Palm Springs eternal

Stephen Lacey lifts the lid on the hip architecture of the desert oasis that is home to Hollywood celebrities.

The roof is down, the sun is shining on Palm Springs and the music on the stereo is … well, the only CD in the car is Lady Gaga, left behind by a previous driver. No matter, at least it's not Barry Manilow, though the chances of meeting him in person are high, considering he still owns property in town.

As I'm a design addict with a penchant for mid-century modernism, Palm Springs has always been high on my bucket list. It's a living museum, with the highest concentration of mid-century modern architecture in the world. And it's not just houses but everything from banks to churches and schools. An architectural activist in the city, Nickie McLaughlin, says: ''We have entire neighbourhoods of mid-century modern buildings.''

When Palm Springs began attracting Hollywood's elite in the 1940s, the architects came with them to design their houses. Such luminaries as Albert Frey, Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Donald Wexler and William Krisel were to transform Palm Springs into a paradigm of modern living.

Protecting these landmark houses and commercial premises became the raison d'etre for a passionate band of modern-style enthusiasts. One of their first victories was to save the Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers petrol station (now the visitors' centre) at the gateway to the desert city.

The service station, built in 1965, is a landmark building characterised by its flying-wedge canopy - a triangular-shaped roof line that soars into the sky like a corrugated-iron hang-glider.

McLaughlin was one of those involved with the battle to rescue the building.

''I came to Palm Springs from Britain 22 years ago and fell in love with the place,'' she says. ''Initially it was the landscape that attracted me, the beauty of the mountains and the way they change colour throughout the day. The interest in architecture came later.

''Following a long, highly publicised battle to save the former gas station from the wrecking ball, I was introduced to the world of mid-century modern design and invited by local preservationists to join a group who were in the early stages of forming the Palm Springs Modern Committee.''

This volunteer organisation was established in 1999 and is dedicated to maintaining the heritage of modern architecture and the historical neighbourhoods in Palm Springs and the wider Coachella Valley.

Palm Springs has been described by the New York Times as a hippie-edged retirement community. And while that may be true to some extent, things are changing as generations X and Y discover what a hip place this is.

This attraction is borne out by the number of people who will turn up to Modernism Week this month. Last year there were 16,000 attendees; this year more than 20,000 are expected. Now in its sixth year, the design festival on February 17-27 will include architecture tours, films, lectures and some martini-fuelled parties in several of the city's most famous mid-century modern houses.

One of the major sponsors of the event, the Riviera Resort and Spa (where my family is firmly ensconced), has recently undergone a $US70 million revamp that has transformed it into an ultra-hip hotel, where mid-century modernism meets Hollywood regency.

The Riviera was designed by Irwin Schuman around a modernist spoke-and-wheel configuration, reminiscent of a sci-fi-style space station. The central hub is a swanky swimming pool area, restaurant and lounge, while the guest rooms radiate out from the ''spokes''. In 1959, when the Riviera was built, this must have seemed an excitingly futuristic style.

In its heyday, the Riviera was a favourite haunt of the ''Rat Pack'', the place where they held shows for charity, along with Jerry Lewis and Bing Crosby.

The rats - Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis jnr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop - were property owners in Palm Springs. Sinatra led the pack in 1946 by hiring architect E. Stewart Williams to design his first house. Sinatra initially requested Williams create a Georgian-style mansion but, thankfully, Williams arrived at a modernist design that became known as Twin Palms, for its two towering Washingtonia palm trees beside a piano-shaped swimming pool.

I begin my mod-squad self-drive tour of Palm Springs at the Riviera. I punch the Sinatra address into the hire car's satnav system and find the house in Alejo Road, arriving not to My Way but to Lady Gaga's Just Dance. To be honest, you can't see much of the property from the road but if you want a closer look and your pockets are deep, you can rent it for $US2600 ($2615) a night.

The house is a low-lying concrete construction and sports one of the first flat roof lines in Palm Springs. Despite Sinatra's status, it isn't a massive house but has four bedrooms with glass walls, each looking out to the piano-shaped pool.

Even more modest is the tan-and-white abode of crooner Dean Martin. In a neighbourhood of boulders, lawns and palm trees, his house cost just $US56,000 to build in the late '50s. It was one of the last designed by the Alexander Construction Company - a developer responsible for building more than 2200 houses in the Coachella Valley between 1947 and 1965. Driving past today, it's difficult to imagine Deano, with whiskey in hand, pushing a Victa across the expanse of baize green, humming Everybody Loves Somebody.

Just around the corner from Deano in Ladera Circle is the Robert and Helene Alexander House, better known as the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway. This is where the newly wed Presleys retired on May 1, 1967 (their daughter was born exactly nine months later). I should have had Hawaiian Wedding Song blasting on the car stereo, since Elvis sang this to his new bride as he carried her over the threshold. Guided tours of the house are available throughout the year.

Finally I roll up at one of the most significant houses in the nation, made famous by a series of black-and-white images taken by the renowned architectural photographer Julius Shulman. The Kaufmann House is one of the defining works of modernism: a white cubist structure of glass, stone and aluminium on a manicured lawn and surrounded by lemon trees, cactuses and a glorious turquoise swimming pool.

Barry Manilow was once the proud owner of the house and, according to some, bastardised it with a series of unsympathetic renovations including the installation of wall-to-wall purple shagpile. Nice one, Barry. The house was later restored by Beth and Brent Harris, who were the ultimate preservationists, going so far as to reopen a quarry in Utah so they could match the stone used throughout the house.

With the renovation completed at last, the Kaufmann House was listed with Christie's at auction in 2008 - not as real estate but as a piece of art. It went for $US15 million but the sale later fell through.

I'm sitting out the front of Kaufmann House with the stereo blaring. Lady Gaga seems to have captured exactly the right sentiment in this glam enclave: beautiful and dirty rich.

Stephen Lacey travelled courtesy of the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism.


Getting there

Palm Springs is an easy two-hour drive from Los Angeles Airport, following the I-10 East. Shoppers will want to visit the posh Desert Hills Premium Outlet at Cabazon, 24 kilometres west of Palm Springs; see

Staying there

The recently revamped Riviera Resort and Spa is Palm Springs glamour at its best, with an excellent restaurant. Rooms cost from $US284 ($286) a night; see

Touring there

PS ModCom produces a $US5 self-drive tour map of Palm Springs' most significant mid-century buildings. Available from the visitors' centre at 2901 North Canyon Drive, or at For more information, see

Five houses to see

Kaufmann House. Houses and swimming pools don't get any sexier than this. Designed in 1947 by Richard Neutra, at 470 W. Vista Chino Road.

Frey House II. An enormous boulder is incorporated into the interior design. The house is best viewed from W. Arenas Road. Designed in 1963 by Albert Frey, at 686 Palisades Drive (a private road).

Alexander Steel Houses. These seven houses pioneered prefabricated steel construction. Designed in 1961 by Donald Wexler; enter area at Simms Road.

House of Tomorrow/Robert and Helene Alexander House. It's also known as the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway, for obvious reasons. It was designed as an experiment in modern living in 1962 by William Krisel. At 1350 Via Ladera Circle. Tours of the house are from $US25 a person; see

Edris House. Built from local stone and Douglas fir, it seems to rise organically from the desert. Designed in 1954 by E. Stewart Williams, at 1030 W. Cielo Drive.

Modernism Week is celebrated in Palm Springs on February 17-27. See