The land of sunshine, celebs and mid-century modernism


It’s spring in Palm Springs and I couldn’t help thinking about all those folks who spent the winter in Buffalo, Boston and Bemidji battling blizzards, braving subzero temps and laying claim to snow-packed parking places with lawn chairs that won’t see better use for a long while yet.

Should I feel guilty or gloat?

I think of our mortgage payments and the cost of gas in Southern Cal and I decide to gloat. Ha! Just another day in paradise …

We are visiting friends Denny and Maureen, Wisconsinites lucky enough to be able to flee Midwest winters and live six months a year in their pristine mid-century modern condo complex in the heart of Palm Springs. They are leading us through the beautifully manicured neighborhoods of Old Las Palmas and Vista Las Palmas, where a multitude of past and present A-List celebs, authors, singers, musicians, entrepreneurs and movie moguls have lived/live.

The list is long and spans several generations. It includes Jackie Cooper, Cyd Charisse, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Carol Lombard, Liberace, Sidney Sheldon, George Hamilton, Jay Leno, Mary Martin, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Tomlin, Donna Reed, Barbra Streisand, Alan Ladd, William Powell, Rona Barrett, Kenny Rogers, Rudy Vallee, George Randolph Hearst, Kirk Douglas and Jack Warner.

Old Las Palmas and Vista Las Palmas, which sit in the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains, are distinguished by architecture and age.

Old Las Palmas features older, mostly expansive mansions fortified by ornate gates and/or exceedingly tall, dense shrubs.

“This neighborhood fascinates me because it is so diverse,” explains guide Kirk Bridgman, who with his poodle Patrick, has been giving walking tours of Old Las Palmas since 2011. “The first home was built in 1925, and the last one to be built on virgin land was in 2008. The smallest house is 1,400 square feet — it has one bedroom — and the largest is 15,000 square feet and it’s just around the corner from the smallest one.”

What do visitors like about Old Las Palmas?

“Most of my customers are boomers,” he says, “but I do get younger guests who love old movies and so know a lot of old celebrities. They are interested in the celebrities, the architecture, and then they become fascinated by history of Palm Springs.”

Just west of Old Las Palmas is the Vista Las Palmas neighborhood, about 375 homes developed in the late 1950s and 1960s; hence, the plethora of mid-century modern homes, most built by the Alexander brothers, known for this style. The neighborhood has experienced a recent renaissance, starting in the 1990s. Prior to this, Vista Las Palmas deteriorated as Palm Springs lost residents and business to areas of new growth in Rancho Mirage and other desert cities. Then in the 1990s, the popularity of the mid-century modern style exploded, homes were  restored to their original architecture, and their prices skyrocketed.

Today Vista Las Palmas is a main destination during  Modernism Week, held each February. (It has become so popular that it has expanded to 10 days, plus a second event later in the year). Open-air tour buses with hundreds of visitors aboard cruise through Vista Las Palmas and commercial areas where mid-century architecture dominates.

Bridgman prefers the Old Las Palmas neighborhood and he likes to see it on foot.

When you’re on a bus, “You don’t get to see between the gates and you don’t hear the silence,” he says. “We’re only two blocks off the main drag, but it’s so quiet. No wonder all these celebrities wanted to live here.”

Walking tours (maximum four people) with Kirk Bridgman by appointment only. Visit ps-research.com/.

For van tours (maximum six people) of mid-century modern homes and commercial buildings in Palm Springs, visit              palmspringsmoderntours.com/

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com

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