Coast to Coast 2014: Being Modern in Palm Springs

Matt Gasnier
by Matt Gasnier
Albert in West Cielo Drive, Palm Springs CA* You can see all the USA Coast to Coast Reports here! *After surviving Death Valley we now arrive at our last stop before reaching the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles: Palm Springs California, the mid-century architecture mecca of the world. The traditional Photo Report, car landscape study, Palm Springs trivia and a guide to the unmissable architectural attractions in town are below.
The Ford Thunderbird is the Hero in Town in Palm Springs CABefore we go into some Palm Springs trivia and the reasons behind this small desert town’s popularity, I have to spend a bit of time on the Hero in Town: the 11th and last generation Ford Thunderbird, on sale from November 2011 to June 2005. I had seen a couple in New Orleans but apart from that the Thunderbird had been extremely discreet, in line with its poor sales during its short-lived career. That was before Palm Springs. Very noticeable notably in its vintage colours – turquoise, torch red and bright yellow – they are everywhere to be seen in town. Obviously not the most frequent car in the Palm Springs streets, but way more popular here than in all the cities I have visited so far in this Coast to Coast trip… combined.As opposed to the 9 generations in between, the 11th generation Ford Thunderbird followed a then-recent trend for retro styling initiated by models such as the VW New Beetle, Chrysler PT Cruiser and Mini Cooper, and used design cues from the first generation Ford Thunderbird launched in 1955. In this context, its popularity in Palm Springs is more understandable, as it suits the mid-century architecture, furniture and car obsession in town.
The original 1955 Ford ThunderbirdLiving in Palm Springs means you probably own a house designed in the fifties, with the corresponding vintage furniture you have accumulated throughout the years, so it only makes sense to own a car that takes its design cues from this era. It’s the second-best option to owning a car actually made in the fifties. Add to this the unusually low ratio of family with kids in Palm Springs (15% of households) and you have the perfect breeding ground for vintage-looking 2-seat coupés/cabriolets like the Ford Thunderbird.
Casa Blanca Motel in Palm Springs CAThough it was initially well received by the automotive press in its first year of existence, many publications changed their mind after a few years, with Car and Driver Magazine even making it one of the “10 Most Embarrassing Award Winners in Automotive History”. Ford expected sales of 25,000 units per year, but despite a great start in 2002 which saw dealers charging well over the manufacturer’s suggested retail price and 31,121 units produced, subsequent years did not reach half that figure. Forbes attributed this failure to lack of marketing: “Ford dealers have been successful selling $40,000 trucks but have little experience selling automobiles in the near-luxury price range. If there was a marketing effort by Ford Motor, I wasn’t aware of it. Naturally, sales didn’t meet expectations.” said Forbes writer Jerry Flint.Ford Thunderbird production – last generation:YearProduction200231,121200314,506200412,67120059,220Total67,518Source: Wikipedia
Albert in Palm Springs CANow that we have cleared the cult status enjoyed by the 2002 Ford Thunderbird in Palm Springs, let’s get into some trivia. Palm Springs is a desert resort city located just 107 miles (172 kilometres) east of Los Angeles within the Coachella Valley in California. It is home to just 44,552 inhabitants and enjoys over 300 days of sunshine a year. The city became a fashionable resort in the 1900s when health tourists arrived with conditions that required dry heat. Palm Springs was more comfortable in its microclimate because the area was covered in the shadow of Mount San Jacinto to the west and in the winter the mountains block cold winds from the San Gorgonio pass. In the 1920s, Hollywood movie stars, attracted by the hot dry, sunny weather and seclusion, started building homes and estates here.
Palm Springs house in Monte VistaAfter World War II, architectural modernists flourished with commissions from the stars, using the city to explore architectural innovations, new artistic venues, and an exotic back-to-the-land experiences. Inventive architects designed unique vacation houses, such as steel houses with prefabricated panels and folding roofs, a glass-and-steel house in a boulder-strewn landscape, and a carousel house that turned to avoid the sun’s glare. In 1946 Richard Neutra designed the Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann House. A modernist classic, this mostly glass residence incorporated the latest technological advances in building materials, using natural lighting and floating planes and flowing space for proportion and detail. Culver (2010) argues that Palm Springs architecture became the model for mass-produced suburban housing, especially in the Southwest. This “Desert Modern” style was a high-end architectural style featuring open-design plans, wall-to-wall carpeting, air-conditioning, swimming pools, and very large windows.
Dodge Challenger in Palm Springs CAAlthough the home of dozens of striking mid-century houses, it’s relatively hard to find a reliable list of must-see architecture in Palm Springs online. The Palm Springs Modern Committee however sells (for a mere $5) an awesome map of Modern Palm Springs, featuring no less than 82 mid-century landmarks, their location, exact address, date of construction and corresponding architect. A goldmine, also available as an app on I highly recommend it and can happily report I have spent a good 5 hours making sure none of the 82 landmarks went unchecked.
Albert reverse parking into the world-famous Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs CAThe highlights among these 82 landmarks are – very subjectively – with their construction date and architect:
  1. Franz Alexander House (1954 – Walter White), Palevsky Residence (1968 – Craig Ellwood), Edris House (1953, E. Stewart Williams) and pretty much all houses towards the up-end of West Cielo Drive. Breathtaking views from here and casually manicured desert gardens. To me, the essence of Palm Springs.
  2. Village Manor – Orbit In hotel (1955 – Herbert W. Burns)
  3. Kaufmann Desert House (1946 – Richard Neutra)
  4. Casa Blanca Motel (1970s renovation – Hugh Kaptur)
  5. Most houses around Monte Vista and Camino Sur in Palm Springs North
  6. House of Tomorrow / Robert & Helene Alexander Residence, Elvis Presley Residence 1966-1967 (1962 – William Krisel)
  7. City National Bank / Bank of America (1959 – Victor Gruen Associates)
  8. Coachella Valley Savings & Loan No. 3 / Chase Bank (1960 – E. Stewart Williams)
  9. Dinah Shore Residence (1964 – Donald Wexler) but would have been better to see inside the house – Google it for pics
  10. Frank Sinatra Residence (1947 – E. Stewart Williams) here again better inside than out – see Google for pics
One disappointment: Southridge Drive in Palm Springs South offers fantastic views down below on the city but no way to stop the car to take it all in as it is fiercely guarded. That means both the Steve McQueen Residence (1968 – Hugh Kaptur) and Bob Hope Residence (1978 – John Lautner) are off limits along with a couple of other landmarks.
Albert in front of the House of Tomorrow (Elvis Presley’s residence 1966-1967) in Palm Springs CA
1959 Bank of America building in Palm Springs CA
Nissan Versa and Chrysler 200 in Palm Springs CANow onto the Palm Springs car landscape. Apart from the surprising (but logical) frequency of 2002-2005 Ford Thunderbirds, Palm Springs is the first town in this Coast to Coast trip where the Toyota Prius is truly successful. Once again this is logical: we are in California where the Prius family tops the sales charts, and on top of it we are in a very wealthy town – which has proved to be a good pre-requisite for environmentally aware customers that want to show that even though they spend gallons of water on their golf course, they still care for the earth enough to drive a hybrid car. Hollywood stars were a big part of making the Prius mainstream, and they still have residences here. In fact, it seemed that as we were here on the weekend, every second person we spoke with lived in LA and only spent a weekend in their 2nd home in Palm Springs here and there. Such a hard life…
Nissan Sentra in Palm Springs CAEven though the hispanic population in Palm Springs is only 25% vs. over 50% for most parts of California, Nissan still very strong here with the Versa fighting for the title of best-selling nameplate in Palm Springs, and the Sentra potentially inside the Top 5. A hypothetical ranking based on meticulous street observation of the most recent cars in town gives us:1. Honda Accord2. Nissan Versa3. Toyota Prius4. Honda Civic5. Nissan SentraBeyond the absolute best-sellers, other observations on the Palm Springs car landscape include the particular popularity of GMC with the Sierra, Acadia and Enclave very successful, the rarity of Ford F-Series (in accordance with Californian sales charts) with only a couple of private F-150 spotted, the Audi A3 sedan already making its mark and a shiny-as-new 1987 Ford F-150 spotted in the centre of town. Most pickups are company cars used for road work (there is a lot of it in Palm Springs) and are the heavy duty variant, for example the Ford F-350 or Ram 2500 Tradesman, my very own Albert’s big bro.
How much more perfect can this picture be?Best-sellers in California – Full Year 2013:PosModel20131Toyota Prius (all models)69,7282Honda Civic66,9823Honda Accord63,1944Toyota Camry56,7885Toyota Corolla52,1676Ford F-Series41,6717Honda CR-V31,8508Nissan Altima31,0299Toyota Tacoma28,18210BMW 3 Series27,026A quick reminder of the best-sellers in California last year, and this time (as opposed to Death Valley) we are getting a little closer in Palm Springs with the Prius, Accord, Camry and Corolla all very frequent. It would appear Nissan over-performs in Palm Springs as well, particularly the Versa and Sentra.
Albert in front of the 1965 Tramway Gas Station, now Palm Springs Visitors CenterLet’s finish on a review of the Orbit In Hotel where I stayed while in Palm Springs, described by Time as “the place to stay” in Palm Springs and a “modernist heaven”. For once the critics have it right. A quintessential mid-century modern property set around a saline pool with all rooms sporting designer furniture by Eames, Noguchi, Jacobsen and many more, the Orbit In was actually relatively cheap for the luxury it offered (from $149 per night). Plus the owners, a lovely couple, were there almost the entire time making sure every one was happy. Once you pay for the room, everything is free including cocktails during the cocktail hour which ended up lasting 3 hours, breakfast, daytime sodas and snacks, wifi and cruiser bicycles to borrow. A typically American generosity that, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting to find in one of the poshest hotel in this uber-posh town. The cocktail (3) hour(s) brought all guests together to exchange travel stories and our Coast to Coast trip with Albert made them all envious. As they should be!Next is the very last episode of this series, the arrival in Los Angeles and my final review of Albert. Stay tuned so you don’t miss it!Matt Gasnier is based in Sydney, Australia and runs a car sales statistics website and consultancy: BestSellingCars which just celebrated its 4th anniversary.Many thanks to David Curry for the pictures in this article.
Orbit In hotel in Palm Springs CA
Ford F-150 in Palm Springs CA
Albert in Palm Springs CA
Hyundai Elantra in Palm Springs CA
Chevrolet Impala in Palm Springs CA
Arguably the best-looking garage entrance in the world… (in West Cielo Drive)
Albert in Palm Springs CA
Ford F-350 in Palm Springs CA
Hummer in Palm Springs CA
Hyundai Sonata in Palm Springs CA
Honda Accord in Palm Springs CA
Albert getting a thorough cleanup in Palm Springs CA
Hyundai Elantra in Palm Springs CA
Palm Springs street scene
Albert in Palm Springs CA
Matt Gasnier
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  • Jim brewer Jim brewer on Dec 03, 2014

    Hard as it is to believe, a great deal of Palm Springs is actually Indian reservation, of the Agua Caliente Indians. The BIA recently ruled that as lands within Indian jurisdiction, quite a lot of the real estate is exempt from state property taxes.

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    • Highdesertcat Highdesertcat on Dec 04, 2014

      @King of Eldorado It's a pretty common practice with Indian lands. When you buy the house you lease the land for 25 years and after that time it reverts to your ownership (if you keep the house that long). The son of my friend owns such an agreement in Gardnerville, NV. There's no threat. The Indians aren't going to scalp you if you don't sign. It provides an income for 25 years for the tribe and the reservation. In his case, he bought the house outright in Gardnerville after his retirement from the Marine Corps and pays an annual lease fee, or arrangements can be made to pay in monthly installments. But he is free to sell the house if he wants to (which he doesn't.) In fact, my wife's niece recently moved from her rental in Zephyr Cove to Gardnerville after her great-grandfather bought a house there for her to live in. It's a longer commute to her job in Zephyr Cove, having to go up the mountain, but it all works out in the long run. Now she pays a lot more for gasoline but zero for rent.

  • King of Eldorado King of Eldorado on Dec 04, 2014

    I have to wonder how many of those Versas and Sentras were rentals, given the large tourist industry. (Maybe I'm saying that because my last rental was a Versa.)

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