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A visit to 1959 Palm Springs

The year was a seminal one for the desert resort town; 50 years on, it's still a swingin' time.

December 06, 2009|By Christopher Reynolds reporting from palm springs >>>


Dwight Eisenhower, on holiday from the White House, whips a golf club beneath a blue October sky. Frank Sinatra, driven indoors by a surprise December rainstorm, schmoozes with Peter Lawford and sings with Ella Fitzgerald.
Meanwhile, other rich and famous folk are partying at the Chi Chi Club or pulling up their Cadillac coupes (nice tailfins!) in front of the Riviera, that vast new mod hotel. All over the Coachella Valley, architects and builders are seducing tourists with butterfly roof lines, space-age appliances, minimalist graphics and backlit starbursts.
Yes, 1959 was a swinging year in Palm Springs. And it's not over yet.
Thanks to legions of preservationists, entrepreneurs, publishers and design-driven travelers, the cult of Desert Modernism gets bigger and bigger, drawing all sorts of retro pilgrims to Palm Springs, including me.

Inspired by one new book about Palm Springs and another about the '50s, I spent three October days in the desert, all dedicated to the pursuit of news, views and fun from 1959.

For local tips and visual clues, I consulted Peter Moruzzi's "Palm Springs Holiday," a just-published volume of kitsch-rich imagery from vintage postcards, menus, brochures, matchbooks and old photos. For further kicks, I consulted "1959: The Year Everything Changed," also new, in which author Fred Kaplan proposes that year as an unheralded pivot point in history.

Kaplan asserts that 1959 "was the year when the shock waves of the new ripped the seams of daily life . . . when categories were crossed and taboos were trampled, when everything was changing and everyone knew it -- when the world as we now know it began to take form."

Have I bought all the way into this idea? No.

Have I been listening to Bobby Darin? Yes.

Have I spent a night at the refurbished Riviera? Yes.

Have I dined, very happily, on the Palm Springs property where a Holiday Inn opened in 1959? Yes. (But it's not a Holiday Inn anymore.)

Have I checked out Racquet Club Estates, the neighborhood where Alexander Construction Co. and architect William Krisel put up their first vacation-house subdivision in 1959? Yes.

Picture a whole ultramod 'hood of soaring roofs, clerestory windows, carports instead of garages, peek-a-boo screens made of stacked concrete blocks, pebbles and palms in the yard, and living rooms just begging for somebody to slip a little Dean Martin on the hi-fi. New, these houses sold for $19,000. Now, with classic features bathed in avocado green, bold orange and powder blue, vacation rentals usually run $200 to $300 a night.

"Nineteen-fifty-nine was a good year for architecture here," Jade Nelson, the 33-year-old manager of the Orbit In hotel, told me. His place went up in 1957, but "my father and grandfather went to the opening week of the Riviera in 1959. In a white 1960-model Cadillac Coupe de Ville with red leather interior."

Palm Springs, which has about 48,000 year-round residents now, had about 13,000 then. The main drag, then as now, was Palm Canyon Drive. And for a view of the future taking form, you needed only drive to the triangle of land where South Palm Canyon and South Indian Canyon drives converge.

On that spot in 1959, workers finished the tall, curvy, ultramod City National Bank building, which horrified some people and transfixed others.

The building, designed by Rudy Baumfeld of Victor Gruen Associates, was actually a nod across the Atlantic -- an homage to a tall, curvy, ultramod chapel that modernist pioneer Le Corbusier designed in Ronchamp, France, just a few years before.

Now it's a Bank of America. But it's also a reminder: Before the first management consultant claimed credit for coining the phrase, the builders here were thinking outside the architectural box.

So was architect Albert Frey. In addition to a number of startling private homes and a compound now known as the Movie Colony Hotel, Frey collaborated on the low-slung City Hall and Fire Station No. 1 in the mid-'50s. By 1959, he was working on the city's aerial tram project, which would be completed in 1963.

Later came Frey's enormous pointy-roofed Tramway gas station, near the northern entrance to town. And even though it's a 1965 structure, you should stop there, because it now houses the Palm Springs Visitor Center. Go in and buy a $5 map to 75 local modernist landmarks, including many designed by Frey, William F. Cody and E. Stewart Williams.

Rooms aplenty

As an overnight visitor in '59, you had plenty of options. You could ignore the burgeoning modernity and sleep beneath the old-fashioned red-tile roof at El Mirador (opened in the '20s, closed in the '70s). You could stroll under the undulating white canopy of the brand-new Spa Hotel (which remains in business, canopy intact, but much else done over).

Or you could hit the Riviera, which opened in 1959 with its guest buildings radiating out from the central pool like spokes from the hub of a wheel.

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