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E. Stewart Williams, 95; Defined Sleek, Warm Style of Desert Architecture

Times Staff Writer

E. Stewart Williams, a Palm Springs architect who reflected a love of modernism and the desert in houses and buildings that became landmarks of midcentury style, has died. He was 95.

William died of natural causes Sept. 10 at his home in Palm Springs’ Seven Lakes Country Club, Sidney Williams, his daughter-in-law, told The Times this week.

The last of his generation of Desert Modern architects, who included Albert Frey, William Cody and John Porter Clark, Williams helped define an aesthetic that embraced the informality of Palm Springs and stressed clean lines, indoor-outdoor living, and the use of glass and other artificial and natural materials.

Williams’ style was influenced by a trip in the 1930s to Scandinavia, which nurtured an affinity for simplicity and building with wood and stone, characteristics that distinguished him from modernists inclined to more geometrical and metallic forms.

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“His modernism took the international style and warmed it up,” said Peter Moruzzi, an architectural historian and founding president of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, which is devoted to preserving the many examples of Desert Modern that sprouted in the Coachella Valley’s most famous town from the 1940s to the 1960s. “Stewart combined contemporary or modern with natural materials in a very sublime way,” Moruzzi said.

The bookends of Williams’ five-decade career are among his best-known works. His first commission in Palm Springs was a house for Frank Sinatra in 1947. Half a century later, he came out of retirement to renovate and expand the Palm Springs Desert Museum, which he had designed in the 1970s.

Born in Dayton, Ohio, he was the son of Harry Williams, an architect known for designing the Dayton offices of National Cash Register. When the wife of an NCR executive decided to build a shopping center in Palm Springs, she chose the senior Williams to develop the plans. Harry Williams liked the desert town so much that he decided to stay.

Stewart Williams studied architecture at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a master’s degree in 1934. He taught for several years at Bard College in New York and read up on modernist masters, particularly Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Serge Chermayeff.

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In 1936, he took a six-month architectural tour of Europe. In Sweden, he was impressed by the human scale and organic feel of the architecture. He decided then that he wanted his buildings to “have soul, to be a place where people were part of the human race, not an exercise in geometry,” he told Alan Hess in the 2001 book “Palm Springs Weekend: The Architecture and Design of a Midcentury Oasis.”

He also was quite taken by a young Swedish woman named Mari, with whom he would maintain an ardent correspondence for two years until she was able to emigrate to the United States. They were married for 60 years, until her death in 1998.

After returning from his European tour, Williams worked for architect Raymond Loewy, who assigned him to such projects as the 1939 New York World’s Fair and the Lord and Taylor store in Manhasset, Long Island, N.Y., one of the country’s first large suburban department stores. By 1943, he was designing ships for the U.S. Navy at the Bechtel Marin facility in Sausalito and later at Mare Island Navy Yard northeast of San Francisco.

After completing his Navy service, he joined his father in Palm Springs. His first residential commission came about in May 1947 when “a skinny little guy wearing a sailor hat and eating ice cream” wandered into the Williams office. Williams recognized him as Sinatra, the king of the bobbysoxers who was beginning to make a name for himself as a star of Hollywood movie musicals including “Anchors Aweigh.”

“He said, ‘I want to have a house here,’ but he was not terribly concerned about specifics. He said he just wanted to have a house by Christmas for a party,” said Michael Stern, who interviewed Williams at length for a biography he is writing. “Stewart did get him in by Christmas, and Sinatra had his party.”

Sinatra initially wanted a Georgian-style mansion, but Williams drew up two plans -- one Georgian and one modernist. The singer was persuaded that the latter design took more advantage of the beauty surrounding the remote site across from a dusty airstrip. The house offered upswept lines and a panoramic view of the mountains. With vertical wood siding and desert pink stone walls, the exterior had the natural look Williams prized.

The result was a glamorous icon for this burgeoning desert outpost of Hollywood moguls and stars. “It was the pinnacle of hip,” Hess wrote. “The design set a tone for postwar glamour as Hollywood stars continued to move to Palm Springs -- to larger homes, often on country clubs, favoring a sleek but warm Modernism.”

Sinatra moved into the house with his first wife, Nancy, and their three children, and later lived in it with his second wife, Ava Gardner. It featured a piano-shaped pool used by Lana Turner and Greta Garbo, among others. According to Stern, Williams never intended that the odd-shaped pool would resemble a piano, but it does, particularly when the midday sun casts a pattern of shadows that look unmistakably like piano keys.

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Another famous Williams house was the graceful Edris residence, perched on a hill and surrounded by indigenous plants. Built for Seattle hotel owners William and Marjorie Edris, it was designated a historic building by the Palm Springs City Council last year.

Williams built a home for his own family in 1956 in a northern pocket of Palm Springs where other modernist architects lived.

The house had a wide, V-shaped roof that created shelter for outdoor living and a garden that spilled into the living room. He used wood, glass and an open floor plan to harmonize with the mountain view. It illustrated, he told Hess, how the “site itself was a great generator of form.” It is one of several stops on a tribute tour of Williams’ projects sponsored by the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation on Nov. 12.

Williams also designed the upper station of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, several prominent bank buildings in Palm Springs, and Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa.

But his favorite project was the Palm Springs Desert Museum, one of several cultural buildings he had proposed in a master plan for downtown Palm Springs that was never fully implemented.

Tucked into the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains, the museum, built in 1976, has a main building sheathed in volcanic cinder that is cantilevered over a sunken sculpture garden. Henry J. Seldis, writing in The Times, pronounced it “a gem of a multipurpose museum.”

In 1993, Williams came out of retirement to design an expansion wing. When the Steve Chase Art Wing and Education Center opened in 1996, critics applauded its free-flowing spaces and skillful blending of the old and new structures.

Williams expressed particular delight in the variety of shapes and environments he had created for museum visitors. “It’s like surprise, surprise, surprise,” said the architect, who was 87 when the addition was completed. It was his last built project.

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Williams is survived by a daughter, Mari Anne Pasqualetti of Tempe, Ariz; sons Erik of Palm Springs and Geoffrey of San Francisco; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.


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