When Jim Isermann bought his steel home nine years ago, it had plywood in the windows and a junked car in the driveway. Today it's a tourist attraction. "I could have this on a tour every weekend, if I wanted to," Isermann says.
Isermann lives in an all-steel house designed in 1961 by modern architect Donald Wexler for the Alexander Construction Company, which built more than 2,000 post-and-beam homes in Palm Springs and vicinity from 1955 to 1965. George and Robert Alexander brought modern, architect-designed tract homes to Palm Springs, just as Joe Eichler did in the San Francisco Bay Area.
As opposed to the Bay Area, however, where Eichler and his modern homes had few followers during the builder's career, modernism took hold in Palm Springs, which had been a Mecca for modernist architects since the 1930s.
In the 1920s and '30s, European pioneers R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra brought Palm Springs a taste of the International Style. Architects John Porter Clark, William F. ('Wild Bill') Cody, E. Stewart ('Stew') Williams, and Albert Frey, who settled in town in the '30s and '40s, created their own regional style, 'Desert Modernism,' by using local rock, concrete blocks, and metal, and paying attention to the desert's stark vistas and light.
Modern masters from Los Angeles popped in, including John Lautner and Craig Ellwood, who designed homes that every fan of modernism knows. Paul R. Williams also contributed to architecture in the desert with his partner A. Quincy Jones, who later made his mark as one of Eichler's architects. Hollywood stars enjoyed the architecture, city fathers embraced it, and by the mid-1950s, the middle class adopted it too. The Alexanders brought modernism for the masses to the desert and other builders tagged along.
Touring Palm Springs reveals more than individual buildings. Palm Springs has one of the largest concentrations of modern architecture in the country, some of the purest examples of International Style to the wackiest examples of Jetson-esque commercial buildings called 'googie.'
The architecture celebrates the desert by opening up to it, using the sun to paint patterns, and miraculously making sure that every house appears to have nothing for a neighbor but the mountains themselves. "It's really living with the desert," historian Tony Merchell says when asked to define Desert Modern. Merchell, who is active with the Palm Springs Modern Committee, also manages two modern motels in nearby Desert Hot Springs.
Whatever Desert Modernism is, you'll spot it as soon as you enter town, whether by air (Wexler designed the Palm Springs Airport) or by road (Frey's wing-like Tramway Gas Station, a collaboration with then-partner Robson Chambers, today is the visitor center). Behind the visitor center is the Aerial Tramway, which lifts you high up Mount Jacinto - providing incredible views, a respite from the desert heat, and the opportunity to examine Frey's desert Tramway lift station, and Stew William's mountain top station.
The visitor center sell the Modern Committee's 'A Map of Palm Springs Modern,' which provides a superb overview of the city's gems and provides some context - but not much. For more, try PS Modern Tours, run by Robert Imber, who provides a chatty and informed three-hour, 35-mile tourmobile that reveals a passion for architecture that's contagious. Imber hits the hot spots and some hideaways, and says: "It barely touches the tip of the iceberg of what's here."