Walkabout Around Palm Springs
Palm Springs, California
February 11, 2021
Apparently I have some extra space in my long-term memory if I could immediately recall he played Uncle Charley on My Three Sons.
Palm Stings seems less stuck in the 60s as did last time I was here 25 years ago. A moderate number of tourists. Sort of a motley crew. We Americans need to up our tourist game.
But off the main drag, there are signs of a weak economy.
Palm Springs, a city in the Sonoran Desert of southern California, is known for its hot springs, stylish hotels, golf courses and spas. It's also noted for its many fine examples of midcentury-modern architecture. Its core shopping district along Palm Canyon Drive features vintage boutiques, interior design shops andrestaurants. The surrounding Coachella Valley offers hiking, biking and horseback riding trails.
Although the population of Palm Springs was 44,552 as of the 2010 census, because Palm Springs is a retirement location, as well as a winter snowbird destination, the city's population triples between November and March.
The city became a fashionable resort in the 1900s when health tourists arrived with conditions that required dry heat. Because of the heat, however, the population dropped markedly in the summer months. In 1906 naturalist and travel writer George Wharton James's two volume The Wonders of the Colorado Desert described Palm Springs as having "great charms and attractiveness“ and included an account of his stay at Murray's hotel. As James also described, Palm Springs was more comfortable in its microclimate because the area was covered in the shadow of Mount San Jacinto to the west and in the winter the mountains block cold winds from the San Gorgonio pass. Early illustrious visitors included John Muir and his daughters, U.S. Vice President Charles Fairbanks, and Fanny Stevenson, widow of Robert Louis Stevenson; still, Murray's hotel was closed in 1909 and torn down in 1954.
Nellie N. Coffman and her physician husband Harry established The Desert Inn as a hotel and sanitarium in 1909. It was expanded as a modern hotel in 1927 and continued on until 1967. Coffman herself was a "driving force" in the city's tourism industry until her death in 1950.
James's Wonders of the Colorado Desert(above) was followed in 1920 by J. Smeaton Chase's Our Araby: Palm Springs and the Garden of the Sun, which also promoted the area. In 1924 Pearl McCallum (daughter of Judge McCallum) returned to Palm Springs and built the Oasis Hotel with her husband Austin G. McManus; the Modern/Art Deco resort was designed by Lloyd Wright and featured a 40-foot tower.
The next major hotel was the El Mirador, a large and luxurious resort that attracted the biggest movie stars; opening in 1927, its prominent feature was a 68-foot-tall Renaissance style tower. Silent film star Fritzi Ridgeway's 100-room Hotel del Tahquitz was built in 1929, next to the "Fool's Folly" mansion built by Chicago heiress Lois Kellogg. Golfing was available at the O'Donnell 9 hole course (1926) and the El Mirador (1929) course. Hollywood movie stars were attracted by the hot dry, sunny weather and seclusion—they built homes and estates in the Warm Sands, The Mesa, and Historic Tennis Club neighborhoods. About 20,000 visitors came to the area in 1922.
Palm Springs became popular with movie stars in the 1930s and estate building expanded into the Movie Colony neighborhoods, Tahquitz River Estates, and Las Palmas neighborhoods. Actors Charles Farrell and Ralph Bellamy opened the Racquet Club and Pearl McCallum opened the Tennis Club in 1937.
Nightclubs were set up as well, with Al Wertheimer opening The Dunes outside of Palm Springs in 1934 and the Chi Chi nightclub opening in 1936. Besides the gambling available at the Dunes Club, other casinos included The 139 Club and The Cove Club outside of the city.
Bullock's, a large upscale department store on Broadway in Los Angeles, opened a Spanish Colonial-style "resort store" within the Desert Inn complex in 1930. When Bullock's opened a full department store at 151 Palm Canyon Drive in 1947, J. W. Robinson's, another large L.A. store, took the former Bullock's location and opened its own resort store there.
Southern California's first self-contained shopping center was in Palm Springs, La Plaza (originally Palm Springs Plaza), and on-street, open air center anchored by a small Desmond's department store, in 1936. The three-level parking garage for 141 cars was an innovation and the largest in Riverside County at that time. In the mid-twentieth century across the street on Palm Canyon Drive were department stores like Bullock's/Bullocks Wilshire, J. W. Robinson's and Saks Fifth Avenue (opened October 16, 1959 at No. 490), forming a large shopping district. In 1967 the Desert Fashion Plazamall was built, I. Magnin opened there (closed 1992) and Saks closed its previous location and moved into a new larger store in the mall. Joseph Magnin Co.opened a 26,000-square-foot department store in the mall in 1969, meaning that together with a Sears at 611 Palm Canyon Dr., for two decades, downtown boasted seven department stores, plus the Palm Springs Mall 1.5 miles to the east operating from 1959 to 2005.
World War II
When the United States entered World War II, Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley were important in the war effort. The original airfield near Palm Springs became a staging area for the Air Corps Ferrying Command's 21st Ferrying Groupin November 1941 and a new airfield was built 1⁄2 mile from the old site. The new airfield, designated Palm Springs Army Airfield, was completed in early 1942. Personnel from the Air Transport
Command 560th Army Air Forces Base Unit stayed at the La Paz Guest Ranch and training was conducted at the airfield by the 72nd and 73rd Ferrying Squadrons. Later training was provided by the IV Fighter Command459th Base Headquarters and Air Base Squadron.
Eight months before Pearl Harbor Day, the El Mirador Hotel was fully booked and adding new facilities. After the war started, the U.S. government bought the hotel from owner Warren Phinney for $750,000, just over $13,000,000 if including inflation in 2020, and converted it into the Torney General Hospital, with Italian prisoners of war serving as kitchen help and orderlies in 1944 and 1945. Through the war it was staffed with 1,500 personnel and treated some 19,000 patients.
General Patton's Desert Training
Post-World War II
Architectural modernists flourished with commissions from the stars, using the city to explore architectural innovations, new artistic venues, and an exotic back-to-the-land experiences. Inventive architects designed unique vacation houses, such as steel houses with prefabricated panels and folding roofs, a glass-and-steel house in a boulder-strewn landscape, and a carousel house that turned to avoid the sun's glare.
In 1946, Richard Neutra designed the Kaufmann Desert House. A modernist classic, this mostly glass residence incorporated the latest technological advances in building materials, using natural lighting and floating planes and flowing space for proportion and detail.
In recent years an energetic preservation program has protected and enhanced many classic buildings.
Culver (2010) argues that Palm Springs architecture became the model for mass-produced suburban housing, especially in the Southwest. This "Desert Modern" style was a high-end architectural style featuring open-design plans, wall-to-wall carpeting, air-conditioning, swimming pools, and very large windows. As Culver concludes, "While environmentalists might condemn desert modern, the masses would not. Here, it seemed, were houses that fully merged inside and outside, providing spaces for that essential component of Californian—and indeed middle-class American—life: leisure. While not everyone could have a Neutra masterpiece, many families could adopt aspects of Palm Springs modern."
Hollywood values permeated the resort as it combined celebrity, health, new wealth, and sex. As Culver (2010) explains: "The bohemian sexual and marital mores already apparent in Hollywood intersected with the resort atmosphere of Palm Springs, and this new, more open sexuality would gradually appear elsewhere in national tourist culture."
During this period, the city government, stimulated by real estate developers systematically removed and excluded poor people and Indians.
Palm Springs was pictured by the French photographer Robert Doisneau in November 1960 as part of an assignment for Fortune on the construction of golf courses in this particularly dry and hot area of the Colorado desert. Doisneau submitted around 300 slides following his ten-day stay depicting the lifestyle of wealthy retirees and Hollywood stars in the 1960s. At the time, Palm Springs counted just 19 courses, which had grown to 125 by 2010.
Similar to the pre-war era, Palm Springs remained popular with the rich and famous of Hollywood, as well as retirees and Canadian tourists. Between 1947 and 1965, the Alexander Construction Company built some 2,200 houses in Palm Springs effectively doubling its housing capacity.
As the 1970s drew to a close, increasing numbers of retirees moved to the Coachella Valley. As a result, Palm Springs began to evolve from a virtual ghost town in the summer to a year-round community. Businesses and hotels that used to close for the months of July and August instead remained open all summer. As commerce grew, so too did the number of families with children.
The recession of 1973–1975 affected Palm Springs as many of the wealthy residents had to cut back on their spending. Later in the 1970s numerous Chicago mobsters invested $50 million in the Palm Springs area, buying houses, land, and businesses. While Palm Springs faced competition from the desert cities to the east in the later 1980s, it has continued to prosper into the 21st century.
Since the early 1950sthe city had been a popular spring break resort. Glamorized as a destination in the 1963 movie Palm Springs Weekend, the number of visitors grew and at times the gatherings had problems. In 1969 an estimated 15,000 people had gathered for a concert at the Palm Springs Angel Stadium and 300 were arrested for drunkenness or disturbing the peace. In the 1980s 10,000+ college students would visit the city and form crowds and parties—and another rampage occurred in 1986 when Palm Springs Police in riot gear had to put down the rowdy crowd. In 1990, due to complaints by residents, mayor Sonny Bono and the city council closed the city's Palm Canyon Drive to Spring Breakers and the downtown businesses lost money normally filled by the tourists.
Tourism is a major factor in the city's economy with 1.6 million visitors in 2011. The city has over 130 hotels and resorts, numerous bed and breakfasts, and over 100 restaurants and dining spots. Events such as the Coachella and Stagecoach Festivals in nearby Indioattract younger people, making greater Palm Springs a more attractive area to retire.
Following the 2008 recession Palm Springs revitalized its Downtown, "the Village". Rebuilding started with the demolition of the Bank of America building in January 2012, with the Desert Fashion Plaza scheduled for demolition in 2013.
In 2020 Christy Holstege became the mayor of Palm Springs, which made her the first openly bisexual mayor in America, as well as the first female mayor of Palm Springs.
The movement behind Mid-Century modern architecture (1950s/60s era) in Palm Springs is backed by architecture enthusiasts, artistic designers and local historians to preserve many of Central Palm Springs' buildings and houses of famous celebrities, businessmen and politicians.