A visit to 1959 Palm Springs

1959

Dwight Eisenhower, on holiday from the White House, whips a golf club beneath a blue October sky. Frank Sinatra, driven indoors by a surprise December rainstorm, schmoozes with Peter Lawford and sings with Ella Fitzgerald.
Meanwhile, other rich and famous folk are partying at the Chi Chi Club or pulling up their Cadillac coupes (nice tailfins!) in front of the Riviera, that vast new mod hotel. All over the Coachella Valley, architects and builders are seducing tourists with butterfly roof lines, space-age appliances, minimalist graphics and backlit starbursts.
Yes, 1959 was a swinging year in Palm Springs. And it's not over yet.
Thanks to legions of preservationists, entrepreneurs, publishers and design-driven travelers, the cult of Desert Modernism gets bigger and bigger, drawing all sorts of retro pilgrims to Palm Springs, including me.

Inspired by one new book about Palm Springs and another about the '50s, I spent three October days in the desert, all dedicated to the pursuit of news, views and fun from 1959.

For local tips and visual clues, I consulted Peter Moruzzi's "Palm Springs Holiday," a just-published volume of kitsch-rich imagery from vintage postcards, menus, brochures, matchbooks and old photos. For further kicks, I consulted "1959: The Year Everything Changed," also new, in which author Fred Kaplan proposes that year as an unheralded pivot point in history.

Kaplan asserts that 1959 "was the year when the shock waves of the new ripped the seams of daily life . . . when categories were crossed and taboos were trampled, when everything was changing and everyone knew it -- when the world as we now know it began to take form."

Have I bought all the way into this idea? No.

Have I been listening to Bobby Darin? Yes.

Have I spent a night at the refurbished Riviera? Yes.

Have I dined, very happily, on the Palm Springs property where a Holiday Inn opened in 1959? Yes. (But it's not a Holiday Inn anymore.)

Have I checked out Racquet Club Estates, the neighborhood where Alexander Construction Co. and architect William Krisel put up their first vacation-house subdivision in 1959? Yes.

Picture a whole ultramod 'hood of soaring roofs, clerestory windows, carports instead of garages, peek-a-boo screens made of stacked concrete blocks, pebbles and palms in the yard, and living rooms just begging for somebody to slip a little Dean Martin on the hi-fi. New, these houses sold for $19,000. Now, with classic features bathed in avocado green, bold orange and powder blue, vacation rentals usually run $200 to $300 a night.

"Nineteen-fifty-nine was a good year for architecture here," Jade Nelson, the 33-year-old manager of the Orbit In hotel, told me. His place went up in 1957, but "my father and grandfather went to the opening week of the Riviera in 1959. In a white 1960-model Cadillac Coupe de Ville with red leather interior."

Palm Springs, which has about 48,000 year-round residents now, had about 13,000 then. The main drag, then as now, was Palm Canyon Drive. And for a view of the future taking form, you needed only drive to the triangle of land where South Palm Canyon and South Indian Canyon drives converge.

On that spot in 1959, workers finished the tall, curvy, ultramod City National Bank building, which horrified some people and transfixed others.

The building, designed by Rudy Baumfeld of Victor Gruen Associates, was actually a nod across the Atlantic -- an homage to a tall, curvy, ultramod chapel that modernist pioneer Le Corbusier designed in Ronchamp, France, just a few years before.

Now it's a Bank of America. But it's also a reminder: Before the first management consultant claimed credit for coining the phrase, the builders here were thinking outside the architectural box.

So was architect Albert Frey. In addition to a number of startling private homes and a compound now known as the Movie Colony Hotel, Frey collaborated on the low-slung City Hall and Fire Station No. 1 in the mid-'50s. By 1959, he was working on the city's aerial tram project, which would be completed in 1963.

Later came Frey's enormous pointy-roofed Tramway gas station, near the northern entrance to town. And even though it's a 1965 structure, you should stop there, because it now houses the Palm Springs Visitor Center. Go in and buy a $5 map to 75 local modernist landmarks, including many designed by Frey, William F. Cody and E. Stewart Williams.

Rooms aplenty

As an overnight visitor in '59, you had plenty of options. You could ignore the burgeoning modernity and sleep beneath the old-fashioned red-tile roof at El Mirador (opened in the '20s, closed in the '70s). You could stroll under the undulating white canopy of the brand-new Spa Hotel (which remains in business, canopy intact, but much else done over).

Or you could hit the Riviera, which opened in 1959 with its guest buildings radiating out from the central pool like spokes from the hub of a wheel.

As the 50th anniversary approached, the owners spent $70 million on a renovation, completed last fall, that has added a layer of Hollywood Regency promiscuity to the old minimalism with red chandeliers, portraits made of Guatemalan coins, colorized posters of bathing beauties.

In the Riviera's new incarnation, the main pool's edges curve gently, flanked by fire pits and fancy cabanas. The 406 guest rooms are a riot of brown and orange and white. (Even if you don't like it, you'll feel obliged to take a picture.) Prowling the grounds on a weekday evening, I felt as if I'd strayed onto the Vegas Strip, but there was no casino. (The price on a slow midweek night: about $145, plus the $25 resort fee.)

Not everybody wants to stay in a big hotel, and by 1959 Palm Springs was already full of tiny ones. In the Tennis Club district, a short stroll from downtown, you had the Town & Desert (built in 1947, designed by Herb Burns). The Village Manor (1957, Burns again) was its younger sidekick a few doors away.

These days, after much restoration and relaunches in the early 2000s, the Town & Desert is now the Hideaway (10 rooms) and the Village Manor is the Orbit In (nine rooms). With their prime locations, period furnishings, prices beginning at less than $150 and playful interiors (Sinatra albums! Julius Shulman photos! Lava rocks! Atomic clocks!), the two have played starring roles in the modernist tourism revival.

"That chair came from a dumpster. It had pink upholstery," said Jade Nelson, pausing at a handsome retro armchair at the Hideaway.

The refurbished Chase Hotel (26 rooms), which went up in the late '40s and used to be the Holiday House, stands nearby on Arenas Road.

A few blocks over, at Baristo and Belardo roads, you find the stacked boulders and off-kilter angles of William F. Cody's Del Marcos Hotel (16 rooms), a brilliantly designed but somewhat bedraggled 1947 spot where I was glad to see some renovations. If the Flintstones and Jetsons ever gather for a joint family reunion, it will have to be at the Del Marcos, and it could cost as little as $89 a night.

About a mile and a half south on the bending stretch of East Palm Canyon Drive that used to be called Indio Road, you find another snug, sleek Herb Burns design from 1951: the Desert Riviera (11 rooms), which shows up on Page 56 of "Palm Springs Holiday" as a stark, U-shaped outpost with a pool in the middle.

These days, the Desert Riviera shields its pool with a hedge and gets top consumer rankings on Tripadvisor.com. I spent two pleasant nights there.

One morning, I dashed off to watch the sun rise over the plants and animals at the Living Desert zoo and gardens in Palm Desert.

The next, I crossed the street for breakfast at the boho Ace Hotel (which opened as a Howard Johnson's hotel in 1965, with a Denny's next door) and looked in at the tiny, quiet Alexander Inn, which was probably apartments in 1959.

I kept thinking, as I moved from hotel to hotel, how much my wife and 5-year-old would like these places. But even with the recession knocking down rates, most of these small hoteliers would rather see adult couples -- straight, gay, whatever -- than kids. Families are more welcome at the bigger resorts, where the history is less interesting.

Remade modernism

The same day I breakfasted at the old HoJo's, I had dinner at the former 1959 Holiday Inn, which sits at the south end of town on East Palm Canyon Drive.

Since 1959, multiple owners have nudged the property upscale, including Gene Autry and Merv Griffin (who owned the Givenchy hotel and spa for a while). Since 2004, it's been known as the Parker Palm Springs, and the midcentury bones of the 13-acre, three-pool, 144-room compound these days are amended and festooned with designer Jonathan Adler's eclectic whimsy -- knights in armor, butterfly chairs, an old sign in the lobby that says DRUGS, etc. If you can afford $295 a night and up and like the mischief-on-modernism overlay, come here. And if you can't afford that but can do one fancy dinner, head for Mister Parker's, the hotel's upscale eatery.

I liked the extremely low light (the waiter gives you a chic little flashlight with your menu); the groovy '60s and '70s art crowding the walls; the low, mirrored ceilings. And -- here's the real key -- I got impeccable service and top-notch food. (At $32, my gnocchi needed to be good, and it was: light, peppery and topped with greens.)

The reborn Parker, Moruzzi writes, is proof "that Palm Springs truly is the face-lift capital of the desert."

Of course, plenty of '50s Palm Springs landmarks have been lost, including the Desert Air (a fly-in hotel) and the Chi Chi Club (closed in the '60s). And up and down the valley, scores of new hotels and restaurants and golf courses and condos and water parks and such have arisen.

But in a territory that's supposedly so mutable and history-averse, it's a great comfort to lie low in the shade of the rediscovered buildings that endure.

Make it a date

To close out this tour, I was tempted to linger in one of them with a highball or some sauce-drenched midcentury dessert. But instead, I did what a retro traveler in 1959 would have done.

I hopped in the car, headed south and 20 miles later pulled over in Indio, at the feet of the armored knight who stands at the roadside (with his shield) to announce the Shields Date Garden.

By 1959, Floyd and Bess Shields had been running the Shields Date Garden for more than 35 years. Visitors were no longer startled by the idea of a date crystal shake, and those in the know were unfazed by the Shields' semi-continuously running promotional slide show, "The Romance and Sex Life of the Date." It was quaint.

Now, I'm sorry to say, the founders have passed on and the free slide show is a 15-minute video. But the feel is still Old School -- the blenders, stools at the counter -- and they still sell about 300 date shakes on a typical day.

Arriving, you take a gander at the rows of date palms, with their pickers' ladders attached like fire escapes. Then you head inside to order your $3.75 shake.

And if yours comes out the way mine did, so creamy, cold and smooth and sweet, you may just close your eyes and forget what decade it is altogether. That's not nostalgia, just good taste.

chris.reynolds@latimes.com

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