Divine Desolation – A Little Historic Palm Springs Architecture

Palm Springs has long been a retreat for those who enjoy the beauty and serenity of the desert. For much of the year the climate is spectacular and even during the summer, which can be scorchingly hot, the balmy desert nights are usually (but not always!) so wonderful they make up for whatever sufferings the days may have brought. Palm Springs and its surrounding environs have had many famous residents and visitors throughout the years from movie stars to captains of industry and even ex-presidents. The area is also home to some great historic architecture and there are number of places that were designed by some very talented and well-known architects. I thought you would enjoy seeing just a few completely random homes, hotels and apartments designed by some very talented practitioners assembled for your enjoyment.


Paul R. Williams is without a doubt, one of the finest architects Southern California has ever produced. Although not known for his Spanish designs, Williams proved he was equally adept at any architectural style. 1928’s Palmair/Casa Palmeras was one of the legendary architect’s earlier works and exhibits all the charms and well laid-out design characteristics we came to expect from the talented Mr. Williams.

(Mott Studios)


While size really does matter, Gordon B. Kaufmann proves there are always exceptions as seen here in this charming one bedroom abode designed for Walter Morgan in La Quinta.


Poor Lloyd Wright will forever have to live in the shadow of his famous father, which is unfortunate because he was a very talented architect in his own right. It is interesting to imagine what critics would make of his work if they didn’t have to filter it through the prism of comparisons between the work of father and son. In 1923, Wright designed a small hotel in Palm Springs called the Oasis (completed 1924-5) and I think the design was very exciting and boldly took its place against the stark background of Mt. San Jacinto. The main tower section of the hotel is still there, sort of, but it has been greatly encroached upon and today is in a sad state, hidden away unnoticed right there off Palm Canyon Drive. But it’s still there and as long as it is there is hope for a restoration.



Garret Van Pelt and George Lind designed a number of residences throughout the Palm Springs area during the 1930’s. One of their most striking designs was the desert hacienda the created for Mr. and Mrs. M.J. Harrison. While the design was ostensibly based on the age old precedents of the Spanish haciendas, the overall effect feels thoroughly modern with the unusual slatted patio roofs creating a distinct look that is anything but old school.


Marshall P. Wilkinson may not be well known today, but was actually a rather competent Hollywood architect who designed homes for some of the elite of Hollywood in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Alan and Sue Carol Ladd, Fred Astaire, Russ Columbo, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Carole Lombard can all be counted as residents of Marshall P. Wilkinson designed homes.

(Mott Studios)


Originally an exclusive private club on 1,100 acres around and in spectacular Andreas Canyon, the Andreas Canyon Club was limited to 25 members who according the the venerable Harry Carr were, “a group of old Californians who have rescued this canyon from the tenderfeet who have made a mess and a hodgepodge of the rest.

“The houses in Andreas Canyon are the best note of architecture in the desert. They are built as the Indians build. A quarter of a mile away you would swear not a house was built there so well do they blend into the hills. They stand on little separated headlands looking down a silver arroyo that curves around age old palms.”

The Club House (LAPL)

What a view! What a life!


Another effort by this firm and an example of showing how a fine desert house could be built at relatively low cost.


Gerard Colcord was an excellent architect who knew how to work in any number of period architectural styles. Here he adapts the Monterey Colonial style for desert living to beautiful effect. Sadly, this home has since been demolished.


Heineman may have been better known for his work in the Craftsman style but he proved he could work just as well in the Spanish in this design for a small but exceedingly charming house planned for Tahquitz Desert Estates.

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17 Responses to Divine Desolation – A Little Historic Palm Springs Architecture

  1. Jim lewis says:

    Wonderful post today. What a delightful contrast to the “Palm Springs Modern” that we have seen so often. I didn’t know that van Pelt designed such ‘modern’ looking houses – and what a contrast to his Pasadena house with its Gothic details.
    I can’t imagine any of those places pre-air conditioning!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks so much Jim. I know. I thought it might be nice to go back a little further. Just scratching the surface, but fun.

  2. What a great post! I have a question, and a comment…

    1. Did you find something to positively attribute the Palmair to Paul R. Williams? My friend Patrick McGrew found a photo with the same attribution, I’m wondering if your photos are from an old magazine that has more information? The mother-in-law of the landscape architect I’m writing about, Fred Barlow, Jr (her name was Edna Keefe) was the manager of the Casa Palmeras (the later name of the Palmair) in the late 40’s and 50’s. Here is Patrick’s blog:


    2. In researching Barlow, I found that he had done the landscape for at least one Van Pelt and Lind house in Palm Springs, just across the street from the Smoke Tree Ranch (the Alger Shelden Residence). The firm also did many homes in Smoke Tree Ranch, as well as all throughout the Palm Springs area during these years. But the architects were really Albert Frey and John Porter Clark – which is why they seem so modern. John Porter Clark had been with Van Pelt and Lind in Pasadena, and went in the 30’s to open a branch of their office in Palm Springs, where Porter Clark collaborated with Frey on many homes in the 30’s. (I LOVE the interior of the Guthrie House here!).

    Tracy Conrad did a great documentary about Smoke Tree Ranch, you would enjoy it. It has more information about all of that….

    • Steve says:

      Hey Steven: Thanks so much for the comment. I wrote you separately, but, in case anyone else wants to know, the Paul Williams attribution that I got came from the Mott Studios collection from California State Library. I’d like to look at their records in person to to verify but they’ve been very accurate in the past so I trusted the attribution on this one. It’s odd (at least for me) to see PRW doing Spanish, but I have to remind myself that he did sme pretty good designs in Spanish during the 20’s. If this was his, I’ll bet it was very early. And thanks for the blog link too!

      Also, are you saying that the Van Pelt & Lind houses were really Frey & Clark designs? Would love to know so we give proper attribution. Thanks so much for the comment and the great info!

  3. Dee says:

    Another outstandingly well researched post, Steve. I love the blueprints as well as the graphics. Other than the Oasis, are any of these still standing?

  4. Lynn says:

    I was wondering the same thing as Dee- are the ones you don’t mention being demolished still standing?

  5. Hi Steve –

    I replied to your email, but the Van Pelt and Lind houses were designed by John Porter Clark, most likely in collaboration with Albert Frey (as were all of the Van Pelt and Lind houses in Palm Springs from 1935-37).

    I was curious as to which of these structures were still standing, so I dug a little.

    The Palmair looks nearly identical today, thought the streets and landscaping are now established, so it looks a little different. It is called the Casa Palmeras today.

    The Walter Morgan Residence at La Quinta has been incorporated into the grounds of the La Quinta Resort (developed by Walter Morgan of the Morgan Oyster Company, the La Quinta Resort was also designed by Gordon B. Kaufmann), though its condition has apparently deteriorated somewhat. Architectural Resources Group has done an analysis for a draft EIR for the La Quinta Resort.

    The Oasis has been discussed, but if you know where to look, you can still see parts of it.

    I wasn’t able to find the address of Mrs. M.J. Harrison (possibly Mable) in Palm Springs City Directories, so without the address I can’t say. It looks like a great place, I hope it’s still around! But I did find an article about the house from 1938 in a British book called “Timber Buildings for the Country,” which attributes the house to John Porter Clark.

    El Encanto was at 415 S. Palm Canyon, across the street from the historic Ingleside Inn and what is now the Viceroy, but it’s been demolished.

    I found some pictures of the Andreas Canyon Club houses today on Flickr:
    Andreas Canyon Club Houses

    There is a Jas V and Mildred Guthrie in the 1936-37 Palm Springs City Directory at 666 Mel, and from Google map images, it appears it’s the same house, though added onto quite a bit. But the overall layout matches the pictures here.

    The Sparey House at 345 Via Las Palmas has, as it’s been noted, been demolished. A super monstrosity now sits in its place.

    I’m not sure if the Heineman house was ever built, but in any case, I wasn’t able to find out any more about it.

    • Steve says:

      Steve – Thank you, thank you, thank you for this great research. I was curious too about what was left, but hadn’t the time to find out. You did an amazing job and so fast too! I think the Heineman house may not have ever been built, which is a shame as it was quite beautiful. Thanks again!

  6. David Ko says:

    Paul R Williams started his career designing Mediterranean vernacular. Like Myron Hunts and Bertram Goodhue he mastered the elegant Beaux Art composition emphasizing symmetry, and classical orders and articulation. This rambling picturesque village like compound was inspired by a photo of an Andalusian farmhouse from one of the many books he collected.

    When he was 19 years old he submitted a Georgian Colonial design to an architectural competition sponsored by an east coast White Pine Series and won an honorable award. This event made an impact in his career. He was most comfortable with this genre and inspired him to creating his very own style by mixing traditional colonial with California adobe.

    The blend was amazing. His Regency and traditionalist revival houses were the finest in Southern California. His books were important reference for his creations. His own modern interpretation from historic images created an unique PRW style we all love.

    I own several of his books and have seen other books he collected. The architectural details he studied from books and his creative twists are the hallmark of a genius.

    • penelopebianchi says:

      This is brilliantly said; and absolutely true. The odds were all against him; and he prevailed as a gentleman and a genius!! I grew up in Pasadena; there were some beautiful houses designed by him. Our last house in Pasadena was on South San Rafael Avenue; (before we moved to Montecito); and one of his masterpieces was “up the street”; and was brick with a slate roof……and somehow burned down. A terrible loss.

  7. Patrick says:

    Great stuff! The Palm Springs Preservation Foundation is sponsoring a “Desert Spanish” weekend in March 2012. I’ve been compiling info on the period for a new Journal on Desert Spanish architecture, so I loved your information. You don’t credit the first image, but its a rare shot from above and behind the Thomas O’Donnell Residence (1924, William Charles Tanner…or Vincent Palmer)

    Keep up the good work!

  8. penelopebianchi says:

    Oh my goodness! Lucky me!! I have been coming “down to the desert” from Pasadena (I am a dinosaur; 3rd generation Pasadena at 65!!) And we stayed at “Smoke Tree”! (we had my 60th birthday party there 5 years ago! It is “timeless”!!)
    What a fabulous post; I have been working on our daughter’s new house in Montecito; a “Monterey Colonial” in Montecito; circa 1935 Joseph Plunkett!

    I have a blog: (mccormickinteriors.com) that tells the still unfinished story of its origin and restoration!!

    This post was beyond delightful for me to behold!! Glorious!!!

    Thank you

    • Steve says:

      Hi Penelope: Thanks so much for the comments and you’re right, Smoke Tree is timeless. Have you ever seen the beautiful documentary on it by Tracy Conrad. Fantastic bit of Palm Springs history.

  9. janedwellable says:

    Hi Steve,
    My name is Jane and I’m with Dwellable. Great historic article (and pics, too!)
    I was looking for blogs about Palm Springs to share on our site and I came across your post…If you’re open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you!

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  12. Jeanette Peck says:

    Hi, my name is Jeanette Peck. The picture that Steven Keyton has posted on July 6, 2011, is of the Club House in the foreground and the house on the hill in the background were both built by Will F. Peck, my great grandfather. First he built the club house, then he built his house in the early 1920’s. He was one of the founding members of the Andreas Canyon Club. It is a private club, so I am amazed that you have been able to get ahold of a picture. I have spent my entire life going to the Canyon. My great grandfather was a master with cement and help to build a lot of the earlier cabins in the Canyon. If you look you can see the Bottle House that he built in Tonopah, Nevada. There are pictures of him standing in front of the house, stating that William Peck built the first Bottle House out of bottles and cement in 1902. There is also another picture titled “Southern Nevada The Boomtown, Girl in front of Bottle House Goldfield Nevada”. This is a picture of my great Aunt who was six years old at the time standing in front to the side of the door. The picture is poor. My grandfather is sitting on the stoop to the other side of the door but cannot be seen unless you are looking for him. He was two. I have the original and my grandfather can be seen. I believe that Nevada is selling post cards of this picture.

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