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Modernism Week: Palm Springs for Lovers of Design, Architecture, & Cool

When my wife sauntered into Frank Sinatra's master suite and threw herself on the bed, nearly spilling her wine, I knew it was time to go. 

We were partying at Twin Palms, Sinatra's iconic Palm Springs mansion, as part of Modernism Week, an 11-day festival for lovers of mid-century modern design, architecture, fabulous houses, and Old Hollywood glamor. Modernism Week happens every February and features dozens of special-access tours and events at the area's most famous and spectacular properties. But Palm Springs is also perfect for the self-guided, or more casual, fan of mid-century modern architecture and design. Everywhere you look in this town, you see something pretty, usually a stylish example of what is known as desert modernism, an aesthetic built on the principle of form follows function with sleek lines working in perfect harmony with the landscapes of the sunny, warm Southwest. 

Palm Spring's Mid-Century Modern Buildings

"Palm Springs, California is famous for it's many Mid-Century Modern architectural style homes. In this image a row of such homes are seen on one street with a dramatic cloudscape above them. Palm trees line the street. Coachella Valley, Riverside County, Southern California, Western USA."

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The soiree at Twin Palms was a perfect example of what's special about Modernism Week. Earlier that day we took a guided walking tour ("Golden Era Hollywood Homes") through Las Palmas, a neighborhood of stately Spanish Colonial and mid-century modern homes. During the tour, we struck up a conversation with a knowledgeable, witty, and elegantly dressed older woman who gave us two tickets to this party, which was being thrown by an alcohol company. I've found this spirit of social generosity common among the enthusiasts in town for Modernism week. 

These days, the iconic desert-modern house with a famous past can be rented out for luxury vacations and private events like this one, but Twin Palms was originally built for Sinatra by famed architect E. Steward Williams in the trendy Movie Colony neighborhood. Sinatra lived in the house from 1947 to 1954, including during his fiery marriage to Ava Gardner. We were excited to check the place out and soak up the cool Frank and Ava vibes. We grabbed martinis and old fashioneds by the piano-shaped pool, listened to a swinging jazz trio, and met some interesting fellow revelers (most either dressed like Mad Men extras or sporting chunky, aggressively colored designer eyeglasses). 

Inside the house, there were two artifacts that to me most conjured the Great Man's presence. The first was his sound system and home recording studio. All gleaming steel, analog knobs and meters, and turntables, it was a masterpiece of old-school tech. We were looking for the other- a crack in the master bedroom sink caused by Frank slamming it with a champagne bottle during an argument with Ava- when my wife decided she wanted to be able to say she jumped into Sinatra's bed. That goal accomplished, we checked out the cracked sink and then split. We were off to check out the next beautiful place in a town full of them. 

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Here are some can't-miss examples of Palm Springs architecture and design. 

Palm Springs Visitor Center - stock photo

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Squint your eyes, and you can imagine the Palm Springs Visitor Center as the hip gas station it used to be. The 1965 building was a Tramway Gas Station designed by Albert Frey, using pipes as columns to support a soaring, angular corrugated steel room. The Palm Springs Architecture and Design Center, also known as the Edward Harris Pavilion, used to be a bank. Designed by E. Steward Williams as a Sante Fe Savings and Loan in 1961, this was a radically modern take on a bank, ditching the heavy marble and thick stone of neo classical architecture for an open, airy bank flooded with natural light. The blue and white Bank of America Building, built in 1959, has rounder lines than most modernist buildings, making it look kind of like a mushroom. The Coachella Valley Savings and Loan (now a Chase bank), a 1960 building designed by E. Stewart Williams, uses upside down arches as columns and lots of vertical lines. 

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 21: The Coachella Valley Savings and Loan No. 3 building, Palm Springs, California

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Some neighborhoods to check out include Deepwell Estates, which has a lot of mid-century modern homes. The Wexler Steel Houses are modernist architect Donald Wexler's striking experiment in making homes from prefab steel and glass. The neighborhoods of Las Palmas and Old Las Palmas are full of beautiful homes of stars from Hollywood's Golden Age. 

Modernism Week takes place February 17-27, 2022, and features over 300 events, including tours of iconic homes, walking tours of neighborhoods, nightly parties, exhibitors, and a classic car show. 

Have you ever attended Modernism Week or been to Frank Sinatra's Palm Springs mansion? Share your experiences with us on our Wide Open Roads Facebook!

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