Retro Palm Springs

PALM SPRINGS -- At a cemetery on Ramon Road, where the Crayola-green lawns of this desert community yield to sand and tumbleweeds, Frank Sinatra is buried. His plain, flat gravestone bears an epitaph taken from the title of an early ‘60s song he recorded: “The Best Is Yet to Come.” But beyond its comment on death, no quotation could better sum up the cool, sexy, seize-the-day attitude of an era when Sinatra was swingin’, JFK was president, onion dip was the appetizer of choice and every adolescent girl dreamed of getting a Maidenform bra.

Standing there, I was 10 years old again, spying from the hall on one of my parents’ cocktail parties. I could hear Ol’ Blue Eyes crooning from the hi-fi, see the women with their bouffant hairdos and shiny patent leather pumps and smell perfume, cigarettes and Scotch.

The memory was a little door prize given to me toward the end of a recent visit to Palm Springs, which seems to have awakened from a trance that left it frozen in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Now it’s chic again, precisely because it never quite left those martini times behind. As Palm Springs baked under the desert sun, nobody bothered to throw out bubble lamps, starburst clocks and vinyl chairs, or tear down futuristic buildings designed by such architects as John Lautner, Richard Neutra and Albert Frey. But now design from that time is all the rage, and in no place is it better preserved than Palm Springs.

At the entrance to Palm Springs, where California Highway 111 turns into Palm Canyon Drive, the smashingly restored Tramway Gas Station symbolizes the resurgence of the town and the style, re-christened as mid-century modern. The gas station was designed with a soaring “butterfly” roof in 1965 by Frey, a Swiss-born architect who worked with Le Corbusier in Europe before moving here in the 1930s to become one of the town’s defining architects. Boarded up and threatened with demolition three years ago, the gas station was brought back to life by two San Franciscans who have turned it into a gallery specializing in objets d’art for the garden.

Many of the city’s other restored mid-century showplaces, like Neutra’s Desert House, are private residences. Nevertheless, I went to Palm Springs in search of this retro renaissance, peering over walls, taking a martini census at watering holes, lazing by ‘50s motel swimming pools and generally trying to tap into a Sinatra kind of thing. He lived in what is called the Movie Colony neighborhood from 1947 to 1957. At one point he shared his stylish home, with its swimming pool shaped like a grand piano, with Ava Gardner, and it’s said he used to hoist a flag to signal to neighbors that it was cocktail hour.

You can’t stay in Sinatra’s house, called Twin Palms, though it’s often rented out for fashion shoots. But as I discovered as I was led on a home tour by Michael McLean, whose McLean Co. Rentals specializes in such properties, you can have Dinah Shore’s five-bedroom home nearby for $4,000 a week, or, for $3,000, an even more stylish white brick mid-century house with topiary and a blue-tiled pool.

More reasonably priced ‘50s and ‘60s relics are Palm Springs’ small motels, like the unprepossessing L’Horizon on East Palm Canyon Drive in the Deepwell neighborhood, where I stayed for two nights. It was designed in 1955 by William F. Cody--not the cowboy showman but an architect who gave the Coachella Valley some of its most striking golf course clubhouses. At L’Horizon, Cody created a handful of gorgeous, dramatically angled, low-roofed buildings set around a trapezoidal pool, where a maid served me breakfast on a tray while I watched the rising sun pinken the flanks of 10,804-foot Mt. San Jacinto. The interiors are comfortable and immaculate, but the decor is decidedly ‘80s, with shutters, bed skirts and floral prints.

On my search for retro chic, I found similarly styleless furnishings at the historic Racquet Club, haunted by the ghosts of dead movie stars whose photos line the lobby walls. The cozy, well-maintained, family-run Orchid Tree Inn is mostly Spanish Colonial, but it also has a 1957 Frey-designed wing of rooms with round windows and corrugated metal siding, where I stayed one night. And a young German couple has just finished restoring the stark white Bauhaus-y Movie Colony Inn, one of Frey’s first works in Palm Springs--although it looks as though they ran short of cash before they got to the decor.

Two marvelously decorated vintage motels have recently opened on the north side of town. Ballantines, where I stayed for two nights, is a small white enclave restored by Fraser Robertson, a Scotsman, and his artist wife, Sarah. They canvassed the country to decorate the place with furniture of the era: Marshmallow sofas, surfboard tables, Raymond Loewy desks and pink and yellow vinyl headboards. Fifties music plays by the pool, where an intimate house-party atmosphere prevails. I stayed in the Courtney Room (beautiful, but a little too close to the traffic on Indian Canyon Drive), lit a fire and watched “Bad Day at Black Rock,” one of the B-movies that play nightly on the in-house channel.

Down the street, the Indianola Tiki Guest House resurrects a mid-century offshoot, bright and cheerful Polynesian Pop, which spoke volumes to World War II veterans back from the South Pacific. Owners Jeff Bennett and Jon Powers, two men in their 30s from L.A., give their guests artificial leis, hula skirts and rum and pineapple drinks on arrival. It caters to the gay crowd but doesn’t encourage nudity by the pool, as some of the city’s other gay hotels do.

Miracle Manor, in windy Desert Hot Springs, across Interstate 10 from Palm Springs, was the first stylishly decorated mid-century hotel in the Coachella Valley. L.A. designer April Greiman gave Miracle Manor its clean, Zen-like interiors, but God provided its thermal pool. Earlier this month, two other L.A. designers, Mick Haggerty and Steve Samiof, opened Hope Springs, a ‘50s motel nearby. It’s a beauty, with a terrazzo floor and a round pit fireplace in the entryway, lime-green tiled baths in the guest rooms and three small thermal pools surrounded by a rock-and-cactus garden.

Indolence is still the most popular way to pass the time in Palm Springs, and you can spend whole days by the pools at these places, drinking in martini modernism. But I was thirsty for more, so I went window shopping.

At One Eleven Vintage Cars, near the intersection of Palm Canyon Drive and Ramon Road, I saw a 1957 Chevy Bel Air, a red 1964 1/2 Mustang and a 1946 Lincoln Continental, all in mint condition.

Nearby I poked my head into Alan Ladd’s Hardware, opened in the early ‘50s by the late actor (“Shane”). The store has attractive light fixtures, place mats and planters, but I found real treasures at several shops on the north side of town that showcase mid-century styles.

At John’s Resale Furnishings there were modular fiberglass seating units, dinette sets and oval coffee tables by celebrated designers such as Charles Eames and George Nelson. Next door, Bandini Johnson specializes in vintage barware, and the owner told me he can’t stock enough Old-Fashioned glasses and fondue sets to meet demand. Jay Margrey, a Palm Springs real estate agent I talked to, explained the craze for these items. “It’s the baby boomers,” he said. “They used to think this stuff was awful, but now it looks kind of fun.”

Shops in Palm Springs’ now-bustling center (locals call it the “village”), stretching along Palm Canyon Drive between Alejo and Ramon roads and closed to traffic for a street fair on Thursday nights, still offer standard resort-life accouterments: swimsuits, inflatable rafts, T-shirts, sunglasses and gift boxes of dates. But the burger and fajita restaurants have been joined in recent years by some more stylish places to eat.

Muriel’s Supper Club is a swank retro nightclub where the doorman wears a porkpie hat. There I listened to a salsa band and sampled appetizers like a confit of warm goat cheese, leeks and duck. I also tried the tasty chicken curry at St. James at the Vineyard and had a petit filet at LG’s Prime Steakhouse nearby.

Martinis accompanied these meals, of course, all suitably dry and well-mixed. But the bartenders at some of the older spots in town, like Melvyn’s at the Ingleside Inn, where the ‘50s atmosphere is authentic and thick, really know how to handle a cocktail shaker.

I had my best in the Bamboo Lounge at the Racquet Club, founded by actors Ralph Bellamy and Charlie Farrell in the early ‘30s. The Racquet Club was favored by such movie stars as Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Natalie Wood, whose pictures line the walls of the lobby. The bar in the Bamboo Lounge is dark and intimate, with a big-screen TV showing an old Gary Cooper movie when I settled in for a cocktail. Sitting there, I got the feeling that it was the 1950s again, that modernism was new and that any minute Ol’ Blue Eyes might walk through the door.

One slightly blurry morning, I took a bus tour that cruised past the palatial home of Bob and Dolores Hope on a ridge at the south end of town, the exclusive Tamarisk and Thunderbird country clubs in Rancho Mirage and the Eisenhower Medical Center, home of the renowned Betty Ford Center for addiction treatment.

When I’d started visiting Palm Springs with my family 15 years ago, the action in the Coachella Valley had moved east to gated developments around golf clubs like these. Shops in Palm Springs’ village were boarded up, and Denny’s was the most popular restaurant in town. So the great pleasure in returning to Palm Springs was finding things I’d never known were there and seeing other things with fresh eyes.

For example, I’d passed the Tramway Gas Station dozens of times, but never really noticed it. Ditto the nearby Aerial Tramway building, designed by another Palm Springs modernist, E. Stewart Williams (also the architect of Sinatra’s Twin Palms), in 1963 to suggest a covered bridge; William Cody’s gaudy Spa Hotel & Casino; and Frey’s low-slung City Hall. They looked beautiful to me in a way they never had before, as did the mid-century banks, schools, office buildings, liquor stores and tract houses all over town.

Tony Merchell, vice president of the city’s Historic Site Preservation Foundation, estimates that there are more than 500 mid-century modern buildings in Palm Springs. Their characteristic features include flat, low roofs with wide overhangs, sliding glass doors and corrugated metal siding. The city was quick to adopt the progressive new architecture because it was relatively inexpensive and well-suited to the desert. But now that Palm Springs is getting hot again, a modest contemporary that sold for $10,000 in the ‘50s might cost $150,000 or more.

To see some of Palm Springs’ finest private residences, I rented a bike at Bighorn Bicycle Rentals & Tours downtown and headed into the Movie Colony, east of Indian Canyon Drive in the area surrounding Ruth Hardy Park. Standing by the gate of Sinatra’s Twin Palms, 1148 Alejo Road, I could just make out the flat roof and warm Arizona sandstone of the facade. Bob and Dolores Hope’s nearby home is easier to see because it occupies a corner lot. The Hopes are big wheels in town and use their mansion on Southridge for entertaining. But if you believe bus tour guides, the one on mine claimed they prefer living in this modest pink ranch house at 1188 El Alameda.

On the west side of Palm Canyon Drive, in the lovely Las Palmas and Little Tuscany neighborhoods, I found the homes of stars everywhere: Peter Lawford entertained JFK at 1295 Via Monte Vista; Liberace died at 501 Belardo Road; down the block; Carole Lombard and Clark Gable honeymooned at the intersection of Belardo and Vista Chino. The striking, multilevel residence at the end of Ladera Circle, known as the Elvis Honeymoon Home because Presley and his bride, Priscilla, stayed there after marrying in 1967, was a modernist showplace called the “House of Tomorrow” when it was built in 1962.

Palm Springs’ architectural ground zero, however, is at the western end of Vista Chino. There, in 1946, Austrian-born architect Neutra, who collaborated with Rudolf Schindler on many Los Angeles projects, designed what is considered one of his best homes. Book and magazine photos of the recently restored house show its sleek, cool, open-to-the-desert layout. But from the driveway you can get a peek at its Douglas-fir-sided second-story pavilion. Next door, from the edge of the boulder-strewn lot, you can also make out a round, window-lined room in the house Frey designed for industrial designer Raymond Loewy.

Frey’s own home is now owned by the Desert Museum and used only for special events. A glass-and-steel box tucked into a rocky outcrop on the flank of Mt. San Jacinto, it can be glimpsed from the west end of Tahquitz Canyon Way. From a distance, you can’t see the great boulder that juts into the living room.

Still, I could imagine the architect, who died two years ago at age 95, standing at the window looking out at the desert, calm in the knowledge that good things live on as the lights of Palm Springs keep twinkling.