When it comes to feelings about the desert, there really is no indecision. You are either in or out. There is no in-between. Some see it as a wasteland, hot, arid and forbidding. Sand, sky and scrub. Certainly not worth visiting, much less living in. Others see it as everything they have ever dreamed of. A perfectly blank canvas where they can create any story their imagination can render. A vast landscape of endless opportunity whose only limit is one’s own vision. The latter are the people who made Palm Springs.
Utilizing what they had, the first visionaries took advantage of the hot dry air and natural thermal baths. Imagining cures for a host of conditions amongst the cactus, smoke trees and palms they built curative spas designed to give sufferers hope. People came from all over the country to spend time resting and rehabilitating in the shadows of the towering San Jacinto mountains that tower over the surrounding area.
The 1930’s were a time when America’s Wild West was long gone but Hollywood westerns were all the rage. Enterprising Palm Springs entrepreneurs found ways to cater to the desires of city slickers who wanted to experience an era they had missed. They founded ranches where visitors could come and spend time riding horses, working with cattle or just eating hearty food around a roaring campfire. Singing songs by a chuck wagon fulfilled the romantic dreams of these “dudes” who wanted to spend days riding the range and nights camping under the brilliant stars that are still visible today.
Hollywood made many of these western movies in the rugged canyons nearby Palm Springs. The stars took a liking to the laid-back lifestyle and word got around quickly that life in the desert provided an opportunity to let loose without the prying eyes of the Hollywood gossip machine. The Tennis and Racquet Clubs were popular and massive pools provided the perfect landscape for a decadent cocktail culture. Glamour was king as large Spanish Revival mansions began to sprout in the downtown area. The Movie Colony, Las Palmas and Mesa neighborhoods roster of residents began to read like a whos-who of popular celebrities of the time.
The celebrities wanted entertainment and enterprising impresarios provided it. Bars, restaurants and nightclubs opened in the downtown area. Ritzy hotels provided luxurious surroundings for those who wanted to reside temporarily. Casinos, technically illegal, opened in the nearby deserts. The mafia made inroads. Bands played, liquor flowed and people danced late into the night to big band sounds. Visitors commonly reported VIP sightings. Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were just a few of the luminaries frequently seen around the town.
The post World War II era was a time of prosperity and change for Americans. Many found financial opportunities that hadn’t existed in their life previously. They wanted to live the good life. Relax, live a little and enjoy a bit of luxury that hadn’t been available for the masses for a long time. Freeways were built throughout the country that made travel easier. The space race made people dream a little bigger. Palm Springs was advertised as easy to reach luxury for the common man. Hotels were built with massive pools heated by endless sunshine and shaded by towering palms. People arrived in masses. Fashionable stores opened along wide boulevards to cater to their desires. A casual style was popular. Tiki bars, Hawaiian shirts, dark sunglasses and cocktails in the evening with friends.
Many people who sampled what Palm Springs offered wanted more. They were easily enticed to establish at least a part-time residence. These new jet-setters weren’t interested in old styles. A new style of architecture that matched the era was needed. A modern style of flat roofs, large pools and glass-walled opulence that broke down the barrier between outdoor and indoor living became all the rage. Large tracts of affordable houses with high designs were built by competing architects and builders. Maybe no place in America better displayed what the “future” might be like. Abundant enthusiasm was everywhere.
In the surrounding area vast palm lined golf courses, a dizzying 120 for a population of just 500,000, were built. The neighboring desert communities of Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Palm Desert and La Quinta were expanded and developed. Gated communities lined the wide roads named after celebrities. Houses were built along the fairways, designed for affordable luxury and a relaxed country club lifestyle that seemed possible even for common people. A place to celebrate their hard earned success after a life of work. The deserts lack of water seemed distant as 1 pool was built for every 4 people and air conditioning helped combat the afternoon heat. Year-long tans were possible. Long imagined dreams were coming true. A comfortable retirement could be had that was filled with entertainment, activity and companionship.
Somewhere Palm Springs lost a bit of its way. Boxed between these newer communities and the towering mountains the city began to be seen as a retirement community. Palm Springs didn’t have the room to expand to meet this new market and perhaps it suffered a little. With the jet age, many of the celebrities drifted to further, more cosmopolitan locales. Palm Springs had always sold a dream and perhaps it lost a bit of its imagination. Perhaps it’s Golden Age had passed. It sat, preserved in the desert heat waiting for a new set of dreamers.
But the desert always welcomes people with visions. Artists rediscovered the area. Members of the LGBT community, sometimes disenfranchised elsewhere, found acceptance. Creative people, often outpriced in other areas of expensive California, found that the low prices of the desert offered opportunities. A new generation of Southern California creatives tricked up the existing hotels, revitalizing them with style reminiscent of their storied past. Stylishly hip young people Instagrammed fun-filled weekends to the world. The popularity of mid-century modern architecture and style drove many to rediscover and restore the vast reservoir of stylish houses found in most neighborhoods. Small motor courts were turned in to exciting hidden enclaves favored by young celebrities and the stylish wealthy. Modern hotels and spas were built, all with a style that tipped it’s hat to the past.
This new Palm Springs is what we found on our month long visit to the desert. We caught the end of the season (anytime avoiding the summer heat). We rented a cool mid-century modern styled apartment in the Racquet Club Estates area near the wonderfully revitalized Riviera Hotel. We found stylish shops to visit along the twin boulevards of Indian Canyon and Palm Canyon Drives. We spent scorching afternoons at happy hours in old-school cocktail bars reminiscent of Rat Pack days or re-imagined Tiki Bars that perfectly capture the colorful past. We visited the coolest retro hotels where we found stylish SoCal hipsters enjoying themselves in football field size pools. We toured uniquely styled houses that have been restored so well that they probably exceed their past glories. People were friendly and welcoming and we enjoyed many conversations in the cool cafes in the stylish downtown area.
Our favorite memory will be the tour of a house for sale next door to Frank Sinatra’s famed Twin Palms estate. Once owned by his lawyer, the layout suggested late-night cocktail parties attended by celebrities partying around the gorgeous pool surrounded by luscious palms. Closing our eyes for just a minute, we felt we could almost hear Dean, Frank and the rest of the Rat Pack cavorting next door late into the night. We saw a lot of things during our month in Palm Springs that they would certainly recognize and definitely would approve of. We felt the original founders would be proud of the current crop of dreamers that seem to be once again imagining Palm Springs future.