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Canyon hikes, a mid mod tour and Merry Christmas–have some Robolights

The description was no lie.  The view of the San Jacinto mountains was smack-in-your-face spectacular from the Airbnb’s poolside patio.  A wall of rugged rocks rose straight up, snow dusting the highest peaks at 10,000 feet.  I peeled off a layer back here on the desert floor and rubbed the bellies of two resident Labs as the sun toasted the concrete under them.  That’s Palm Springs in a nutshell:  all extreme and extremely close.  So many midcentury marvels downtown and tucked into the side streets.  The hiking and biking!  You are never far from a trailhead or well-marked loop.  And at Christmas, we must visit the kooky concoction known as “Robolights”–could this be the year the city pulls the plug?

Let’s start with what Palm Springs is known for, that super concentration of midcentury modern architecture.  Clean lines.  New building materials helping to blur the line between indoors and out.  The modernist architects followed the money to the desert when Hollywood film and radio stars started building second homes here.

Palm Springs is a world-known living museum of mid mod and many of those architectural gems throw open their doors during Modernism Week, Feb. 14-24, 2019.  You can see quite a lot on foot downtown with a self-guided tour, there are plenty of sites and apps for that.  We opted for a 2-1/2 hour architecture tour with the knowledgeable Trevor O’Donnell of PS Architecture Tours.  You meet at H3K Home and there’s a max of five passengers in the minivan.  My partner is an architect and we both learned a lot.  (Donald Wexler, U of M grad, did not know that.)  It’s totally worth the $95 per person if you have even a mid-level interest in architecture; Trevor showed us homes we would have had trouble finding ourselves.


We began, as one does, at the Palm Springs Visitor’s Center at 2901N. Palm Canyon Drive. It’s your iconic, clean-lined, slant-roofed welcome on the north entrance to town.  It was designed by Albert Frey in 1965 as the Tramway Gas Station, now you fill up on info.  Frey is the “Father of Desert Modernism” and he sure spread a lot of seed around this town, architecturally speaking.  Maybe his most famous work is the one he built for himself, Albert Frey House II.  It’s set into an otherworldly slope of rocks, and disappears into it.  PS is known for its indoor/outdoor living, but you can’t get closer to nature than the giant boulder coming right through the freaking glass wall.  A fairly permanent divider between bedroom and living room.  You CAN tour the inside of this home, but it’s expensive via The Modern Tour –we did not go inside.  Easier to see from the road is the Richard Neutra-designed the Kaufmann house.  It’s a prime example of International Architecture that became internationally known with the help of Julius Shulman’s photographs.  Notably, the Kaufmanns owned a Pittsburgh department store.  More notably, they owned dachshunds who were able to take a dip in their Pennsylvania property’s creek thanks to Frank Lloyd Wright’s thoughtfully designed “Fallingwater.”



The tour also hit the William Krisel-designed Elvis Presley Honeymoon House.  It somehow infuses mid mod with a Graceland sensibility.  It has a “house of the future” vibe you’ll also get with Bob Hope’s house in the hills.  John Lautner designed it but sort of disowned it after Bob died and wife Dolores took over as, um,  project manager.  You can sneak a peek at the Hope house from the Araby trail in Cathedral City.  Tour guide Trevor showed us that one on an iPad since we couldn’t drive up to it.


Joseph Eichler’s touch is here; he brought modernism to the masses with his tract homes.  The real estate developer responded to the post-World War II boom by building more than 11,000 tract homes in the suburbs of San Francisco and Los Angeles.  Originally offered at $10,000, these small (1500 square ft.) but perfectly designed homes can now fetch millions.  There were a couple Eichlers a few blocks from our Airbnb on East Sonora Rd. in the Taquitz River Estates neighborhood.  There’s a nod to his love of Mondrian in the geometric pebble design of the front yard.

Also on the “starter” side of life is Twin Palms Estates, built in then-unfashionable south Palm Springs.  Beautifully simple, small homes with pools and, as advertised, two palms per house!  A person could be perfectly contented with a glass wall out to the pool and two palms.  I could probably even get by with one palm.



You won’t find a clean line at Kenny Irwin’s “Robolights” popular, but controversial attraction.  Keeping Palm Springs weird all right.  It’s the more-is-more antidote to mid mod’s minimalism.  It’s Irwin’s oversized imagination brought to life with aliens, robots, millions of lights, mannequins, doll heads, found objects and paint bound together with foam insulation spray.  It’s also the bane of some neighbors’ existence.  And so, Robolights 2018 might just be the last in Irwin’s backyard.  Because, key word, backyard.  It’s literally in a 4-acre backyard in a neighborhood.  Police are stationed at all the surrounding intersections so tourists’ cars don’t clog the streets.  Over the years, the charms of the high-watt cheer has dimmed for residents, Friedrich Koenig chief among them.  According to the “Desert Sun” newspaper, Koenig, a well-known Robo-critic was arrested in early December for creating a drunken, disorderly disturbance outside the entrance.  His gripe?  Robolights is a disturbance.



There’s talk PS is buying and moving Robolights to a more commercial location, but from what I can see, good luck with that.  It’s one of those things that outgrew its own quirky self and couldn’t possibly be the same somewhere else.  No admission cost, just donations and I can’t imagine the size of Kenny’s light bill.



I love places where you can land at the airport and be at a trailhead within the hour.  Phoenix is like that, but cut that commute in half in Palm Springs, it’s all…right there.  Drive up most any foothill road to its end and there’s probably a trailhead.  This is a handy thing when you are trying to attract a new breed of tourist who is less enthralled by your 100+ golf courses.



If the name doesn’t give away the steepness, I’m here to tell you the “Cactus-to-Clouds” trail behind the art museum does in fact take you to such great heights.  Same for the North or South Lykken trails.  I don’t mind paying the $12.50 to get into the Aqua Cliente Indian Reservation to hike the easy 2-mile Tahquitz Canyon loop.  It’s a real live oasis, just like the one Maria Muldaur sang about, minus the camels.  We did, however, see a bunch of bighorn sheep high above us in the canyon. The rocks are always stunning and the waterfall is seasonal.  There are old newspaper articles in the visitor’s center detailing how those damned hippies almost trashed Tahquitz Canyon in the 60s before it became protected. Hard to fault them on their choice of party pads, though.

After the hikes, try refreshing local brews like Coachella Valley Brewing’s “Kolschella” which got named cute, right?  La Quinta Brewing has an outpost downtown; I like both their Shifting Sands IPA and stridently uncool logo (Sun wearing sunglasses, vague California Raisins feel.)  I’ll have to save a trip on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the largest rotating aerial tram car in the world, for next time.  My travel companions never seem to want any part of the 8,516 feet of height/exposure.  I imagine it’s dizzying and disorienting to go from desert to snow in a vertiginous 10-minute ride.  Instead, Bob and I took in the sights from the desert floor below.  We watched the sun set over the mountains from the backyard patio, each of our hands buried in our borrowed Labradors’ fur.




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