PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Out of the tree of life, I just picked me a plum. That’s right — apart from the sight of a fax machine and a momentary snafu in the space-time-continuum that had Bryan Adams’ “One Night Love Affair” playing on the poolside sound system — it’s Sinatra time all the time at the Del Marcos Hotel. And why shouldn’t it be. Designed in 1947 by architect William F. Cody, the Del Marcos (225 West Baristo Rd., delmarcoshotel.com) is a swingin’ 16-room joint that maintains its space-age bachelor pad vibe with mid-century modern furnishings, room names such as The Shag Room and Esquivel Deluxe, a heated saltwater pool, complimentary cruiser bikes and a strict no kids policy. Sweet relief.
In fact, I heard so many velvety tunes from Ol’ Blue Eyes and his fellow Rat Packers during a recent four-day, three-night sojourn to the balmy desert oasis, I no longer saw men or women, just “cats” and “dames.”
Sure, Palm Springs, with its modest population of 45,000, is on the migratory path of retired snowbirds and sun-addicted golfers, but it also does a mean job of preserving and celebrating its mid-century modern architecture and heritage. So for a not-entirely-decrepit 40-year-old buck such as myself and his long-term “lady friend” (as my father likes to call her), there’s plenty to ogle, whether its 1950s bungalows, celebrity hideaways, retro furniture stores or old school cocktail bars and restaurants.
The first thing you’ll notice about Palm Springs is that it’s a good-looking city. Not Ava Gardner knockout gorgeous, but a looker just the same — think Angie Dickinson in Police Woman. Or don’t. From its airport (designed in 1965 by Donald Wexler) to City Hall (designed in 1957 by Albert Frey) to neighbourhoods of quaint bungalows and A-frames that look like they were the inspiration for The Jetsons and The Flintstones, Palm Springs is a beaut. And much of that has to with the fact that by the middle of the 20th century, California’s Coachella Valley inspired a distinctive architectural style known as Desert Modernism. Distinguishing features include clean lines, an abundance of glass, deep overhangs, natural and man-made materials and indoor/outdoor spaces that showcase the surrounding mountain views and warm climate.
In addition to serving as a playground for celebs looking for respite and air-conditioned digs away from Hollywood’s glare, Palm Springs became a canvas for local and visiting architects such as the aforementioned Cody, Frey and Wexler, as well as William Krisel and E. Stewart Williams.
By the 1970s, Desert Modernism fell out of favour but is currently enjoying a renewed appreciation. For the full-blown mid-century love-in, Palm Springs hosts an 11-day Modernist Week, Feb. 14 to 24, 2013. There’s also a number of modernist architecture tours available and, if rugged individualism and self-reliance are more your bag, you can also pick up a self-guided map and wander as much as your discerning heart desires. A good place to start is the Palm Springs Visitor Centre (2901 N. Palm Canyon Dr.), which is a converted 1965 Tramway Gas Station designed by Frey and Robson C. Chambers and looks way more stylish than a visitor centre should.
Dine in style
There is no shortage of decent restaurants in Palm Springs — whether its popular brunch spots such as Cheeky’s that offer “bacon flights” with five styles of porky goodness or sleek bistros like LuLu with its all-day happy hour. But for old school charm, you can’t go wrong with Sherman’s Deli, a Kosher-style family restaurant that’s been serving up hot pastrami, patty melts and Reuben sandwiches the size of your head since 1953. Then there’s the leather-seated, fox and hound-adorned artifact known as Lyons English Grille, which pours a stiff drink (a mere three bucks at happy hour) and cooks up a heart-stopping prime rib to a mostly grey-haired clientele, which has been known to include 92-year-old Mickey Rooney.
Those looking to take a piece of mid-century modernism home with them will want to stroll through the “uptown design district” along Palm Canyon Drive. Home to more than a dozen vintage furniture stores, antique shops, retro galleries and boutiques, it’s an Eames-lovers paradise, though bargains are few and far between. One consignment store we visited boasted a 1969 Maurice Calka fiberglass desk for a breath-taking $75,000.
Sleep on it
From high-end resorts to mid-range boutique hotels to dirt-cheap motels, there’s a great range of accommodations for the retro-inclined. In addition to the reasonably priced Del Marcos (rooms go as low as $100 in the off-season), arbiters of cool the Ace Hotel chain recently converted an old Howard Johnson into a somewhat more pricey hipster hangout, while next door neighbour The Caliente Tropics delivers fairly standard rooms, at far cheaper prices than the Ace, with a large pool and most of its original 1964 tiki design intact.
If you go…
For info on traveling to Palm Springs, go to VisitPalmSprings.com or call 1-800-347-7746.