Preservation Springs Eternal in the Desert

Sunnylands, a grand estate designed by A. Quincy Jones, will be one of the important sites during the California Preservation Conference in Palm Springs. Photo Courtesy of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands

Even people who know Palm Springs really well, even people who live there and study its architectural beauties, can learn a lot at an upcoming conference that is aimed at preservation professionals, architects, and home grown preservationists but has appeal for anyone interested in the special place that is the Coachella Valley.

The conference runs May 8 to 11 and is centered in Palm Springs. Lessons you learn in the desert can be applied to situations back home.

Preservation Springs Eternal,’ as the annual event is nicknamed this year, really does seem special this round, more upscale than some California Preservation Conferences have been in the recent past.

Don’t misunderstand. These preservation conferences are always fabulous events, with their tours, talks, and parties generally held in beautiful historical buildings, and a few standard conference rooms here and there.

The conference feature witty, erudite speakers and a range of attendees from veterans of battles going back to the 1960s, to neophytes just graduating college, from PhDs in preservation technology to folks from local historical societies hoping to save an old barn or two.

The Fairway to Heaven Tour of golf communities in Indian Wells will feature some amazing mid-century modern homes. including this one by William Cody. Photo by Bethany Nauert

But come on. A few years ago one important social occasion took place in a slightly seedy (though historic) bowling alley at a former military base.

This time the opening reception is at Sunnylands, “the stunning estate created for Walter and Leonore Annenberg,” the program brags, with some understatement.

Anyone who lives in an Eichler might enjoy visiting Sunnylands, a spawling mansion on 200 acres from 1966, to discover what architect A. Quincy Jones could turn out when he was not working on a budget.

Palm Springs, of course, is famed today for its mid-century modern architecture and design, and much of it will be discussed at panels and toured. (Though, please notice, some tours have already sold out and others are going fast. You do not have to attend the full conference to attend tours.)

But the handful of organizers at the California Preservation Foundation who manage to put on this show every year (in partnership with local groups) make clear that the show is not just about modern.

La Playa shopping center is one of the defining features of downtown Palm Springs in a Spanish Revival style. Photo by Dave Weinstein

Consider the tour, ‘Spanish Splendors on the Sand,’ which visits some of the area’s amazing, Spanish Colonial-influenced architecture, the stuff that gave Palm Springs its panache long before glass walls and tiki gods arrived.

“From magnificent to modest homes, commercial sites, and other unique desert treats, you’ll enjoy savoring the finest of California’s Spanish-influenced homes, hacienda, hotels, and more,” the conference schedule says.

It’s also notable, by the way, that many tours focus on homes – not always the case at these CPF conferences.

Also not typical of some past conferences is a chance to, well, get away from architecture for a bit.

Palm Springs, after all, really is a desert, and it is good to get into it on, say, this tour: ‘Indian Canyons: Andreas Canyon National Register District.’

“Since time immemorial," the schdule says, "the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has called the Palm Springs area home…Today, remnants of the early Agua Caliente society, such as rock art, house pits, foundations, irrigation ditches, dams, reservoirs, trails and food preparation areas, still exist in the canyons.”

Palms in the Agua Caliente lands will be part of one tour, which also takes in historic sites. Photo by Dave Weinstein

“Please join us for a mile long hike tour among the splendor of Andreas Canyon through the contrasting greens of the magnificent fan palms and more than 150 species of plants within a half-mile radius beckon the desert-weary traveler to this lush oasis.”

Robert Imber, the longtime Palm Springs preservationist, scholar, and tour leader, put together the tours for the conference. His emphasis has always been modernism, and he is currently beginning a new venture, which will take attendees on tours of modern interiors in cities throughout the United States. This venture replaces his former occupation of leading tours locally.

He has found expert tour guides for each conference tour, including Jacques Caussin, a founder of Palm Springs Modernism Week, as well as local architects and historians. Tours will get people inside some fabulous mid-century modern homes.

‘Fairway to Heaven’ focuses on homes in some of the country club communities in Indian Wells, including Eldorado Country Club and Indian Wells Country Club. The homes are still being lined up, but will include work by both well-known architects and some whose fame has never spread beyond the desert, Imber says.

Vista Las Palmas is one of the greatest of the Alexander tracts, featuring many classic homes by Palmer and Krisel, as well as by some other architects. Photo by Dave Weinstein

“They are spectacular mid-century modern custom homes,” he promises.

“The tours are interior access tours, but we will also be passing many mid-century modern sites,” Imber says. “You’ll be learning all kinds of bits and pieces and facts about the mid-century modern architecture.”

Another tour will focus on the Palm Springs neighborhood of  Vista Las Palmas, where architect Bill Krisel did some of his finest tract home work for the Alexander development firm.

Imber suggests that, while in town, visitors catch some places that are not on the tours, including an exhibit about the architect Hugh Kaptur at the Palm Springs Art Museum, and a site designed by Kaptur that had been threatened but has since been returned to life.

That site is Kaptur Plaza, known until recently as Tahquitz Plaza, “an enormous mid-century modern architectural success story,” Imber says. “Now a sympathetic owner has brought it back to its original purposes, and it is doing well.’

Both the conference and some poking about town will be great ways to celebrate preservation in the desert.

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