Historic Articles

Entertaining – Desert Magazine (October 2012)

Stepping out in a couture gown after a perfect evening of cocktails at your own fabulous home might seem impossible in a literal desert, but it is amazing how well it was done here back in the day. In fact, Elsa Maxwell would have been proud of Palm Springs.

The most renowned party giver of the 1920s through 1940s, Maxwell was consulted by all in the highest social circles regardless of where they lived in the U.S. or Europe. Those aspiring to be proper hostesses never failed to read her books or emulate her style. Maxwell maxims to be followed slavishly included: Make your guests feel at ease, choose just the right theme and appoint your table with beautiful china, gorgeous crystal and fine linens.

While people cared then about entertaining rather than “partying,” they were no less intoxicated or daring at their gatherings. Even so, from their photos they actually seemed to have enjoyed more real fun, perhaps a reward for being less jaded.

Actually keeping your guests engaged takes some thought and planning. Maxwell, for example, was famously credited with inventing the scavenger hunt as a party game. When was the last time you attended a party that featured a game that wasn’t on TV?
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At Home – Desert Magazine (September 2012)

Early in the 20th century, important people visited the desert and then wanted to build their own piece of paradise. The resulting iconic residences represented the most desirable styles of the era.

A respite at the Desert Inn was frequently the starting point. many who first enjoyed innkeeper Nellie Coffman’s hospitality thereafter built their own homes. The most significant guest was Thomas O’Donnell. In 1925, he would loan Coffman $350,000 to rebuild and expand her establishment in the popular Spanish Mediterranean style in exchange for her building him a house in the same style on the hill above. Published in House Beautiful magazine in 1928, the home was called Ojo Del Desierto, and offered vistas of the empty desert that stretched for miles below.

William Mead, a Los Angeles banker and two-time state legislator, commissioned a house by Los Angeles architects Dodd and Richards to be set at the terminus of Tahquitz Canyon. Mead’s good friend Roland Bishop, one of the largest manufacturers of crackers and cookies in the 1920s, built a similar house next door.

King Camp Gillett of safety-razor fame, who likewise frequented the Desert Inn, bought acreage in the foothills south of Palm Springs in what is now called the Mesa. By 1926 he had already commissioned renowned California architect Wallace Neff to build an estate in the early California Spanish style in Los Angeles County’s Santa Monica Mountains. Neff subsequently designed Gillette’s Palm Springs House with guesthouse, in the same style, but it was later subdivided and remodeled out of recognition.
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Summer Respites – Desert Magazine (Summer 2012)

Summer Respites Summer 2012rszPalm Springs was advertised in the first half of the 20th century as having the best winter weather in the continental United States. Not much mention was made of the summers.

Die-hard desert rats endured the scorching temperatures of the Coachella Valley’s summers in the earliest years-pre-air conditioning. Those who stayed, managed by seeking precious shade and wrapping themselves in wet sheets out on enclosed sleeping porches at night.

However, summertime migrations to leave behind the valley’s heat also have been a ritual for desert dwellers since the beginning. The Desert Inn received guests from October 1 through June 1. But during the intervening months, the inn’s founding proprietress Nellie Coffman would relocate her family north-westward to “Lazy Acres,” a getaway that she purchased in 1928. Set on the Banning Shelf some 2,300 feet above sea level at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains, the summer home at 55 Lombardy Lane in Banning kept the Coffman clan cool during their summers for more than 20 years afterward.

The house was a pleasant place with giant pepper trees and cottonwoods creating shade. Beautifully, but modestly appointed, it was kept immaculately clean. The retreat represented a rest during the time away from the hectic life of the “season.”

Ever the dedicated businesswoman, Coffman would regularly return to Palm Springs, braving the punishing heat to supervise maintenance and summer work at the inn, making the 25-mile trek by car with trusted employee Segundo Rigonan at the wheel.
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Past Perfect – Desert Magazine (May 2012)

Beauty, fashion and health are long-established desert concerns, intimately entwined with the many reasons to visit or live here. Not surprisingly, the desert has set styles and established beauty-enhancing and health-giving practices from its earliest days, all contributing to its reputation as “America’s foremost desert resort.”

One local trend that swept the nation was the invention of culottes, or shorts, for women. Wanting to show off the exceptionally beautiful young starlets lounging poolside at the El Mirador Hotel, it is said that Tony Burke, the property’s publicity man, shopped Lykken’s Department Store in Palm Springs for men’s cotton underwear, as there were no “shorts” to be had at any of the proper clothiers. He then posed the young, fabulous and scantily clad Hollywood set in that same underwear for newsreels, turning the girls slightly askew from the camera to hide the functional buttons at the front. Soon everybody was wearing the comfortable and cool fashion.

By day, with the delightful climate and poolside lifestyle, the desert could rival the shore as a relaxing place to show off one’s tan and figure. Beauty pageants were a natural and soon became as ubiquitous as the fashionable swimwear worn by contestants and sun seekers alike.

But for those occasions held after the sun set behind the San Jacinto Mountains, high fashion stores that offered traditional and formal wear were in abundance in the 1930s and ’40s. All the fine hotels sold ladies fashions, not just the western wear so typical of the cowboy set of the time.
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Desert Spanish – Desert Magazine (March 2012)

In the desert, before the sleek sexy vibe of midcentury modern design burst on the scene, the soulful romance of California Spanish prevailed. The desert’s heritage of this early California architecture still remains strong and distinctive, very much shaped by the climate. Today, you can see stellar examples of adobe and Spanish-inspired buildings still valued because they are not only perfectly adapted to the extremes of weather, but are also evocative of a golden age.

In 1774, two years before the American Revolution, Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza trekked through the mountains immediately to the west of the Coachella Valley, seeking to forge an easy trail to California’s coast. But more than a century would pass before white settlers would arrive in the desert below, settling and building simple board houses or pitching tents on wooden floors.

Replacing these shacks in the 1920s, Spanish Colonial Revival style-a substantial architecture, an architecture of concrete and adobe brick-gradually took root as it became fashionable, and as more affluent wintering visitors arrived.

But the catalyst that really made the Spanish Colonial Revival popular was the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. Set in San Diego’s Balboa Park, where the historic structures remain today, the exposition was the genesis of this style in California, superseding the initial Hispanic influence exerted by California’s then-decaying mission structures and remaining early California hacienda homes.
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Frank Sinatra's Twin Palms – Desert Magazine (February 2012)

In the summer of 1947, Frank Sinatra became enamored of the desert and strolled into the office of local architect E. Stewart Willams wearing a white sailor suit and enjoying an ice cream cone. He told the architect that he wanted to commission a house to be designed and built in time for Christmas.

The singer had in mind a Georgian-style manse with a brick facade and columns. It was the kind of house that signaled success back in Hoboken and even in Hollywood.

It is said that Williams dutifully complied and drew the requested design. But he also created a plan for a desert modern house and made his pitch for it. Frank was convinced by Williams’ renderings, which featured horizontal lines with big glass expanses. He reportedly promptly paid $150,000 for what would ultimately become one of the desert’s most famous midcentury houses.
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The Racquet Club – Desert Magazine (January 2012)

Although they’re worshipped these days like deities, in the 1920s and ’30s “show people” weren’t welcomed lavishly at the established hotels in Palm Springs. But then, the world was indeed a different place.

The Desert Inn was ambivalent, to put it kindly, about people in the movie business, although they made a major exception for child star Shirley Temple, who was the world’s No. 1 box-office attraction in the mid-1930s.

The El Mirador Hotel was more tolerant, but not particularly of local film people like Ralph Bellamy and Charlie Farrell, leading men of the era who both maintained places in town. The two were avid tennis players and the story goes that they couldn’t get sufficient time on the hotel’s court. Unfortunately, it was one of only two courts in Palm Springs; the other belonged to the even less welcoming Desert Inn.

When Bellamy and Farrell got tired of constantly getting kicked off in favor of paying guests, they reacted by buying some windswept land north of town and starting their own place.
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Sunny Days on the Salton Sea – Desert Magazine (December 2011)

Frightening potential environmental impacts and mind-numbing economic analyses dominate the conversation about the Salton Sea these days. But there was a time when the sea’s great gift as a vast recreational resource for the valley was much easier to fathom-before the drastic reduction in water volume and quality dimmed its allure. Picture it: According to a Time Magazine article, the sea’s North Shore Yacht Club once boasted the largest marina in California, and the sea hosted more visitors during some years than Yosemite National Park.

In 1905 there was a deluge that caused the mighty Colorado River to spill over its banks and flow into the ancient Salton Sink. The escaping water raced along manmade irrigation ditches that took the Southern Pacific Railroad almost two years to repair-during which the countless lost gallons of water, measured in millions of acre-feet, created the Salton Sea.
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"Golden Days of Desert Golf" – Desert Magazine (April 2012)

With some 120 private and public courses scattered from Palm Springs to Indio, calling our desert “the Golf Capital of the World” seems a natural. But as recently as 1950, there wasn’t a single 18-hole course here.

The El Mirador purportedly had the first course, with the O’Donnell Golf Club being second. It’s now the oldest golf course in the Coachella Valley. Wealthy oilman Thomas O’Donnell was an avid golfer and in the early 1920s he created a course at the base of San Jacinto as his front yard. His course provided front-nine play for his friends and guests of the Desert Inn, with the inn’s Mashie course serving as the back nine.
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“Star Studded Getaways” – The Press Enterprise (December 11, 1996)

In 1996, The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn opened after a restoration process had taken place. The building was constructed in the 1920s, but had lost much of its original luster before being renewed in the 1990s.

The Willows has some rich history, as Samuel Untermyer (a famous lawyer of the early 1900s) was one of the first people to own it. While Untermyer was the owner, Albert Einstein was one of his guests (and now has a room named after him at The Willows).

The Press Enterprise included The Willows in an article “Star Studded Getaways: Legends and apocryphal stories abound, but here are four nearby lodges where celebrities actually once lounged.”

To find out some more history, see a photo of Albert Einstein at The Willows, and learn more about its restoration process, you can read the article here as a PDF (the article incorrectly states that Untermyer built The Willows).

*Rates and similar details mentioned in this article for The Willows are from the time the article was written, although you can see current amenities at The Willows and check current prices and make a reservation online.