Desert area becomes mecca for modern architecture buffs

There’s a renaissance of sorts going on in and around Palm Springs, and for the first time in decades, Hollywood is recognizing the utter coolness of the desert.

The industry has always been fond of the upscale clubbiness of Two Bunch Palms Spa and the unadulterated funkiness of the 29 Palms Inn, as well as the sophisticated, intimate, Moroccan-style Korakia. And who would have thought Bob Hope would be hip enough to commission a flying-saucer-shaped John Lautner house high above the desert floor?

But in the last two years, the area suddenly has become as hot as its broiling summer climate. The rediscovery is largely thanks to the film and design communities, who are embracing the world’s largest concentration of mid-century architecture, led by Swiss-born Palm Springs resident Albert Frey, the 90ish godfather of mid-century desert architecture.

The new desert rats are buying up motels, opening vintage furniture stores and launching a vogue for weekend houses. Musicvideo/commercials producer Jeffrey Adkins of Los Angeles’ Four Bucket Films says his purchase of a 1950s Palm Springs house was “a completely spontaneous move. I liked having a place to get away. You feel like you’re in another world.

“Palm Springs is totally starting to catch on,” he says, “The mid-century thing is so popular.”

But what happens a few years down the line, when the design world trendsetters move on to the next big thing? “It’s always going to be in style, at least in the desert,” counters Adkins, who thinks the mid-century styling of huge glass windows and spare interiors shows off the desert to its best advantage.

That advantage certainly is apparent at Marc Sanders’ newly restored house in old Palm Springs, built for none other than Frank Sinatra, the desert’s original hipster. Sanders, a former L.A. landscape contractor, bought the 1947 Stewart Williams-designed house from the people who had acquired it from Sinatra many years ago, keeping the haute-kitsch piano-shaped pool and replacing all the glass, flooring and landscaping. The stunning result, subtly furnished with mid-century originals, has the effect of bringing the looming nearby mountains right into the living room. George Hurrell portraits of Sinatra’s friends and associates bring a touch of history to the house, which is sure to be seen extensively in fashion and film shoots.

Furnishings included

Many of the vintage items furnishing Sanders house came from John’s Resale Furnishings on Palm Springs’ main drag, a shop specializing in the groovy teak, wrought iron and plastic furniture that’s currently in vogue. Owner John Hall supplied much of the furniture for Kim Basinger’s apartment in “L.A. Confidential” and works with numerous Hollywood designers and prop companies, in addition to supplying the small but loyal cadre of mid-century home buyers in the desert area.

“All the baby boomers are coming down. It’s seeing a tremendous resurgence,” says Realtor Myrna Chariton of Fred Sands Desert Realty, “Palm Springs is the only real city in the area, and the people buying here are looking for more of a sense of community, a sense of the village life.” And it’s not only new arrivals hoping to soak up some Rat Pack-era magic — in fact the old, loungey, Palm Springs never really went away — Chariton counts names such as Keely Smith and Shecky Greene among her clients, and points out that Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins both were Springs residents.

“A lot of younger people are calling me for weekend homes — I didn’t think the people of that age group would be interested in Palm Springs, but they are,” she says. She points also to new upscale shopping centers on Palm Canyon Drive, a teeming Starbucks and a burgeoning antique row as recent antidotes to the vacancy-ridden, tacky T-shirt shop period downtown went through in the last decade.

The truly brave and trendy, including GQ’s Manhattan art director and “Unzipped” director Douglas Keeve, bought up historic steel demonstration houses, which were available for less than $100,000 unrestored a few years ago. It’s still possible to find a basic house with a pool in the $130,000 range, although the authentic ’40s and ’50s ones are going fast.

At the other extreme, architecture connoisseurs with a little more coin can throw caution to the winds, as did the East Coast couple who recently restored Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann house for a cool $5 million. The minute attention to detail included reopening a long-closed rock quarry to match the house’s stone walls and persuading eminent architectural photog Julius Schulman to come out of retirement for the inaugural photo session.

Lodging options

For those not quite willing to make the house-buying commitment, there are several new lodging alternatives to thousand-room hotels with lagoons and swans. Well-known L.A. architect Michael Rotundi and his partner, designer April Greiman, purchased their favorite tiny 1948 motel, Desert Hot Springs’ Miracle Manor, when the owner died and they were afraid they would lose their inexpensive, pet-friendly haven.

Concentrating on the property’s natural spring-water pools, desert views and minimalist aesthetic, they gutted the five rooms and brought in Egyptian cotton sheets, comfortable mattresses, good reading lights and Eames chairs. Everything needed for relaxation, in fact, except phones and TV sets. Conceived as a smaller and quieter alternative to spas such as the celeb-packed Two Bunch Palms, Miracle Manor also offers a massage room and spa beauty products. “It’s just what you need to have a really restful experience,” Greiman says.

Far from malls, golf courses and ’50s fetishism, Joshua Tree in the high desert above Palm Springs is for true desert-philes. The Mojave Rock Ranch lodge offers a change from the ramshackle charms of the 29 Palms Inn. L.A. refugees Troy Williams and Gino Dreese bought four cabins on 65 acres of untouched desert in Joshua Tree, and have so far restored two into peaceful retreats that sleep up to four and accommodate dogs and even horses.

Decorated in understated harmony with the desert, the houses are fully equipped, down to herbs in the kitchen, and have hosted L.A. industryites such as Ann Magnuson and Beastie Boy Mike Diamond and his wife, filmmaker Tamra Davis, as well as many Europeans, who invariably adore the desert. “We’ve had two clients buy houses up here since they stayed at the ranch,” Williams says. “It’s cooler up here, you can see meteor showers … there’s tons of potential in the area.”

Once a simple spa getaway for Hollywood, the desert lately has become a more crowded retreat for several different factions. There’s the golfers, the gamblers, the tennis players, seekers of lavish spas, the design purists and those looking for no more than unlimited starry skies and friendly lizards on the patio. At present, there’s still enough room for all of those, and thousands of windmills besides.

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