Neighborhood Spotlight: Palm Springs keeps its cool with some help from iconic architects

A hot, dusty alluvial valley, sandwiched between two mountain ranges, seems an unlikely place for a resort city to will itself into existence, much less one that would become a major center of architectural innovation in the 20th century. But that’s exactly what Palm Springs did.

The area around the eponymous mineral springs had long been inhabited by the ancestors of the contemporary Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla Indians, who in the 1870s received half of the allotted parcels along the route of the Southern Pacific Railroad; the other half went to the railroad.

Within a few years, the Palm Springs Hotel would open as a resort that was marketed to consumptives seeking dry, warm air and curative mineral springs. The hotel set the course for Palm Springs as a winter retreat — a place of relaxation, repose and reflection.

In 1922 a sea change occurred when R.M. Schindler designed the first modern home in Palm Springs. The climate, scenic beauty and plenitude of wealthy potential clients to be found in town began to attract the attention of other prominent architects interested in designing for the unique challenges and opportunities of desert living. Soon structures by Lloyd Wright, William Gray Purcell, and Albert Frey dotted the landscape.

As Palm Springs began to grow in the 1930s into a popular retreat for wealthy Hollywood entertainers, wintering business tycoons and politicians of all stripes, a new wave of architectural innovation swept the Coachella Valley.

Richard Neutra’s masterful Grace Lewis Miller house, built in 1937, set the template for Palm Springs’ Desert Modernism: large window and glass walls to maximize the mountain views, large overhangs to create shaded outdoor areas, and sliding doors and walls to create true indoor/outdoor living spaces.

The golden age of Desert Modernism in Palm Springs that followed gave us iconic residences by John Lautner, A. Quincy Jones, Paul R. Williams, Neutra, Schindler and many more.

And it wasn’t just the elite who could enjoy modern living in Palm Springs: The William Krisel-designed tract homes of the Alexander Construction Co. brought affordable midcentury-modern housing.

Although the days of the great achievements of Desert Modernism have passed, a new generation of architects is reviving the style in luxury home developments in and around Palm Springs.

Neighborhood highlights

Resort living: Plenty of spas, 269 days of sunshine each and every year and more than 30 nearby golf clubs make Palm Springs a great place to relax and live.

Shop and dine in the desert: Take a stroll on historic Palm Canyon Drive to browse art galleries, have a fancy dinner and round it off with a nightcap, Rat Pack-style.

Soak up the architecture: Modernism Week is great, but if you can’t get tickets, there are plenty of guided and self-guided tours of Palm Springs’ architectural treasures available year-round.

Neighborhood challenges

But it’s a dry heat: With highs that can climb well into the triple digits, Palm Springs is best enjoyed in the more temperate months of the year.

Expert insight

Brian Beard, an agent with Keller Williams Realty, moved to Palm Springs from Pennsylvania more than a decade ago and says it's a great time for real estate in the area.

“The market continues to be strong,” said Beard, who last year sold the former home of Oscar-winning costume designer Edith Head. “Inventory is low, but it’s also a great time [for buyers] with interest rates still so low.”

Rising home prices across the Southland have also attracted a younger crowd to the city, said Beard.

“The demographic is definitely changing here,” he said. “People are looking to get out of the rat race.”

There are also deals to be had if you understand the market, Beard added, particularly for properties on land leased by the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation.

“If you’re educated on leased land, you can get a great deal,” he said. “The trick is making sure the lease is good for at least 35 years so conventional financing can still happen.”

Market snapshot

In December, based on 133 combined single-family home and condo sales, the median sales price in Palm Springs was $380,000, up 6.4% year over year, according to CoreLogic.

Overall the median sales price for Greater Riverside County was $338,000 in December, a 7.1% increase the same month the previous year.

Report card

Within the Palm Springs Unified School District is Cielo Vista Charter, which scored 904 out of 1,000 in the 2013 Academic Performance Index.

Katherine Finchy Elementary had a score of 882, Cahuilla Elementary scored 786, and Vista del Monte Elementary scored 780. Raymond Cree Middle scored 746, and Palm Springs High had a score of 767.

hotproperty@latimes.com

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