Collin Friscia hits the desert road to Palm Springs, searching for Modernism in Mid-Century architecture and the feeling of yesteryear that remains today.
Gazing past the dashboard onto the open road, my girlfriend and I continue to follow Highway 111 as it winds along the base of Mt. San Jacinto’s sprawling peaks. We’ve escaped the city’s smoggy gridlock, as two-lanes of endless highway now usher us through a barren landscape of cacti shrubs and forgotten emails. Under a crisp, blue desert sky, the road bends, green meets the horizon, and palm trees come into focus. We’ve made it. And so begins our weekend in the footsteps of Hollywood’s darlings of yesteryear, as Palm Springs continues to foster nostalgic feelings in those born decades after its well-documented heyday (ourselves included.)
The area’s stark, sun-drenched setting inspired a fresh aesthetic during the middle part of the 20th century, a time when mod decor ruled and clean lines were more than a footnote on Mad Men’s set design. Mid-century architecture remains the vibrant pulse of the city’s landscape, and after bouncing back from its perception in the ‘90s as a dwindling retirement retreat, Palm Springs is now as popular as ever.
Unlike some hotels in Palm Springs that sport faux retro-chic decor, The Rendezvous actually has the history to back it up, as Marilyn Monroe, the mid-century “It Girl” herself, was a frequent hotel guest. She always stayed in the same room, which is now commemorated as the “Pretty in Pink” suite. We pulled up to this romantic ‘50s getaway during Happy Hour and were promptly greeted with cocktails and a platter of cheese (because they know the way to our hearts.) Golden Oldies music played poolside, as a dozen or so vacationers soaked up the sun on loungers and slipped back in time to the tune of Buddy Holly. Rendezvous has the distinction of being the only full breakfast B&B in Palm Springs, courtesy of house-chef Christine and her culinary prowess. We started each day with a delightful spread of fruits, granola and gourmet dishes, which comes in handy if you’re pulling your best Don Draper impression at downtown bars the night before.
The main drag in downtown, Palm Canyon Drive, bustles with a peculiar blend of fanny-packed tourists and fashionable scenesters. The first night we had an elegant evening out at Copley’s, the former estate of Cary Grant, which is now one of the premier eateries in town. It is fascinating how much show biz history can be found in a small desert city over a hundred miles away from Tinsel Town. As we perused the enticing menu, it was difficult to decide which dishes to order. The sesame seed crusted tofu was a thing of beauty, as it was artfully arranged over wasabi potatoes, asparagus and a citrus ponzu sauce.
The next night, a few blocks away, we slipped into the high-arched white leather booths of LuLu’s. The interior of this award-winning California bistro has an open concept design, with colorfully stylish elements that felt more like an art museum than a restaurant. We ordered the pear and gorgonzola pizza with some wine and couldn’t have been more satisfied.
Exploring Palm Springs has the unique feel of browsing through a living museum, with one of the world’s greatest and best-kept collections of Modernist architecture. The next day, we took to the streets on a self-guided architectural driving tour, catching a glimpse of hidden gems that capture the clever elegance of the era, from homes of Hollywood stars to forward-thinking public structures. Our favorite stop was Elvis’s “Honeymoon Hideaway,” a stunning Jetsons-like house where he would retreat to get away from it all. Stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio continue this tradition, as he recently paid a visit to his newly-restored (and eco-friendly) Palm Springs home after his most recent Oscar snub. The neighborhoods we visited brought the informal glamour of desert modernism and mid-century decor to life, one structure after the next.
On our last night, we searched out the most quintessential Mid-Century experience, so we strolled over to The Purple Room. A favorite spot of Frank Sinatra’s and the Rat Pack during the ‘50s, the room’s interior has hardly changed a bit. Scotch swirled in the glasses of a classically hip crowd, while jazz filled the lounge. Perhaps the only sign of 2014 was the lack of smoke clouds accompanying the music. Across town, night owls flock to a different kind of hot-spot, one of the hippest new hangouts, simply called Bar. In theory, the hipsters here are no different from the crowd and nightlife at The Purple Room, just subscribing to alternative trends. Micro brews swirl in their glasses instead of martinis and they’ve traded in their blazers for flannel shirts. Bar is perhaps a small glimpse of where Palm Springs is heading demographically, but its future is sure to always showcase the vibrant Mid-Century architecture that’s proven to be as timeless as the mountains behind it.
Photography by Kiana Laing.
Collin Friscia is a travel and food writer based out of San Diego, and contributes to a variety of outlets, including CBS Los Angeles, Gayot and Groupon. He has explored many countries, collecting stories and inspirations along the way. Contact him at: email@example.com