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Palm Springs International Airport is a marvel of Mid-Century architecture and design

Stepping off the plane at Palm Springs International Airport (PSP), you’re immediately pulled into the sight of the San Jacinto Mountains. The relaxed vibe of the airport, with an outdoor setting, puts travelers at ease immediately. For many, flying in and out of their favorite airport has become a routine joy.

It’s no wonder that last year a whopping 2.1 million passengers utilized PSP. That’s a staggering number for such a small regional airfield. In addition to daily flights from regional destinations like Dallas, San Francisco, Portland and Salt Lake City, the airport enjoys an extensive list of busy seasonal routes from cold-weather destinations such as New York City, Chicago, Boston, Vancouver and Winnipeg. There are even special April flights offered by major carriers for the huge Coachella Valley music festivals.

When travelers passing through PSP pause for a moment in the airport terminal, they’ll find more than they might have expected. They’ll find themselves standing in the midst of a Mid-Century marvel.

Created by Donald Wexler, star architect of desert modernism, PSP checks all modernist movement boxes: simple, elegant forms; open, freeing spaces; and timeless materials. These principles are expressed throughout PSP — from the clearly designed X-shaped layout of the terminal to the monumental overhanging entrance canopy that resembles a giant wing taking flight. Constructed in 1965 and largely original, the airport has been called one of “America’s most stress-free airports” by SmarterTravel.com — a testament to the integrity of that design.

The secret to PSP’s ease of use starts with Wexler and, even more specifically, the X. Wexler was already a lauded architect in the Palm Springs region and famed for bringing novel steel framing materials to home building; the airport terminal would be his biggest project to date, not to mention the largest of his career.

Starting with a blank slate of an Army Air Corps field with minimal passenger buildings, Wexler approached the terminal’s design with a very new yet simple concept: He would plan this airport for people, not planes. This is evident in the aforementioned X, which forms the shape of the terminal. A passenger rushing to make a flight needn’t wander down endless corridors or around blind corners; standing in the middle of the terminal reveals every gate and service instantly, forgoing confusing signage or having to backtrack. Try that at LAX.

But it’s not all strict function. Wexler wanted passengers arriving from faraway, often wintry landscapes to be able to bask in the beauty of the desert as they arrived. The airport’s entrance and exit are framed in 30 feet of soaring glass windows looking out onto a vista of the towering San Jacinto Mountains, as the wing-like canopy points them out, ushering visitors onto their “flight” of exploration in the desert oasis.

The airport expanded in 1999, a response to the rapid growth of Palm Springs and its surrounding region as a major tourist destination. Jet bridges were added to accommodate larger aircraft in the Sonny Bono Terminal.

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But Palm Springs International airport has maintained its classic cool, just as the city keeps an easy-going attitude even while huge events like Modernism Week or Coachella envelop it. PSP continues to modernize while maintaining its old-school modernist charm. Over $40 million in upgrades to the airport have been approved by the City of Palm Springs in the last decade, and the city council voted last year to allow ridesharing to pick up and drop off directly at the terminal.

However, the original architecture is still doing the heavy lifting, keeping foot traffic smooth and stress levels low — and serving as a perfect introduction to what visitors can expect when they explore the modernist haven of Palm Springs.

—Alan LaGuardia for Visit Palm Springs


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