A retro revival in full swing, Andrea Black visits the time capsule of Palm Springs.
For a glorious period, Palm Springs was an oasis embodying the good life. From the 1930s to the 1960s, this is where Hollywood glamour lolled poolside, when movie studios had a contract clause that their biggest signings couldn't be further than two hours away from Los Angeles in case they were needed for a studio lunch or a photo shoot. Stroll any street and you were likely to see the swingingest people gathering for cocktail hour. Names such as Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis jnr. In those days, the stars took their pleasure seriously.
The area not only attracted Tinseltown, but also star architects such as Richard Neutra, John Lautner, William F. Cody, E. Stewart Williams, and Albert Frey, who designed what are recognised as mid-century modern masterpieces featuring simple lines and integration with nature.
Somewhere along the way, though, kitsch took over. After all, Zsa Zsa Gabor lived in Palm Springs, and so did Liberace, who hung a chandelier on the porch at Casa de Liberace. Barry Manilow owned the Neutra-designed Kaufmann House and added unsympathetic renovations, while Sonny Bono became the mayor (there's a bronze statue of him on the main drag). By the 1970s and '80s, the only things swinging were the golf clubs of Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford at the annual Bob Hope celebrity tournament. Loud poolside cocktail soirees made way for funerals. The late writer and former resident Sidney Sheldon once remarked that, in this city, "the average age is deceased".
But then the renaissance came. In the early 1990s, design lovers started to notice this perfectly preserved Camelot. The creative director of GQ magazine, Jim Moore, bought a Donald Wexler-designed mid-century house, and glossy magazine photo shoots ensued. Now, in this Mad Men era, tourists are keen to join the party. One of those early adopters, Robert Imber, a founding member of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, imparts his knowledge - and celebrity tittle-tattle - on a three-hour driving tour of the city.
The first sign that this city is unique is the visitors' centre. The former service station, on the right as you approach from Los Angeles, has angles that soar into the sky. Imber chooses this structure, designed by Frey, as the meeting point for the tour because he sees it as a gateway, and a signal to "prepare yourself; something is different about this city".
Imber tells us that the city is considered to have the highest concentration of mid-century modernist buildings in the world and in the three hours we drive past hundreds of fine examples. The style reflects a certain optimism from a time when the US was booming; ideas were abundant, business was expanding and the interstate road system was in full force. Anything was possible.
Imber points out one of Palm Springs' most famous structures, The Frey House II. Built in 1963, the building exhibits Frey's interest in extending wall planes into the landscape. There is an enormous boulder, left from the hillside, that's incorporated in the interior design. Like all mid-century modern architecture, it effectively brings the indoors out and outdoors in, embracing the backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountains.
Our guide is at his most enthusiastic when showing us the Alexander Tract houses that feature the same architectural scheme: "parking, breezeway, window, wall". Imber says there were only three designs but notes the same template was never built side-by-side, the architects fearing a drunken owner stumbling home might enter the wrong unlocked front door.
Hotels from the mid-century modern era also remain. These days, after much restoration using period furnishings, boutique hotels such as the Hideaway and the Orbit In welcome fans of the style. The Del Marcos Hotel, designed and built in 1947 by Cody with a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, is one of the hotels that has played a starring role in the revival. "That lounge was thrown out on the side of the road, it happens a lot here," the manager of Del Marcos, Laura Ramstead, says when she notices me admiring the pristine mid-century suite in the lobby.
But the modernist hotel mecca in this city has to be the Parker Palm Springs. In 2004, New York designer Jonathan Adler came in to redecorate Merv Griffin's Resort and Givenchy Spa, once owned by singing cowboy Gene Autry. Adler's signature maximalist touches of whimsy include needlepoint text pillows celebrating the good things in life (Hugs! Puppies! Sunshine! Gin!) and ceramic horse lamps. A hardcover Liberace autobiography is on a bench by the bed.
At the Parker, hammocks are slung between palm trees, while nearby, guests enjoy a spot of croquet or petanque. Well-oiled bikini-clad tycoonesses stroll the leafy grounds to one of the three pools, Bellinis in hand. It's an optimistic utopia where bon vivants exchange amusing bons mots.
Even if you are not among the fabulous staying at the Parker, you can sample the cocktail de crevettes followed by confit de canard for dinner at Mister Parker's, a cavernous dining room filled with 1960s art and mirrored ceilings modelled to look like Mick Jagger's lair.
Elsewhere, '60s hot spot the Riviera has undergone a $75 million rejuvenation and a former Howard Johnson hotel has been restyled as the Ace Hotel & Swim Club for the hipster Coachella Valley festival-going set.
Those desiring a mix of architecture and star power can choose to stay at Frank's house. Sinatra led the pack (and the rats duly followed) in 1946 by hiring architect E. Stewart Williams to design his house complete with a heated, piano-shaped swimming pool. They say the chip on the bathroom sink is from Ol' Blue Eyes throwing a bottle in a rage.
If you want to take home a slice of mid-century, the Uptown Design District is full of galleries, consignment stores and, at the cheaper end, thrift stores. If you walk into the Angel View op shop and browse through their "prestige" collection, you'll see racks of pristine chinchilla stoles and rows of newly pressed leisure suits, gabardine slacks and cabana wear. Behind the counter are envelopes of black-and-white photographs showing patrons at the town's swinging supper clubs, full of smiles.
Restaurants don't advertise early-bird specials any more but if you roll up to Melvyn's at the Ingleside Inn at sunset you'll see Cadillacs in the car park. It is, possibly, the last of the old-school supper clubs in the city. The maitre d', Brian Ellis, has been presiding over couples who spend their special occasion ordering the same dish every year; it could be shrimp maison flambeed tableside or Beluga Malossol caviar, imported from Russia and "fit for a tsar". Celebrity events are still held here, where Dick van Patten and Tippi Hedren, among others, dine with fans in aid of charity.
A meal at Melyvn's is a reminder of an era long gone. Most of the stars have passed on but, luckily for us, there are some vestiges left. Back at the Del Marcos Hotel and poolside, my cohort and I lounge on Eames chairs and sip Gimlets. Frank and Bing are blaring from the speakers behind us. I close my eyes and listen. What a swell party this is.
United Airlines fly to Los Angeles (13hr 30min). See united.com.
Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure, at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
From LAX, you can fly to Palm Springs (54min) or rent a car for the 172-kilometre drive east.
At the Parker Palm Springs, rooms start at $US199 ($192) a night. See theparkerpalmsprings.com.
At the Del Marcos Hotel, rooms start at $US119 a night. See delmarcoshotel.com.
Stay at the Sinatra house from $US2600 a night. See sinatrahouse.com.
A three-hour exteriors tour of Palm Springs architecture in an airconditioned van with Robert Imber costs $US75. To book, email firstname.lastname@example.org.