Modernism Week Palm Springs

How To Escape The Gloom

Portland is hip, Palm Springs is Cool

It’s December, it’s raining and The Gloom is back. It’s time to plan your escape to Palm Springs. I understand. I live in Palm Springs. Every May as the temperatures start climbing from pleasant to hot, towards inferno, we solar refugees decamp to Portland for relief.

This north–south ebb and flow has been happening for generations. We live in a big country with big weather and sometimes we just need to take a big break.

We springers and Portlanders have a shared understanding born of common experiences. For instance, we both live in places that have resurrected themselves. Portland is now so “hip” it’s the place where young people make huge sacrifices just to enjoy the Portland lifestyle. Today Portland is to America what California was in the 1960s.

Palm Springs has also resurrected itself and today is “cool.” Two cool things about Palm Springs are the Coachella Valley Music Festival in April and Palm Springs ModernismWeek in February. Though these two events seem unconnected, the festival has both helped eradicate Palm Spring’s image as a place for dead people who don’t know they’re dead yet and reinforced ModernismWeek, as young people who come to the festival for the music often stay in mid-century rentals for a long weekend and so are introduced, almost accidentally, to Modernism and realize there’s something about it that they like.

If you’ve not been before, let me explain that “ModernismWeek” is misleading. Though the organizers rightly describe it as “a celebration of mid-century modern design, architecture, art, fashion and culture,” it’s not a week any more. It is 10 days, (Feb 12-22, covering two weekends). It’s grown so fast the title can’t keep up!

2015’s PSMW is going to be special: 180 events, parties, tours, parties, films, parties, seminars and galas will be celebrating that PSMW is 10 years old. Yes, it’s grown from diddly-squat to international renown in just 10 years and we’re rolling out the red carpet. So, check your mid-century costumes and start planning your visit.

Start by visiting, your essential online portal for tickets to events and tours. Two types of must-do tours are Double-Decker Bus Tours that provide great views over walls and hedges and Walking Home Tours, neighborhoods’ guided walking tours showing off their MCM homes. Download the “Midcentury Modern Tour” app from to create your own self-guided tours.

The Palm Springs Art Museum organizes tours including to Frey II, the house architect Albert Frey designed and built for himself on the hillside overlooking the city. Get a ticket for this by any means, fair or foul.

Community And Meeting Place is a new central location for tours and events in the Uptown Design District, which has a wealth of shops selling all the things your parents threw out but now are MCM treasures. Re-read Renee Parrott’s A Beginners Guide to Mid-Century Modern Furniture, (AboutFace, Winter 2013) and think about what spaces you might like to fill with a find from either an Uptown store or the Modernism Show, (Palm Springs Convention Center, Feb 13-16), which has 85 dealers to choose from, but either way, don’t forget to bring a tape measure!

modernism-vThe Architecture and Design Center, (300 South Palm Canyon Dr), which opened on Nov. 9, was designed in 1961 by E. Stewart Williams as the Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan building, has been restored and looks stunning. It will be hosting tours and a gala, (Feb. 21) and its first exhibition, that showcases Williams’ work, runs to Feb. 22.

Where to stay? There’s the official PSMW hotel, the Hilton Palm Springs, (400 E Tahquitz Canyon Way), the William F. Cody designed Del Marcos Hotel, (225 W Baristo Rd), the famous boutique hotel Orbit In, (562 W Arenas Rd), the Ocotillo Lodge, (1111 E Palm Canyon Dr), designed by Krisel and Palmer, located in the Twin Palms neighborhood, a great area for Walkabouts or, as there’s a wealth of beautifully restored and maintained MCM homes to choose from, how about a vacation rental?

modernism xTickets for tours and events sell out fast, but don’t despair. I have some inside advice!

Firstly, not all tours are listed when tickets are first released. More become available at the start of each month, so check for additions.

Secondly, some people over-book hotel rooms before they know the schedule of events and pare them once it’s public so you can still find hotel rooms in fun places due to cancellation’s right now.

Lastly, (and you did NOT hear this from me, OK?), if you really want to take a neighborhood home tour that seems sold out and you’re enterprising and persuasive, you may find a way to let the organizers know of your enthusiasm and they might just find an extra ticket or two to sell you.

Talking of home tours, another must-see neighborhood is Racquet Club Estates, not just because it has seven rare Wexler-designed steel homes but also because their home tours are well-organized. RCE started giving tours of homes before Modernism Week began and their success helped inspire its creation.

Intrigued by why modern Desert Modernists are transforming my city I met two men who each epitomize the infectious enthusiasm these MCM devotees have.

Robert Perry lives in Racquet Club Estates with his partner Dennis, collects mid-century autos and bought his MCM home five years ago, aged 37. He came to Palm Springs as a kid and says that he fell in love with Desert Modernist architecture. For him, a teenager in the 80s, Desert Modernism was, and still is, “cool.” When I asked him what about the 50s and 60s appealed to him most, his immediate answer was: “Optimism,” a hankering for which many people in the increasingly polarized and grid-locked America of today understand. Robert told me that now it’s investors who are buying and renovating in RCE, but they renovate in the original style. “The investors know that Modernism is cool; it’s what people in their thirties and twenties want today,” he says.

Wondering why a style that’s now more than 60 years old has attractive to young people led me to a duo of architects, Doug Hudson and Erich Burkhart, who designed their home in Palm Springs as a retreat. I hoped Doug, who hails from Seattle and chairs the Palm Springs Planning Commission, could help me understand.

“Modernism isn’t just a style, ” he told me, “it’s a philosophy.”
True, the philosophy reflects an optimistic period in history, but its central tenets of simplicity, quality, frugality, and honesty – stripping away the bull to focus on the essentials – are not only relevant today, they are in sync with the values of the younger generation. Younger people get it. Kids out of school faced with average rents of $3,500 as in San Francisco choose to adjust rather than minimize their quality of life. They don’t want to live with the isolation of a city like Los Angeles. They see cars as a hindrance and they look for an unburdened lifestyle. That’s Modernism.”
“Yes”, I thought, “and that’s Portland too!”

As we sat in their indoor-outdoor living room, I could see how that philosophy had informed the way both men had designed their home and as I reflected on my own new-found enthusiasm for “decluttering” I realized that it wasn’t only the young that got it. That said, not everyone has got it yet.

Living in an MCM home doesn’t make one a Modernist. Though there are beautifully restored vintage properties, there’s always that certain someone who either has no clue or who willfully thumbs his nose at the Modernist aesthetic, placing “Greek” statues in his yard and embellishing the stark entrances to his home with concrete lions. Come on Portland; there’s weird and then there’s just plain ignorant.

Despite the $17 million ModernismWeek added to the local economy and its international reputation for innovative design, buildings are still under threat as our native Indians showed recently when they razed the colonnade their forebears had had the good sense to have Donald Wexler design years ago.

Outside the Palm Springs Art Museum there’s a large hole. That’s where the city’s new downtown is going to be, a design which looks perfect… for the 1980s. It seems that one cannot relax in the fight for good design otherwise, at best, what one gets is just “Meh,” Sadly, Portland, it looks like there’ll be no equivalent of the Tilikum Bridge for us.

So now we have a plan. You come in early February, rent a vacation rental for as long as you like – well, until the temps start rising in May – and then head back North in time to take on the Mid-Century Modern Home Tour in Portland, ( Peggy Moretti, Exec. Director of Restore Oregon, told me all about it:

“In 2014 we featured homes by Pietro Belluschi, who began and ended his illustrious career in Portland. Our 2015 MCM tour, (Saturday, May 9 ) will spotlight the fact that MCM is historic and needs to be preserved for future generations.

I asked how Northwestern Modernism differs from the Desert Modernism of Palm Springs?
“The Northwest take on MCM architecture is greener and, although both incorporate the surrounding landscape and materials, those are different here. There’s a lot of natural finishes more here – wood and stone and water features. Siting is often on a wooded hillside, homes have wide overhangs to protect from rain and landscaping features lush vegetation that designs bring indoors.

MCM is definitely hot right now in Portland, as elsewhere, we’ve had numerous folks fly in from around the US and So. Cal. And I can attest to the fact that the Palm Springs event has many avid fans here.”

Which Portland real estate broker, Beth Howard, (Premier Property Group), confirmed:
“Values of Mid-century homes are shooting up. A Rummer, just fetched the highest price anyone has paid for any of these homes – other Rummer homeowners are going to be thrilled!
And according to Howard the same demographic changes at work in Palm Springs apply to the Northwest “People who built Modern homes in the 60’s and stayed in them are aging so some pretty cool time capsules are hitting the market.”

Where then to go see Modernist designs in Portland outside of the home tour? Restore Oregon suggested:
Walk between Lawrence Halprin’s Keller Fountain Plaza, (SW 3rd Ave & SW Market St), by Michael Grave’s Portland Building, (1120 SW 5th Avenue), to the lobby of the Commonwealth Building, (421 SW 6th Ave).
Three places of worship: the Central Lutheran Church, (1820 NE 21st Ave), and St. Thomas More Church, (3525 SW Patton Rd), by Pietro Belluschi and Paul Thiry’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel (Lewis and Clark College campus, Collins View).
And to prove that Portlanders have preservation battles of their own to fight:
Veterans Memorial Coliseum, (300 N Winning Way); see it now, it could be demolished.

There you have it. Modernism isn’t about frigidity or alienation, it’s about the honest use of natural and man made materials in designs that by minimizing embellishment reveal the qualities of those materials in buildings sited in harmony with the landscape. No wonder they call it modern! Come to think of it, maybe they should call it “Portlandism”.

So, Portlanders, escape ye The Gloom and join us in February for a celebration of Life and Living and Ten glorious years of Palm Springs’ ModernismWeek – and we Springers will join you in Portland, as we escape The Inferno in May.

A sincere and heartfelt thanks to those who assisted with this article:

BETH HOWARD Real Estate Broker, Premier Property Group
BETHANY MORSE Administrator, Architecture & Design Council, Palm Springs Art Museum
CATHERINE TRACY Head of Docent Training, Palm Springs Art Museum
CHRIS MENRAD Chairman, Palm Springs Modernism Committee
CINDY DUFFY Public Relations Associate, O’Bayley Communications
DAVID BENTLEY Publisher/Creative Director, AboutFace Magazine
DENISE BARTELT Web/Soc Media/Office Manager, Restore Oregon
DENNIS VASQUEZ Resident, Racquet Club Estates
DOUG HUDSON Chair, Palm Springs Planning Commission
ERIC ROSENOW President, Palm Springs Preservation Foundation
LEE A. BONNO Director of Neighborhood and Community Involvement, City of Palm Springs
LISA VOSSLER SMITH Executive Director, Modernism Week
MARK DAVIS Treasurer, Modernism Week
PEGGY MORETTI Executive Director, Restore Oregon
ROBERT PERRY Chair, Racquet Club Estates Neighborhood Organization
SARAH CANTINE Architect, Scott Edwards Architecture
SIDNEY WILLIAMS Curator, Architecture & Design Council, Palm Springs Art Museum

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