better sum up the cool, sexy, seize-the-day attitude of an era when Sinatra was swingin', JFK was president, onion dip was the appetizer of choice and every adolescent girl dreamed of getting a Maidenform bra.

Standing there, I was 10 years old again, spying from the hall on one of my parents' cocktail parties. I could hear Ol' Blue Eyes crooning from the hi-fi, see the women with their bouffant hairdos and shiny patent leather pumps and smell perfume, cigarettes and Scotch.

The memory was a little door prize given to me toward the end of a recent visit to Palm Springs, which seems to have awakened from a trance that left it frozen in the '50s and '60s. Now it's chic again, precisely because it never quite left those martini times behind. As Palm Springs baked under the desert sun, nobody bothered to throw out bubble lamps, starburst clocks and vinyl chairs, or tear down futuristic buildings designed by such architects as John Lautner, Richard Neutra and Albert Frey. But now design from that time is all the rage, and in no place is it better preserved than Palm Springs.

At the entrance to Palm Springs, where California Highway 111 turns into Palm Canyon Drive, the smashingly restored Tramway Gas Station symbolizes the resurgence of the town and the style, re-christened as mid-century modern. The gas station was designed with a soaring "butterfly" roof in 1965 by Frey, a Swiss-born architect who worked with Le Corbusier in Europe before moving here in the 1930s to become one of the town's defining architects. Boarded up and threatened with demolition three years ago, the gas station was brought back to life by two San Franciscans who have turned it into a gallery specializing in objets d'art for the garden.

Many of the city's other restored mid-century showplaces, like Neutra's Desert House, are private residences. Nevertheless, I went to Palm Springs in search of this retro renaissance, peering over walls, taking a martini census at watering holes, lazing by '50s motel swimming pools and generally trying to tap into a Sinatra kind of thing. He lived in what is called the Movie Colony neighborhood from 1947 to 1957. At one point he shared his stylish home, with its swimming pool shaped like a grand piano, with Ava Gardner, and it's said he used to hoist a flag to signal to neighbors that it was cocktail hour.

You can't stay in Sinatra's house, called Twin Palms, though it's often rented out for fashion shoots. But as I discovered as I was led on a home tour by Michael McLean, whose McLean Co. Rentals specializes in such properties, you can have Dinah Shore's five-bedroom home nearby for $4,000 a week, or, for $3,000, an even more stylish white brick mid-century house with topiary and a blue-tiled pool.

More reasonably priced '50s and '60s relics are Palm Springs' small motels, like the unprepossessing L'Horizon on East Palm Canyon Drive in the Deepwell neighborhood, where I stayed for two nights. It was designed in 1955 by William F. Cody--not the cowboy showman but an architect who gave the Coachella Valley some of its most striking golf course clubhouses. At L'Horizon, Cody created a handful of gorgeous, dramatically angled, low-roofed buildings set around a trapezoidal pool, where a maid served me breakfast on a tray while I watched the rising sun pinken the flanks of 10,804-foot Mt. San Jacinto. The interiors are comfortable and immaculate, but the decor is decidedly '80s, with shutters, bed skirts and floral prints.

On my search for retro chic, I found similarly styleless furnishings at the historic Racquet Club, haunted by the ghosts of dead movie stars whose photos line the lobby walls. The cozy, well-maintained, family-run Orchid Tree Inn is mostly Spanish Colonial, but it also has a 1957 Frey-designed wing of rooms with round windows and corrugated metal siding, where I stayed one night. And a young German couple has just finished restoring the stark white Bauhaus-y Movie Colony Inn, one of Frey's first works in Palm Springs--although it looks as though they ran short of cash before they got to the decor.

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