As RV aficionados, we watch some TV shows that highlight how to buy an RV or how they are built. One that is somewhat unique features a couple who buy old trailers and refurbish them, adding modern features (like toilets) that people feel they need these days, but making them look authentic with the rest of the rig. They specialize in trailers built when we were children and furnish and decorate them in a ’50’s style that we do not remember with fondness. But it is clear that they appeal to a niche market that is happy to spend $60,000 for a trailer that cost $1,500 back in the day. And we appreciate the labor and attention to detail that goes into revitalizing a rusting hulk and foraging through the countryside to find authentic looking door knobs and vintage hardware. In one episode they took a just completed trailer to a vintage trailer rally at the Modernism Show in Palm Springs. We had never heard of the Modernism movement, but a little googling intrigued us enough to add a visit to this winter’s journey. We’ll be going to the rally this weekend and learning about Modernism the rest of the week.
After World War II Palm Springs became an escape hatch for Hollywood movie stars who were under contract to the studios and had to be available at a moment’s notice. Palm Springs was a day’s drive away from Los Angeles and many stars bought vacation homes here. Local architects offered them houses with clean and simple lines, far different from the Spanish tiled roofed homes that are typically southern California. When Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope bought homes in this Modernism style, they legitimized the look. We took a walking tour today through a neighborhood of what had been built as tract homes, each a little different than the other. All the homes had pools and sliding glass doors that looked out on them and the beautiful mountains just west of Palm Springs. They were made primarily of concrete or other natural materials and painted desert colors or white. Architectural features were sculpted from the concrete and made each home look different. One set featured sharp A-shaped roofs and were called the alpine look. The homes were surprisingly small with about 2,000 square feet of interior living space. Single family homes in Palm Springs are only allowed to have one story, even today. Over time as people felt they needed more and more living space, the outdoors became an area for cooking, making drinks, and just hanging out. In an area that has 350 days of sunshine a year, living outside under the shade of the palm trees is a pleasure.
Every movie star you ever heard of in the 1950’s - 80’s had a home here. We were amazed by how accessible the homes were to the public. There were no walls or guards and everyone had his name in the phone book so it is easy for historians today to verify that Debbie Reynolds lived here and Marilyn Monroe stayed there. One home was rented by Elvis Presley for his honeymoon. Every member of the rat pack had a home here. In the late 1940’s - early 1950’s these homes sold for $35,000. Today the homes we wandered past cost more than a million. They have been refurbished and are immaculately landscaped and it would seem like today’s residents would resent people like us wandering by and gawking. We saw very few of those residents, but a myriad Mexican gardeners slaving away. Once Trump builds his wall and send them all back to Mexico, this neighborhood will never look the same.
I really don’t know much about architecture, but I do know that when I am in some spaces I feel much better than in others. I dislike the architecture I associate with the 1950’s Eisenhower era which seemed drab, gray and confining, and I hate shag carpeting, melmac, formica, and big ceramic ash trays. But I love the simple limes of these homes, which bring the outdoors in. They have open floor plans and used simple materials like concrete in clever, stylish ways. Now if only I had a million dollars.