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Mad for mod in Palm Springs

Elvis Presley’s honeymoon home is a highlight of Modernism Week in the desert, but Palm Springs has plenty of iconic residences.

Stepping over the threshold where Elvis Presley carried his bride Priscilla, I immediately see why their 1966 Palm Springs honeymoon pad was dubbed the “The House of Tomorrow.”

The recently restored mid-century abode has stood the test of time. Its sunken living room, suspended circular fireplace, lava rock wall, and floor-to-ceiling windows are design features that continue to be featured in today’s homes.

Designed in 1960 by architect William Krisel, the house is considered to be among the 100 most important buildings in the Coachella Valley, according to the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation. Not because the King of Rock ’n’ Roll once stayed here, but because of its modern architecture.

Visitors to Palm Springs will have a rare opportunity to view this futuristic house during Modernism Week, happening Feb. 16 to 23, when the desert oasis once again shows off the best of its architecture and vintage culture with more than 350 events planned.

Tickets are still available for many of the events, including tours of homes that once belonged to Hollywood’s elite.

Members of the Rat Pack, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Kirk Douglas, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore and Liberace were just some of the stars who leased or bought homes in this resort playground. In part because movie stars, at one time, were on contract to the studios to remain within two hours driving distance to Los Angeles

Frank Sinatra’s private estate, called “Villa Maggio,” is being opened for the first time to the public. Visitors can tour the 7.5-acre estate and see inside Sinatra’s main and guest house, his pool and tennis courts, helipad and outdoor entertainment area.

Sinatra had this mountain house built to beat the oppressive heat of the desert valley below. It also provided privacy for his friends when they visited.

Actor Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne’s house, designed by renowned architect Donald Wexler, will also be open to the public during an evening fundraiser on Feb. 22.

Wexler was known for having pioneered the use of steel in residential design, after finding wood wasn’t the best material for homes in the desert.

Architects in the Coachella Valley have been designing buildings embracing the desert environment, with its intense climate, since the 1920s. But desert modernism didn’t really reach its peak until the middle of the 20th century thanks to new post-war technologies, like the use of steel framing in homes, and modern construction techniques.

Mid-century modern wasn’t just in residential design but also commercial, civic, religious, and cultural buildings. Many of these classic buildings are still in use today in Palm Springs, like the Enco Gas Station, known as the Tramway Gas Station built in 1961, and now used as the city’s visitors centre. This futuristic building has soaring cantilevered steel roof panels coming to a dramatic point.

It’s hard to miss, located at one of the entrances to the city on N. Palm Canyon Drive, giving you an immediate sense of stepping back in time upon your arrival in Palm Springs.

Thanks to a devoted effort by preservationists to maintain these buildings, Palm Springs has the highest concentration of mid-century structures in the United States.

The following are just a few of Palm Springs' iconic residences:

• E. Stewart William’s Twin Palms estate, because of the two palm trees on the property, was once owned by Frank Sinatra. Located at the Movie Colony neighbourhood of Palm Springs, the house is notable for its piano-shaped swimming pool and canopy skylight entryway that casts a shadow resembling piano keys onto the ground. It’s also just around the corner from singer and ‘70s talk show host Dinah Shore’s house.

• The Dinah Shore Residence was designed in 1964 by renowned architect Donald Wexler in Las Palmas neighbourhood with privacy a huge consideration in its design. Now owned by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, this single-level brick home has a sunken living room, formal dining room and multiple terraces for entertaining.

• The Kaufmann Desert House is probably the most photographed home in Palm Springs. Designed by architect Richard Neutra in 1946, it exemplifies desert living. Its pool was the setting of the famous photo by Slim Aarons, called “Poolside Gossip,” of two fashionably dressed women in lounge chairs. It’s an iconic image symbolic of the Palm Springs lifestyle.

This year marks the 18th year Modernism Week has been held, after starting in 2000 as a small, grass-roots community festival. It’s now grown into an international 11-day affair, with more than 100,000 people expected to attend. Last year there was an estimated 96,700 attendees.

Modernism Week is so popular a smaller version has been held in October since 2013 (with the exception of 2020 due to COVID) with 50 events taking place over four days.

One of the fall highlights is the Cul de Sac A-Go-Go event, an immersive experience where visitors can be part of a street party at the historic neighbourhood of Canyon View Estates. Go Go dancers shimmy to music from the ’60s, vintage cars are parked around the cul de sac and visitors get to tour many of the retro homes with hosts who are mad for mod and dressed accordingly in mini skirts, floral dresses and white go go boots.

Also during Modernism Week is the Palm Springs Modernism Show at the Palm Springs Convention Centre, with over 120 exhibitors selling vintage furniture, house products and vintage fashion and jewelry. It takes place Feb. 17-20. The convention centre is the site of the Modernism Week Vintage Car Show, with over 50 cars that date back to the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

kpemberton@shaw.ca