Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 16, 2010

Hot Desert Cool

Besides being consistently one of the hottest places in the U.S., Palm Springs, California is also utterly, totally cool, as in hip; if, that is, you consider stuff from the 50s like boomerang pattern Formica countertops, the Rat Pack and a certain style of architecture “cool.” You don’t need a map with points of interest or a local guide to find Palm Springs Cool. Head into town on Route 111 off Interstate 10. Rt. 111 becomes Palm Canyon Drive. Stay on Palm Canyon or turn down any street, whether it’s a major artery or residential side street, and there’s mid-century cool in nearly every block.

Hollywood movers and shakers and wealthy people of all sorts started spending time out in Palm Springs decades ago, and the place caught on as the locus of a certain kind of hip: Crosby and Hope, Sinatra and Kennedy, Ava Gardner and … Gene Autry? Water was plentiful, along with sunshine, so the powerful combination of famous people and retirees who had money and leisure available worked its usual magic and, lo, golf courses appeared: golf courses on which one could play 354-1/2 days a year in an average year. That had a certain appeal for a certain kind of person. The place boomed, and, with perhaps a little time-out in our current downturn, the region has continued growing out into the desert, powered by trust funds and cheap water.

Back in the 40s and 50s, the influx of people with means and a sense of style caused rapid growth in Palm Springs, meaning that there is a significant body of architecture built in a short period of time. As a result, the city is replete with spiffy low-slung houses, angular big-windowed boxy architecture and a sleek, modern look. Interestingly enough, the steady influx of retirees into Palm Springs also has resulted in a big supply of furniture and decorations from that era. As the first wave of retirees downsized or passed on, their household furnishings entered resale shops and the used-furniture market. Today, Palm Springs sports countless stores specializing in furniture and furnishings from the 50s and 60s, which have skyrocketed in value. Looking for a Paul McCobb credenza or a set of Jens Risom chairs for your place? Head to the desert. And bring a truck.

During what we might consider the heyday of the midcentury-modern craze, just a couple of years ago, the prices on modest houses from the era rose to an extraordinary level that represented a kind of “style premium” on top of the general inflation of the California real estate market. 1600 sq. ft., 3 bedrooms, two baths, needs some work? $1 million, easy. Today, with the frenzy subsiding somewhat and the economy ‘way down, you might take 40% off that figure, maybe more. But the places are there and retain their appeal.

Kauffman House Brad Nixon 2373 (640x383)

What’s wonderful about Palm Springs is that these places exist in abundance, and are peppered throughout the town. There are, in addition, some genuinely iconic structures that are catchwords throughout the world of design and architecture: Neutra’s Kaufmann Desert House (photo, left), Albert Frey‘s Loewy house, etc. I’m not going to attempt anything like a thorough listing here, because I’m not an expert, just a fan. We did have a treat this week during our brief visit. In addition to spending a lot of time out in the desert (tomorrow’s entry), we made some time to seek out some of the local architectural gems we’d never seen. Some years ago, we had driven down Vista Chino street hoping to get a look at Neutra’s seminal Kaufmann House (it’s just a few blocks off Palm Canyon Drive). We found the place, but then it was completely obscured from the street by hedges and trees. We went back this week and discovered that the street view of the place has been landscaped in a way that makes at least some of the details of the exterior visible. It’s as big a thrill as it is to drive past one of F.L. Wright’s houses in L.A. or Oak Park, IL.

You can find plenty of Palm Springs photos all over the Web and in design books. I’ve put a handful of our photos from this trip in a Flickr set that you can view: HERE. They include the street view of the Kaufmann House, a great example of “typical” residential architecture (though by a recognized architect), one of Albert Frey’s most iconic works, and some others. I hope you enjoy them.

Palm Springs is like any other town. Ordinary people live there, as well as famous and wealthy and artistic and creative people. You can spend a week in Palm Springs and only find endless shopping malls, great golf and tennis venues and a certain inevitable sameness that’s present everywhere in the culture of America — aside from the fact that it might be 95 degrees at 11 o’clock in the evening. As with any town, it’s a mistake to rely upon stereotypes. Go to Savannah and see the wonderful old colonial-era architecture or to New England and see colonial-era architecture with an entirely different aesthetic from that of Savannah, or to some English village full of stone buildings from the 13th Century: those buildings in all those places don’t actually inform you about who lives there now. They’re just the local stage-setting, and you still need to spend a lifetime anywhere figuring out what really goes on. More than that: once you walk a few hundred yards out of town past the last buildings, there’s another world entirely. That’s where we’ll go tomorrow: outside Palm Springs, HERE.

The owner of the Kaufmann House kindly provided some details about the changes to the front of the property. See his remarks in the “Comments” section.

Photos are only for the use of this blog. The structures themselves AND their depiction are the intellectual property of their owners, and may not be used for any other purpose without express permission.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017



  1. Thank you for posting this thoughtful article…The blocking hedge you refer to seeing ‘years ago’ was removed in 1994. The current look at the driveway has been enhanced since November 2009, as too many desert plants after my 1997 garden restoration (over 2.25 acres) had done ‘too well’ and were obscuring, in my view, the wonderful De Stijl type intersections that this portion of the home displays at the carport and backdoor and kitchen entry. Light levels are also being adjusted and backed off previous levels to make the house more sympathetic, yet glowing, at night. Worth another visit at that time.

    Best, Brent R. Harris, Owner.


    • Brent,
      Thank you for providing those additional details. I’m delighted you opened up the view from the street. The landscaping is extremely attractive.
      I know our readers appreciate your comments, too. Congratulations on the restoration you’ve been pursuing on one of the great icons of architecture. Enjoy!


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