Published: June 2009
By Lucie Young
A new generation of hoteliers in and around Palm Springs is
transforming mid-century motels into—surprise!—stylish retreats
"Elvis slept here." "Jane Russell played tennis there." Palm Springs hoteliers love to brag about the stars who spent two seconds under their roof. Most of the big names, of course, are long gone. Not so in Desert Hot Springs, 20 minutes up the road. This California town, with its cache of souped-up forties and fifties spa motels, is again becoming a star magnet. The scene is also changing in Palm Springs itself, where a collection of Mid-Century Modern motels—derelict a year or two ago but now revived with a spritz of Modernism and a twist of kitsch—is attracting a stylish clientele.
Two years ago, Desert Hot Springs resembled a twilight zone, a desiccated landscape strewn with burned-out motel signs. But now this corner of the California desert is blooming anew. Two factors are drawing motel developers: the architecture, and the hot springs themselves. The mineral water here is considered some of the best in America, renowned for its purity, taste, and lack of sulfurous smell; virtually every hotel has its own well. And like Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs has a huge collection of mid-century motels that, thanks to the economic slump of the late sixties, never faced a wrecking ball. These small motels are idiosyncratic examples of the period's Modernist style, with their elementary forms, flat roofs, large windows, and primary colors.
Modernism has its roots in the Bauhaus school of 1920's Germany. After its proponents emigrated, the style thrived in the United States from the late thirties through the mid sixties. Its central doctrine—that to break free of the past, designers must create a new landscape stripped of all historicist ornament—found a favorable setting in this valley, about two hours from Los Angeles, where movie stars and America's ultra-rich came to play. Although the architects working here—Albert Frey, Richard Neutra, William Cody, R. M. Schindler, John Lautner—did much of their best work in the forties, fifties, and sixties, some are only now gaining international recognition. Tony Merchell, vice president of the Palm Springs Historic Site Foundation, says that 650 Mid-Century Modern buildings still exist in the area, "a remarkable concentration for such a small resort."
Hoteliers—many new to the business—are snapping up and restoring vintage motels in both towns. But while the renovated places in Desert Hot Springs are mostly pared-down spa retreats run by their proprietors like second homes (with room for paying guests), in Palm Springs the design trend is lavish, with top-dollar period furnishings and a sometimes campy taste. Modernism purists—adherents to architect Adolf Loos's credo "Ornament is a crime"—may disapprove. But for a relaxing weekend spent immersed in a simpler era, this selection of eight places offers a kaleidoscopic vision of the past.
DESERT HOT SPRINGS
Rhoni Epstein and Cristina Pestana, who opened the Sagewater Spa last February, greet guests with a pot of tea or a glass of refreshing cucumber water and encourage them to make the place their own. Midnight skinny-dippers are welcome, and poolside cocktails—usually caipirinhas made by Brazilian-born Pestana—are free on Sundays.
The 1954 Sagewater is almost Art Deco in design, a streamlined rectangle made up of an L-shaped building and an L-shaped perimeter wall of sandblasted glass. From the outside, it looks like a huge glowing box; inside, the intense light and large, aluminum-framed windows make the seven small rooms feel like artists' studios. Walls are painted a color called crystal ball, which changes from soft gray to blue to white as the sun moves across the sky. "We fell in love with the property because it has such uplifting energy," says Pestana. "Most motels are dark inside."
For furniture, says Epstein, a photographer's agent, "we didn't do fifties because I couldn't get past the Howard Johnson's look." Instead they chose playful, affordable pieces from ikea, in keeping with their emphasis on comfort. Armchairs are slipcovered in waterproof fabric so guests can loll about in swimsuits. And since Epstein and Pestana acknowledge that the local restaurants have zero appeal to their health-conscious clientele, each room has a kitchen stocked with everything from measuring spoons to baking pans.
The one nod to excess is the custom beds, designed by L.A. craftsman Pierre Kozeley and covered with buttery Frette linens, cloudlike comforters, and down pillows. Pestana is hatching plans for further coddling, including a treatment center—she used to run a massage school in Los Angeles.
Having a sign with the wrong name is the ultimate insider gesture, and the one in front of the Hope Springs motel proclaims cactus springs. Proprietors Mick Haggerty and Steve Samiof thought it was the original sign and kept it, though they recently discovered a set of old postcards that showed the 1958 motel operating under another name. Whether they ever correct the error may depend on how well their A-list clientele tolerates the extra attention.
Haggerty, an L.A. graphic designer, and Samiof, his former business partner and a founder of Slash Records, are both Mid-Century Modernism addicts who have been known to get togged up in vintage clothes to attend Buddy Greco concerts. Samiof regularly surfs the Internet looking for bargains on classic furniture. "I got most of my education on eBay," he says with a laugh. But the owners are no amateurs, and the interiors of this 10-room, boomerang-shaped motel are evidence of their discrimination. The light-flooded lobby is filled with Modernist furniture. A half-dozen M&M—colored Saarinen chairs sit on a tufty Flokati rug, a fifties teacher's desk acts as the reception table, and a conversation pit surrounds a mosaic goldfish pool.
The minimalist rooms are focused on a low-slung platform bed covered in white linens and African mud cloth. There's usually one classic chair, a piece of contemporary art (room No. 2's wall mosaic by Haggerty is the best), and a set of open shelves. The floors are waxed concrete, the bathrooms strictly utilitarian.
Still, the atmosphere is chic and laid-back. Day or night, guests can help themselves to New Age concoctions (including something called Kukicha twig-and-leaf tea) in the tiny kitchen off the lobby. And Haggerty and Samiof are just as happy to see their clientele hanging out guzzling martinis and smoking cigs by the three mineral pools as they are to watch them doing yoga and searching for inner peace.
DESERT HOT SPRINGS MOTEL
Frank Lloyd Wright once called John Lautner, his protégé and former employee, the second-greatest architect in the world (after himself, naturally). Some of Lautner's eccentric buildings are familiar from movies: the flying saucer—shaped Chemosphere in L.A., for example, figured in De Palma's Body Double. Lautner was a Modernist in terms of his spare, clean designs, but instead of boxy, single-story structures, his creations were convoluted and organic, and he was more interested in the experience of the occupants than in a building's external appearance. Indeed, your first impression of Lautner's 1947 Desert Hot Springs Motel is of an industrial bunker with orange girders sticking out the top. "Locals thought this was a secret government project," says Steven Lowe, a writer who purchased the long-closed four-room motel in April 2000 and is reopening it this month.
The building is burrowed into the ground, its roofs canted to deflect the powerful desert winds that howl in from the west—Lautner had stayed in the area before designing the motel and was kept awake by rattling windows. The tilted design also lets light pour in, as do the clerestory windows at ceiling level, positioned above the bed for stargazing. The patios are so well partitioned that sitting outside, you're aware only of the mountains and the horizon. It's as if you're the only person in the desert.
Unlike Wright, who designed clothes for his first wife that would complement his décor, Lautner wasn't zealous about furnishings. Lowe has left the rooms uncluttered, using thirties and forties chrome pieces in one, fifties Danish-modern in another. "The idea is to keep it as unfussy as possible," he says, "so the furniture doesn't get in the way of the architecture." Or of the spectacular view.
MIRACLE MANOR RETREAT
L.A. designers April Greiman and Michael Rotondi are the pioneers of the Desert Hot Springs renaissance. In 1997, they put their jobs on hold and bought the Miracle Manor motel, transforming it from a kooky, somewhat claustrophobic outfit into a stylish, modern hideaway. "We knew nothing about running a hotel," Greiman recalls. Learning wasn't easy, especially when the pair insisted that everything in the rooms be as close to nature as possible. The sage soap is made by hand in Pennsylvania. A single organic-cotton bedsheet costs as much as a night's stay. The color of the khaki paint on the walls came from sand samples gathered on the property.
The 1948 motel is a modest, flat-roofed structure with five guest rooms overlooking a small courtyard. To lighten up the introverted design, Greiman and Rotondi punched panoramic windows out of the exterior walls of the bedrooms, allowing untrammeled views of the desert beyond. The owners chose the motel not only for its architectural merit but also for its intimate scale and its location atop one of the hottest mineral wells in the area. They also loved the original neon sign out front—even though its last tube flickered out the day they opened. They are equivocal, however, about the mid-century look. "Fifties furniture is about mass production and the machine aesthetic," Greiman says with a sniff. She has a handful of Eames Eiffel Tower chairs that belong to the era, but believes the Latvian twig stools and handloomed East Indian fabrics used as curtains are more in keeping with Desert Hot Springs' sensual aesthetic.
There's a thin line between simple and spartan, though, and at times the Miracle Manor feels like a reform school for wayward city types. There is no smoking, no TV, and no art on the walls, and if you ask to send a fax, the front desk staff will look at you as if you're the devil incarnate. Silent contemplation, juice fasts, and organic essential-oil treatments are more the order of the day (the spa does employ some of the best massage therapists in the area). But the Zen tranquillity here has its worldly side too: a hefty catalogue offers almost everything in the rooms—from soap to beds—for sale.
Mies van der Rohe's Modernist mantra "Less is more" evidently fell on deaf ears at the Orbit In. Each of the 10 rooms in this newly refurbished 1957 motel is like a fifties housewife's dream come to life. No surface has been left untouched and, apparently, no Palm Springs thrift store left unscoured. Reproduction Eames fabrics drape the windows. Framed pages from Life, McCall's, The 7 UP Cookbook, and other period publications line the walls. There's furniture by Eames, Saarinen, Noguchi, and Paulin. A few rooms have kitchens equipped with polished fifties stoves, classic crockery, and Bertoia's sexy bikini chairs (so called because they appear to be wearing a leather two-piece). At the curving pool bar, lava lamps ooze in slow motion while guests nibble on Popsicles, sip Arnold Palmers (half lemonade, half iced tea), and use the data ports to check their e-mail.
Christy Eugenis, owner of a vintage clothing store, and her husband, food-industry magnate Stan Amy, came to Palm Springs for a holiday from their native Portland, Oregon, two years ago and fell in love with the place. Both grew up on The Jetsons and are unabashed admirers of what Amy calls "the atomic and space age stuff" as well as more elegant designs. They opened the Orbit In just a few months ago as a fizzy cocktail of classic furniture and retro kitsch, giving the rooms whimsical names—the Martini Room, the Leopard Lounge, Bossanovaville—and providing robes with oversized shoulder pads so guests can swank about like Joan Crawford. Their spirited vision might appall the orthodox Modernist, but Amy and Eugenis are banking on an audience of baby boomers who "love nostalgia and things that remind them of their parents and grandparents."
The couple has also purchased the 1947 Town & Desert Motel two blocks away, and plan to renovate it, perhaps as a tribute to Danish Modernism. Meanwhile, local stores are bracing themselves for Eugenis's next shopping spree.
BALLANTINES ORIGINAL AND BALLANTINES MOVIE COLONY
Two years ago, London couple Fraser Robertson, a film and advertising executive, and Sarah Robarts, a painter, decided to look for a retirement project. Zooming around Palm Springs in their red-and-white Cadillac Coupe DeVille, they decided this was the town—"somewhere we could go hiking one day, snowshoeing or skiing the next, and then sit by the pool in the evening," Robarts says. It also offered interesting old motel properties that, to Robertson's eye, were seriously undervalued.
Their first hotel, Ballantines Original, opened in February 2000. It's an inauspicious quadrangle with rooms overlooking a blob of a pool. But Robertson and Robarts have jazzed it up with period photographs, their favorite furniture from the forties to the present day, and blinding flashes of color—lime green, peacock blue, lipstick pink—on everything from the refrigerators to the telephones. The pool area is carpeted in bright blue AstroTurf; a purple cocktail bar sits in one corner.
Their second hotel, Ballantines Movie Colony, is named after the neighborhood, which became a huge magnet for Hollywood stars who wintered at the Moorish-style El Mirador Hotel and built houses on the surrounding streets. The Movie Colony, originally the San Jacinto, was designed by Swiss architect Albert Frey, whose futuristic creations have come to define much of the Palm Springs landscape—his photogenic Tramway Gas Station, with its wing-shaped roof, is now an art gallery. Frey built the motel in 1935 in a Bauhaus-inspired style, with flat roofs and multiple staircases leading down to a central garden. The main building and three town houses are staggered alongside the pool.
The splashy décor at the Ballantines properties tends to boil the blood of scholars who dismiss them as theme parks. But in many respects the rooms are a fitting tribute to the area's larger-than-life mid-century residents. The hotels offer plenty of amusements: fully functioning vintage radios, regular screenings of forties and fifties flicks, and well-honed fantasy environments. Among the best is the Marilyn Monroe Room at the Original (Marilyn did stay here, as did Gloria Swanson and Veronica Lake), which has dizzyingly pink walls, bosomy couches, and a reproduction of her famous Warhol portrait. The tribute to Jackson Pollock in the Movie Colony is decorated with floor-to-ceiling paint splotches. One wall and a desk in the Frank Sinatra Room, also in the Movie Colony, are plastered with collaged images of the crooner. And architecture fans can rent a two-story town house at the Movie Colony with a private deck big enough to host a Rat Pack—style cocktail party.
L'HORIZON GARDEN HOTEL
Squirreled away on East Palm Canyon Drive, a low-rent motel row, is this insider establishment with innumerable boldfaced names on its well-guarded guest list. The 212-acre plot contains seven small bungalows and one luxurious house with a sunken living room, a martini bar, a private walled garden, and a lavish pool.
The motel was built in 1952 by California architect William Cody, who designed the zigzag-shaped main house as a winter retreat for B-movie actress Benita Granville and her oil-magnate and producer husband, Jack Wrather. Their Hollywood friends, including Marilyn Monroe—who seems to have been promiscuous in her motel choices—used the bungalows. Marilyn's favorite room was the only one lacking an outdoor shower: even in this secluded hotel, with its angled trellises and overgrown patios, she dreaded the prying lenses of the paparazzi.
For Alan Hess, co-author of the colorful new coffee-table book Palm Springs Weekend (Chronicle Books, $40), this is the best fifties property in town. "It is a superb piece of design," he says. "You think it's just a rectilinear, flat-roofed series of bungalows, but then you realize all the buildings have these amazing acute angles that create a rhythm and very dramatic interior and exterior spaces."
The rooms were last refurbished in the eighties, in the Caesars Palace style: smoked glass mirrors, gold knobs, Lucite chairs, enormous flower prints. Now Brad Dunning, the decorator who renovated designer Tom Ford's mid-century house in L.A., is remodeling the rooms in a palette of beiges, grays, and off-whites that's tasteful, if historically inaccurate. The main house, for instance, was originally coral pink with bright green carpets. Looking over old pictures of the property, general manager Nickie McLaughlin surmises, "The fifties were really quite austere. I think our modern clientele would want more comfort here." They certainly appreciate the owner's discretion.
PALM SPRINGS: THE FACTS
DESERT HOT SPRINGS
Sagewater Spa 12697 Eliseo Rd.; 800/600-1668 or 760/251-1668, fax 760/251-1684; www.sagewaterspa.com; doubles from $165.
Hope Springs 68075 Club Circle Dr.; 760/329-4003, fax 760/329-4223; www.hopespringsresort.com; doubles from $150.
Desert Hot Springs Motel 67710 San Antonio Dr.; 760/329-5610, fax 760/251-6470; doubles from $175.
Miracle Manor Retreat 12589 Reposa Way; 877/329-6641 or 760/329-6641, fax 760/329-9962; www.miraclemanor.com; doubles from $90.
Orbit In 562 W. Arenas Rd.; 877/996-7248 or 760/323-3585, fax 760/323-3599; www.orbitin.com; doubles from $189.
Ballantines Original 1420 N. Indian Canyon Dr. and Ballantines Movie Colony 726 N. Indian Canyon Dr.; 800/780-3464 or 760/320-1178, fax 760/320-5308; www.ballantineshotels.com; doubles from $100.
L'Horizon Garden Hotel 1050 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 800/377-7855 or 760/323-1858, fax 760/327-2933; doubles from $135.
Strung along a half-dozen blocks of North Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs is a series of vintage stores selling well-preserved furniture and housewares dating as far back as the thirties. You'll find a few clever reproductions, but most pieces are original and the sellers are friendly, frank, and open to questions. Best of all, the prices are a steal compared with those of similar stores in New York and Los Angeles.
Palm Springs Consignment 1117 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/416-8820. James Claude and Miguel Linares sell period fridges, signs, and paintings as well as modern furniture classics; a leopard couch abuts a one-of-a-kind wooden rocker. The pieces are often not in mint condition, but prices are very competitive—a set of six Melmac tumblers costs $20.
Modern Way 1426 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/320-5455. Courtney Newman, who organizes tours, uses his store as the hub for the Palm Springs Modern Committee, a preservation group. The fifties, sixties, and seventies are all well covered, and there's a seemingly inexhaustible stash of Bertoia wire chairs and Knoll furniture. Prices run up to $5,000 for a rare Knoll sofa.
John's Resale Furnishing Mid-Century Modern 891 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/416-8876. "People were laughing at us at first," says John Hall of how he began selling mid-century furniture eight years ago. Today, the store he runs with his partner, Dorris Hall, is considered the best in town—and it's in an Albert Frey building. A Rostiwear orange plastic bowl costs $14; a spindly metal George Nelson basket desk is $9,000 (a New York auction house recently sold an identical one for $15,000, Hall claims).
Dazzles 457 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760/327-1446. The Orbit In's leopard furniture and martini bar came from here, and the owners of Ballantines drop in regularly for Melmac and other period tableware. Small pieces, such as glasses, lamps, beads, and jewelry, are the specialty here. A vintage turquoise-and-gold martini set goes for $155.