You haven’t seen Palm Springs until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Robert Imber, the city’s mid-century architecture guru who has probably forgotten more about the subject than any other mortal will ever know.
Imber’s passion and expertise on modernism can excite even the most ignorant, and taking one of his tours explains why the city is enjoying yet another facet of its evolution.
“Palm Springs is considered the Mecca of Mid-Century Modernism,” he explained, “so it is high on the list of cultural tourism destinations.”
In fact, the city is on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of architectural destinations and has been designated a Preserve America city.
On a recent and unusually chilly December afternoon, Imber maneuvered a minivan in and out of several Palm Springs neighborhoods, providing an expertly abridged oral history of the city.
“The first non-Indian residents arrived in the mid-1800s and the first attempts at farming failed, but people discovered the curative aspects of the climate in the 1920s,” he said.
That’s when the well- heeled arrived with entire households for long winter stays and built homes, mostly in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. The Village of Palm Springs was incorporated in 1938 and grew during World War II when Generals Eisenhower and Patton brought troops to the area to train. Then came the post-war building boom — a time when some architects escaped the staid East to try something dramatic and different in the West.
“Palm Springs was where residents were willing to buy or commission architecture they’d not likely choose back in New York, Seattle or Indianapolis,” Imber said. “The mild desert climate allowed walls of glass, open carports and indoor-outdoor living.”
Then in the 1970s, the economy went south, gas prices shot up and “Palm Springs was withering on the vine,” Imber said. It developed a reputation as a destination for the spring-breakers and residents began moving to other desert communities.
Then in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, people discovered the worth of mid-century modern houses. What had been neglected and abandoned was restored and revered, and the work continues. “Modernism has revitalized Palm Springs and is bringing new business and tourists from all over the world,” Imber said. “We may not have the greatest number of mid-century (homes and commercial buildings), but we have the greatest concentration of anywhere in the world.”
Although Imber’s tours don’t focus exclusively on homes of the stars, you’ll see several because they are architecturally significant, and he’ll throw in a bit of gossip here and there, too. The roster of notables includes Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Rock Hudson. Many worked under the “studio system” which demanded they never be more than two hours from the movie studios. That made Palm Springs a perfect retreat — within a two-hour drive and relatively free of the limelight.
Imber also points out downtown buildings that may have ‘badly mistreated surfaces” but are some of the “most progressive mid-century architecture anywhere.”
One of the biggest misconceptions people have about mid-century architecture, Imber said, is that “it is cold or uninviting or without much innovation since much is so very simple, which it is not when understood. Mid-century modern principles and designs are particularly strong and exciting as they were entirely innovative, clean and concise.”
The architecture reflects the cultural changes of the mid-century decades, he added, thus making it “sociologically significant as well as visually stimulating.”
Contact Imber at [email protected] or (760) 318-6118.
With the rain we’ve had, it could be a bloomin’ good year at Anza Borrego Desert State Park. See the flowers and more on a day trip March 25 with SDSU Professor Phil Pryde, expert on the natural history of the area. Cost: $79. Includes lunch at Borrego Springs Resort; docent and escort fees; optional nature walk; the gigantic Breceda metal sculptures; and stop at Dudley’s Bakery. Pickups in Encinitas, Carlsbad and San Marcos. Call Ecke YMCA at (760) 942-9622 or San Marcos Senior Center (760) 744-5535.
Filed Under: Hit the Road