Destination Guides

9 architecturally significant locations to visit in Palm Springs

Drive into the California desert and you’ll stumble upon a modern architecture oasis in Palm Springs. The city holds a thrilling tale of celebrities, socialites and unique modern design that has inspired countless admirers. From legendary designs by the likes of Wexler and Frey, to the lavish retreats of Hollywood stars like Frank Sinatra, here are 9 of the best architectural gems to visit in Palm Springs.

How did Palm Springs start?

If you were a celebrity in the mid-twentieth century and wanted to escape the bustle of Hollywood, Palm Springs was the place to go. This Californian desert city became the ultimate hideaway for movie stars and socialites and their arrival led to Palm Springs transforming into a mecca for mid-century modern architecture.

The city has some serious star power, with famous residents over the years including Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. These A-listers hired the era’s most legendary architects to design homes to suit the desert environment, with lots of clean lines, glass doors, innovative materials, gorgeous pools and shaded spaces for outdoor living. 

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What is Palm Springs known for?

Today, Palm Springs is known for having the highest concentration of mid-century modern architecture in the United States, with scores of sleek, clean white structures. It also still has plenty of star attraction, with many celebrities still choosing to holiday in Palm Springs including Leonardo DiCaprio, Beyoncé and Jay Z, Mark Wahlberg and Brad Pitt.

If you’re into stargazing, you can hop around some of the most popular celebrity hangouts in Palm Springs, and you can even take a closer look inside some of their former homes with an architecture tour around the city. If you’re obsessed with modern architecture, here are some of the top locations to visit.

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1. Kaufmann House by Richard Neutra

As one of the best examples of desert modernism, you can’t miss out on the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs. It was designed by Richard Neutra for department store tycoon Edgar J Kauffman in 1946.

From the street, all you can see is the modern structure towering over the rocky, palm tree-dotted garden. But if you get inside, you’ll be blown away by this spectacular house that was also once owned by Barry Manilow.

It features five bedrooms and five bathrooms, organised in a cross shape around the central living spaces. The four axes give way to a series of outdoor spaces, including the huge dreamy swimming pool.

2. House of Tomorrow by William Krisel and Dan Palmer

House of Tomorrow Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway Palm Springs
Image Credit: Gary Bembridge / Flickr

The famous House of Tomorrow was designed in 1960 by William Krisel and Dan Palmer for Robert & Helene Alexander of the Alexander Construction Co. Seven years later, Elvis and Priscilla Presley rented it for their honeymoon retreat. Today it’s known as the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway.

The fascinating design comprises three circular levels under a batwing-style roof, and you can see it all as it’s open for tours. Whether you’re an Elvis fan or not, you’re sure to be inspired by this mid-century Palm Springs house.

3. Twin Palms by E Stewart Williams

The biggest stars of the 1960s loved to visit Palm Springs and you can see several former homes of the Rat Pack including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Peter Lawford. The Twin Palms was the first home Frank Sinatra commissioned for himself, and E Stewart Williams’ first project, designed in 1947.

The estate features four bedrooms and seven bedrooms under the flat and slightly sloped roofs, along with large sliding glass doors that lead into the gorgeous outdoor space with a piano-shaped swimming pool.

4. Steel Houses by Donald Wexler

As one of the first to combine prefabricated and modern architecture, Donald Wexler is famed as one of Palm Spring’s most innovative designers. He thought steel was the ideal building material for the desert as it was weather resistant and cheap, and planned a neighbourhood of 40 prefabricated glass and steel houses in Palm Springs.

They were designed to look custom-built, but they could be built in two days and sold for around $14,000. Unfortunately, steel prices skyrocketed soon after and they only completed seven houses. Six of the houses have been restored to their original condition and are designated as a Class 1 Historic Site. You can see some of these impressive designs when you visit Palm Springs, including the property with a sawtooth roof.

5. Elrod House by John Lautner

Originally designed in 1969 by legendary architect John Lautner, this house was commissioned by interior designer Arthur Elrod. The most iconic feature is the huge conical roof over the main living area. Fans also love the glazed front that opens onto a terrace and pool with spectacular views of the city below.

You might recognise these famous features from the 1971 James Bond movie ‘Diamonds are Forever’. The house doubled as Willard Whyte’s summer house and it’s here that James Bond (Sean Connery) was thrown into that famous pool during a fight scene.

6. Frey House II by Albert Frey

Albert Frey is one of the most renowned architects of Palm Springs, and the appropriately named Frey House II is the second house the architect designed for himself. Famed as a true masterpiece of desert modernism, the house served as Frey’s home and studio for many years.

Built in 1963, with rock and metal ceilings, the structure sits on a concrete podium perched high above Palm Springs. It’s topped with corrugated aluminium sheets and wrapped in sliding glass doors that provide stunning views. Don’t forget to check out the famous boulder in the bedroom of this inspiring house.

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7. Abernathy Residence by William F Cody

Legendary designer William F Cody designed this pavilion-style home for millionaire socialite James Logan Abernathy in 1962. The most iconic feature of the 435-square-metre estate is the slender white pillars that support a shaded area around a glittering pool.

Designed for hosting lavish parties, you can still imagine a crowd of celebrities and starlets dancing around the pool on a balmy night in Palm Springs in the sixties.

8. Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Centre

Palm Springs Art Museum
Image Credit: Palm Springs Mod Squad

Built in 1976 by E. Stewart Williams, the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Centre is a great example of Brutalist architecture, a style of monolithic, ‘blocky’ structures that emerged out of the early 20th-century modernist movement.

Set against the San Jacinto Mountains, the striking concrete building has plenty of fantastic art exhibitions inside. Best of all, there’s free admission every Thursday from 4pm to 8pm.

9. Tramway Gas Station

Tramway Gas Station Palm Springs
Image credit: Gary Bembridge / Flickr

If you drive into Palm Springs from the north on Palm Canyon Drive, you’ll get your first taste of modernist architecture at the Tramway Gas Station. Renowned architects Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers designed the building in 1965, to be the first structure people see when they visit Palm Springs.

The building certainly does its job as the iconic wedge-shaped canopy that seems to jut out of the mountains is hard to miss. It now serves as the Palm Springs Visitor Centre and you can also take a ride on the Palm Springs Tramway just up the road, that was also designed by Albert Frey. 

You can tour mid-century modern houses when you visit Palm Springs on our new trip, San Diego, Palm Springs and Orange County Beaches, exclusively available for those living in the USA.

Are you dreaming of a visit to Palm Springs? What’s at the top of your Palm Springs bucket list? Let us know in the comments below!

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