Desert Pioneers


In the 1990s, an intrepid group of architecture and design enthusiasts polished off some of Palm Springs’ residential desert gems and helped launch a movement

Architecture tours, lectures and design-centric parties sell out way in advance of Modernism Week held every February. Palm Springs Modern Committee offers a smart phone app for architecture and history lovers to get the most out of their desert visits, and the organization has amassed considerable political influence. Tourists pour into town referencing names such as Albert Frey, William Krisel and William Cody during casual conversation. This was not the case 20-plus years ago. “Palm Springs in 1997 was a modern ruin,” explains artist Jim Isermann. Despite some lingering appeal as a Hollywood getaway, its glamorous heyday seemed to have irretrievably retreated into the rearview mirror. “All the development in the 1980s and ’90s moved down valley, and Palm Springs was left behind. All these places were available.”

The resourceful creatives who fell hard for the city’s distinctive vibe and its unparalleled aesthetic heritage didn’t set out to catalyze a movement, nor did they necessarily anticipate stellar returns on their investments. But it wasn’t long before they found other kindred spirits similarly consumed with tracking down original floor plans (and the architects themselves whenever possible), reversing decades of unfortunate renovations and painstakingly researching period-appropriate paint colors and materials. As a result of their efforts, a nascent robust architecture and design culture was relaunched.

Real estate agent and investor Marc Sanders moved to the desert from Los Angeles in 1987 and established a landscape design business. A longtime architecture and design buff, he made a deal in 1993 to acquire his first of many architecturally significant homes, this time directly from a towering local figure: architect Donald Wexler. It was the beginning of what became a long, fruitful relationship between Sanders and the prolific architect, who died in 2015.

Isermann bought one of seven completed Steel Development Houses built in 1962 by Wexler and development partner Richard Harrison as part of a larger planned cluster of 38 modest yet elegant prefabricated steel-frame homes that never fully materialized. During the 1990s, “the Steel Houses were in such disrepair that [Wexler] didn’t even drive through the neighborhood anymore,” Isermann says. Former GQ creative director Jim Moore was the first to give one a new lease on life in 1993. “When we started doing the restorations, he couldn’t get over it,” Isermann remembers of Wexler’s reaction. “He was so happy.”

At that time, Sanders was on to his next major project. “You’ve never seen anything so bad in your life,” he laughs when describing the condition of the house, which unbeknownst to him when he first spotted it was the 1947 Frank Sinatra home by E. Stewart Williams in the Movie Colony. He paid $137,000 and tapped Williams himself to oversee the rehabilitation of the famed 4,500-square-foot house, which he no longer owns.

Along with Isermann and Moore, as well as Brent and Beth Harris, who were restoring Richard Neutra’s iconic Kaufmann House, and Trina Turk and Jonathan Skow, who bought the 1936 Streamline Moderne style so-called Ship of the Desert, and others, “we would all commiserate,” he says. “We loved the architecture. That was the starting point,” Turk says. Their commitment to Palm Springs was tested in 1998 when their home was destroyed in a fire. With Los Angeles-based architects Marmol Radziner on board, Turk and Skow rebuilt the home faithfully according to the original floor plans dug up in a 1937 issue of Sunset magazine. “We met a lot people with similar interests,” Turk remembers of the time, many of whom she still counts as good friends. “Most have at least one foot in the desert still,” including Turk and Skow, whose row of boutiques are an anchor of what’s evolved into the Uptown Design District.

Sanders identifies how word of Palm Springs’ revived cachet started to get out, thanks to a couple of key media moments in 1999. Bob Colacello declared in Vanity Fair, “what art deco did for Miami Beach in the 1980s, modernism is doing for Palm Springs today.” Rizzoli published Palm Springs Modern: Houses in the California Desert by Adèle Cygelman in the fall. The  founding of Palm Springs ModCom that same year merged well-informed civic pride and activism. Now for more than 12 years running, Modernism Week in February and its fall preview generate enough programming to feed the growing appetites of architecture and design fanatics from around the world. Palm Springs’ legacy endures and thrives thanks in part to those whose gamble made perfect sense all along. “I’ve been in this house 20 years, and every day I’m happy to wake up in it,” Isermann says. – Jessica Ritz 

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