You may say
I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not
the only one.
— John Lennon
On the western edge of Palm Springs, the steep San Jacinto mountainside scoffs at timidity. Where the faint of heart might have done no more than admire the rugged terrain, electrical engineer Francis Crocker envisioned stringing cables thousands of feet to carry people by tramcars up the imposing face. Those who dubbed his proposal “Crocker’s Folly” in 1935 might have overlooked the fact that a cadre of innovators populated the desert where, in the distant past, Cahuilla Indians had devised methods of survival in an extreme environment. Meanwhile, local businesspeople rallied behind Crocker and, in 1963, he realized the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, one of the most popular and enduring attractions in Greater Palm Springs.
Freedom of Fantasy
While the tramway was under construction, innovative builders were reshaping the desert floor. Architects including William Cody, Hugh Kaptur, Richard Neutra, E. Stewart Williams, and Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. created structures with nontraditional forms, methods, and materials — novel, modernist aesthetics.
PHOTO BY DAN CHAVKIN
PHOTO BY DAVID GLOMB
Top, right: Midcentury modern design, Frey House II by Albert Frey. Right: Steel House No. 1 displays architect Donald Wexler’s signature folded plate roof. Above: Imaginative interior spaces lead to even more imaginative interior decorating in one of William Krisel’s classic butterfly roofline homes in the Twin Palms neighborhood.
PHOTO J. PAUL GETTY TRUST, GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE, LOS ANGELES, (2004.R.10)
Donald Wexler experimented with steel Case Study houses. William Krisel with post-and-beam houses. John Lautner and Albert Frey built houses around boulders (Lautner in the Elrod House and Frey in his own abode that also featured corrugated aluminum). On March 7, 1995, Frey author Jennifer Golub interviewed the then-91-year-old. “You never seemed to be a formally austere modernist,” she proposed. “No, you have to have your fantasy going too,” he replied. “After all, that’s what life is.”
The architecture reflected the innovative and experimental spirit of a place, unwittingly shaping its character. “It was the opportunity of the times,” says Robert Imber, founder of Palm Springs Modern Tours. “The robust economy in an already-chic seasonal town, the indoor/outdoor environment, the relationship of new architectural ideas to the desert lifestyle, the relationship of the house to the mountains, the near and distant views of the landscape — all of those things inspired design, as they do today. Also very important was the light — the position of the sun throughout the day — because that’s so compelling here.”
Today’s architects build on the foundation laid by those pioneers’ fantasies. “There’s a continuum of great architecture that ends up unique to this region,” Imber says. “A significant body of work is internationally recognized. It was innovative in its time and maintains its significance. Increasingly every year, midcentury design attracts more awareness and interest from every corner of the world.”
In Greater Palm Springs, where Modernism Week attracts 77,500 attendees every February for 11 days of tours, lectures, exhibitions, sales, and parties, the inventive and evidently timeless designs generate $28.6 million for local businesses.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PETER RABBIT FARMS
Land of Opportunity
Aside from tourism, the region’s economy relies heavily on agriculture; growing things in the desert also required innovative minds. After World War II, Palmer Powell, a partner in a San Francisco-based company that sold produce to the wholesale terminal market, saw the coming of large grocery chain stores that would buy directly from growers.
PHOTO BY VISUALS UNLIMITED INC./INGA SPENCE
The flowing waters of the Colorado River in the 1950s gave life to a still-thriving agriculture industry that powers the local economy by creating a variety of jobs at different skill levels.
In 1950, the year after Colorado River water began flowing to the eastern Coachella Valley fields via the All-American Canal, he established his own packing plant and distribution company near the railroad tracks in Coachella.
With water and air temperatures that rarely dip below 40 degrees, local farmers can be first to market with seasonal produce, and also grow crops “that really can’t be done in other places,” says the farmer’s grandson, John Powell Jr., president/CEO of Coachella-based Peter Rabbit Farms. “This was a particularly great place of opportunity to set up shop because of the water supply. We are able to fill production schedules that other areas cannot.”
Agriculture continues to power the region’s economy, offering jobs of varying skill levels for its residents. “There’s a lot of technology that growers use, like global positioning for tractors and monitors for irrigation,” Powell says. “We employ a wide range of talent, from technicians to sales and marketing people with agronomic abilities. There’s also entry-level labor, and even that requires talent.”
PHOTO BY THINKSTOCKPHOTOS.COM
The iconic windmills of the west valley symbolize the progressive nature of the region and mark the beginning of its renewable energy revolution.
A Wind of Change
Thirty-five years ago, Fred Noble planned to establish a trailer park on land he purchased north of Interstate 10 and west of Indian Avenue . Then he received a letter from Southern California Edison suggesting he build a wind farm to take advantage of the Venturi effect created by the gap between the 10,800-foot San Jacinto and 11,500-foot San Gorgonio mountains’ peaks.
Today, Noble is president and CEO of Wintec Energy Ltd. “I was the first one here, but others were here a year later building [wind farm] projects,” he says. “We had engineering firms give us opinions that the turbines would last 20 years.”
But when Edison gained permission in 1983 to build a nuclear reactor at San Onofre, Noble says, “They turned against wind energy.” Worsening matters, his 3-year-old turbines began malfunctioning. Wintec hired Ed Abbey, a retired machinist in Desert Hot Springs, to repair its equipment. But an evolution in turbine design in the late ’90s put the technology back on track. “After that, it was a matter of bigger and better,” he says. “The equipment out there today costs $10 million a piece. We have 60 [turbines] that produce five to six times the power of the 1,200 we had of the first generation.
When one considers the visionaries, pioneers, and innovators who seem to shoot for the stars in the wide-open skies, you begin to see that “maybe” and “imagine” are magic words in the California desert.