Designer Jonathan Adler, whose dotty ceramics and mod pillows launched a hip home-décor brand, has always favored Palm Springs for a little R&R. In his case, that means research and reconnaissance. "I have uncovered layer upon layer of vintage shops," the 38-year-old New Yorker says. "Just when you think you've seen it all, you discover a place that sells used lingerie, and that's where you'll find a vintage Givenchy silk shirt."
There was one Givenchy, however, that it took a while for Adler to get his hands on. That was Merv Griffin's Resort & Givenchy Spa, an extravagant bit of architecture—even for Palm Springs—with an exterior that looked like a Versace version of Versailles. Opened in 1959 as California's first Holiday Inn, the hotel became singing cowboy Gene Autry's Melody Ranch until fellow crooner Griffin revamped it in the 1990's as a luxury resort that played host to Robert Downey Jr. (in his wilder days) and Barbra Streisand (who had a wall demolished to link two villas). "I had driven by it many times," Adler says, "and always thought, What the hell is that?"
He found out when hotelier Jack Parker commissioned him to turn the Givenchy into Le Parker Meridien Palm Springs. Now, standing between the breeze-block valet parking area and the orange-lacquered lobby doors, Adler tells me the design mantra that guided his makeover of this grande dame of desert getaways: "To unite happiness and chic."
Once a decadent weekend retreat for the wealthy and the well connected, Palm Springs now welcomes some 2 million visitors a year. Winter-weary Northerners and real estate investors are fueling a tourism-and-development boom that rivals those of South Beach and Las Vegas, while design mavens from Seattle to San Diego are making pilgrimages to this Modernist mecca and snatching up tract ranches with asymmetrical rooflines. Over the past decade, I have watched Palm Springs undergo a regentrification, as newcomers connect with the glamour of another era and the fifties' futurist vision of resort life.
In a city where the Walk of Stars in the downtown shopping district has plaques for local cosmetic surgeons, the most noticeable face-lifts these days are on buildings. Every time I make the 110-mile drive from Los Angeles, I hear about the renovation of another historic hotel. Along with the Parker, L'Horizon—built in 1952 by desert architect William F. Cody for the actress Bonita Granville—is reopening this month as the Horizon Hotel. Interior designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard has been tapped to redo Colony Palms, a Spanish-style property, circa 1935, that the original owner, Purple Gang mobster Al Wertheimer, equipped with a basement casino, a speakeasy, and a brothel. And L.A. home-store owners Brad Cook, of the company Show, and John Bernard, of Room Service, have renovated and designed a number of vacation houses for rent.
The city's social complexion also appears more youthful (the average age of residents, once 58, is now 47) and more liberal, having crawled out from under the weight of Republican mores imposed by the late Sonny Bono, who became mayor (1989-93) on the promise that he would halt spring break by cracking down on those who dared to wear a thong in public. Now, the mayor and a majority of the city council members are openly gay.
Unofficially, Palm Springs, part of the Coachella Valley, stretches from the Desert Hills Premium Outlets in Cabazon (at least 130 stores and, it often seems, only slightly more parking spaces) to the date plantations of Indio, where I have driven 45 minutes just to get a date milk shake. Between the two lies Palm Springs, with its broad boulevards, mountain vistas, proud Spanish-Mediterranean buildings, and landmark Modern masterpieces in upscale neighborhoods like Las Palmas and the Movie Colony. For all of its attractions—unimpeachable weather, rugged yet ethereal landscapes, six casinos, and a Follies that stars the oldest living showgirls in the world—Palm Springs remains at heart a small-town resort dressed in big-city drag. It isn't for those who suffer from an irony deficiency.
The first visitors came around the turn of the 20th century to soak in the hot mineral-spring baths and recuperate from respiratory ailments in the dry desert air. The real action began in the 1920's, when Palm Springs became a Hollywood hideaway filled with Mediterranean villas like the Ingleside Inn (which still boasts that "Garbo slept here") and the Racquet Club, built by silent-film star Charles Farrell, where, it is said, Marilyn Monroe was discovered. From the rowdy rich who wined, dined, and gambled in the local haunts to the randy clientele who gamboled at "clothing-optional" resorts, Palm Springs became iconic as the place to get away from it all and to get away with anything. By the seventies, however, it had become a movie-star retirement home set on the back porch of the Wild West, with all of the jarring eccentricities that combination implies. Kirk Douglas Way, a major Palm Springs thoroughfare, was christened in October 2004.
Perhaps it's the collision of old Hollywood with new bohemia, perhaps it's the low, open spaces cradled between ancient mountains and the desert ecosystem, which reduces the four seasons to two—hot and hotter—but Palm Springs has always felt like a place suspended in time. In the mid-eighties, upon seeing the streamlined stone houses with yards landscaped in boulders, rocker Billy Idol remarked, "I thought I'd set foot in an episode of The Flintstones." I have come to see it that way too, to appreciate the baffling "modern Stone Age" contradictions that make Palm Springs an oasis of surrealism. Strolling past Q-tips (thin women with white puffs of hair) on the 1930's plaza, with its crystal shops and a salon called P.S. I Love Your Hair, and encountering a bronze statue of Sonny Bono dressed in desert casual, I feel as if I've just stepped through a seam in the space-time continuum. The community has been only too happy to embrace that image, turning the architectural treasures into an industry. The Visitor Center provides maps of famous buildings by Richard Neutra and Albert Frey, and such atomic age hotels as the Orbit In have rebounded like boomerang coffee tables. Though it often seems that the entire town has been painted orange, lime green, and swimming-pool blue, the design-driven renaissance in Palm Springs also includes Southwestern inns, Italian villas, and boutique hotels like the Moroccan-themed Korakia Pensione and the Viceroy, which is steeped in black-and-white movie-star glamour. Adler's redesign of the 144-room Parker is perhaps the most ambitious attempt to restore the luster of Palm Springs, the one that will likely be the benchmark for the luxury resorts that follow.