Maximum Minimalism

The Palm Springs Art Museum propels modernism to the forefront with its new Architecture and Design Center, Edwards Harris Pavilion.

Stewart Weiner Modernism, Watch & Listen - Modern 0 Comments

 

VIDEO: Take a quick tour through the Architecture and Design Center

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The late former mayor of Palm Springs Frank Bogert was known for being outspoken, but on a particular day in the mid-1990s, he was in especially fine form.

Appearing before one of the first luncheon fundraisers for the newly minted Palm Springs Historic Site Foundation, Bogert offered his unsolicited opinion on the midcentury modern architecture the foundation wanted to preserve.

“That Frey fella,” Bogert drawled, referring to the iconic Albert Frey, whose International Style was on the verge of a retro comeback, “that Frey, he makes the god-awful ugliest stuff I ever saw.”

Crickets … then gasps ensued around the tables, of course, and it wasn’t just because Frank didn’t use the word “stuff.” This group knew it was swimming against the tide, for outside of this small gathering, most residents of Palm Springs, like Bogert, didn’t show much love for midcentury modernism either. The city, for instance, printed an entire “architectural guide” to famous buildings and neglected to include even one midcentury treasure in its pages. (It wasn’t until decades later that historian and hotelier Tracy Conrad redid the guide to correct the oversight.)

But, holy Neutra, those “critics” might be spinning beneath the sand today. That “god-awful ugliest stuff” has become our area’s signature style. The design motif of midcentury modern and the buildings created here in that aesthetic are now the subject of best-selling coffee-table books, entries in national architectural registers, and the focus of the annual 10-day celebration called “Modernism Week,” which, according to its chairman, Chris Mobley, attracted 45,000 fans to our desert cities last February and added $17 million to the local coffers.

Ka-ching-a-ding-ding.

And what certainly will consummate this modernist love affair happens this month when the Palm Springs Art Museum opens a satellite museum downtown, the brand-old Architecture and Design Center, carrying the name of Edwards Harris Pavilion.

It’s big news — for two reasons: first, because of the way it became a museum. And second, because it spotlights and introduces a new generation of Palm Springs Art Museum patrons, a group that is determined to put its stamp on the artistic future of our desert oasis.

 

Good Bones 

The year was 2006 and at the corner of South Palm Canyon Drive and Baristo Road stood, or rather floated gracefully, one of Palm Springs’ most symbolic buildings, the Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan, designed by E. Stewart Williams, and, according to the A+D Center’s managing director, J.R. (Jon Ruben) Roberts, “one of Stewart’s favorites.”

The building’s two floors cover 13,000 square feet and epitomize the exemplary characteristics of midcentury modern architecture: glass and steel materials, terrazzo floors, patterned aluminum shades, floor-to-ceiling windows, expansive spaces that barely touch the ground, and a general feeling of airiness. This was a bank you could smile all the way to.

Santa Fe Federal went bust after the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s; the building was sold to American Savings thereafter, but eventually it landed in the hands of a local developer who used the building as its offices. And, as an office, it was a bust.

“It was way too big,” says Michael Braun, spokesman for Wessman Holdings LLC, the owner of the building and its tenant. “We couldn’t even air-condition both floors; it had other problems, and we wanted to get out.”

The developer planned to use the site as the foundation for a four-story structure around the main building, creating 19 condos and turning the bank into retail and restaurant spaces. The idea fit the company’s philosophy. In interviews, representatives have been plainspoken about their vision for Palm Springs: The San Jacinto Mountains cut off an entire section from development, but the city needs new residents and more places to live if it wants to attract taxpaying retail stores, restaurants, and theaters. So Wessman began to draw up plans for a project called “Baristo Lofts.” 

And, to the company’s surprise, the project was meeting resistance.

Surprise may be an understatement. Up until recently, resistance to any kind of development was not usually a barrier in Palm Springs. Jeepers, people have been messing with iconic buildings here for years. Who can forget what happened to the first Albert Frey house (razed), or how little care its various owners gave to the Kaufmann home until its faithful stewards, Beth and Brent Harris, rescued it?

But by 2006, the earth had shifted and the climate had changed. Two nonprofits, the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation (the same group that had hosted Bogert but with a slight name change) and the Palm Springs Modern Committee, were maturing and attracting large memberships. In the case of the Santa Fe Federal plan, both groups were opposed to doing anything but restoring the bank building, and they were eager to flex their muscles.

Through newspaper guest editorials and fact-heavy, in-the-weeds testimony before multiple sessions of the City Council accompanied by graphic signs created by preservationists Gary Johns and Ron and Barbara Marshall, the groups worked for years to make sure it wasn’t going to be a slam-dunk to get permission to build any lofts. The battle raged, and the developer moved out but kept the title.

In the meantime, Sidney Williams, the curator of architecture and design at Palm Springs’ powerful art museum, was wondering why anything new had to be done to that wonderful place built by her father-in-law and cherished by architecture scholars and enthusiasts. She was also confused as to why the city, which was seeing an influx of young, professional visitors who fell in love with the architecture, bought houses, and turned into good taxpaying citizens, wasn’t going to bat to save its heritage too. The economics made as much sense as the artiness.

Williams and many others began to blue-sky an idea: They would propose that the Palm Springs City Council register the building as a Class 1 historic site, thus protecting it from any radical development. In the back of her mind, she also revived her longtime dream that maybe the Palm Springs Art Museum itself might be persuaded to buy the building from the developer and — this is the genius stroke — convert it to a museum to honor midcentury and contemporary design.

That idea was not unprecedented. The museum had already been gifted with another valley home, known as Frey House II, the one that sits at the west end of Tahquitz Canyon Way overlooking the desert floor, putting itself in the forefront of a national movement that has museums around the country treating buildings as works of art. (The idea is catching on: Dewey Blanton of the American Alliance of Museums reports that at least six other structures around the country are now owned by museums, notably the Weltzheimer/Johnson House by Frank Lloyd Wright, now in the custody of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio.)

A new facility made sense. The Architecture and Design Council of the museum, though only one of nine councils supporting the arts, was now the biggest, with membership in the many hundreds. And there was a need for exhibition space: Many A+D works were metaphorically gathering dust in the basement of the main facility and, as their curator, Williams felt they were ripe for exposure.

Beginning in early 2009, the campaign began in earnest to save the building (nearly 100 Palm Springs citizens sent in petitions) and it paid off on May 6, when the council voted 3-2 to grant the site its Class 1 historic status. Wessman’s spokesman Braun remembers that once the site was protected and once two powerful men named Harold entered the picture, Wessman Holdings knew it would “do the right thing for the community” and sell it. “We knew,” Wessman says, “that we weren’t just turning the place over to some people who were out in the street protesting.”

Those two Harolds, Meyerman and Matzner, both major members of the board of trustees, saw Williams’ vision and were encouraging. But they had their hands full with the opening of another satellite museum, The Galen in Palm Desert.

Besides, they wondered: Who was going to pay to buy and restore the building, set up a brand-new museum, and sustain it? They figured the total cost of buying the building and rehabilitating it could run into several millions. Where would that kind of dough come from? Oddly enough, however, that turned out to be the easiest part. 

 

Balusters

Call it the first analog Kickstarter campaign. Right from the start, there was plenty of support for the idea of this new, second satellite museum.

Board of trustees Chairman Meyerman remembers his encouraging conversations with Sidney Williams back then. “The museum’s mission is to bring art to the community,” he says, “but it also needs to respond to what a city is looking for. It has to listen.” And, in this case, he figured, the community was definitely looking for a showcase for architecture and design; there was a void that needed to be filled. He wanted the museum to start listening.

Moreover, modernism’s style fits Meyerman’s view of life: “We need to be doing more with fewer things,” he says philosophically. “That’s what the midcentury modern era really represents. Minimalism. Using what we have wisely.”

 He is referring to the north star that guided most desert architects in the genre: the simplicity of using sustainable materials, protecting buildings from the relentless desert sun with butterfly roofs, and ixnaying wood that could warp and have to be replaced. As noted architect and preservationist Doug Hudson puts it, “The modern design was less about ‘starchitecture’ and more about improving the quality of life for everybody.”

Meyerman told Williams that both he and his wife, Dorothy, liked the design-museum idea, and all she had to do now was gather up a couple of million dollars and he would present the idea to the board of trustees. (He’s philosophical but also practical.)

He also wrangled fellow board member (and vice chairman) Matzner into the fold to handle the real estate transaction that would have to be forged.

Williams knew where she could turn to get the ball rolling: her comrades-in-arms Beth Edwards Harris, Trina Turk, Jonathan Skow, and John Boccardo. They had the resources and the ardor the project would need.

Harris, for example, is world-famous for the work she and her former husband, Brent Harris, did in flawlessly restoring the Richard Neutra–designed Kaufmann House on Vista Chino. Spending countless hours and dollars, sweating over every detail, using only the correct materials, the homeowners brought national attention to Palm Springs, luring The New Yorker and The New York Times to town to have a look. The Harrises, along with the Santa Monica firm Marmol Radziner, the same group that would handle the museum restoration, pretty much put local architecture on the map.

Now, years later, Harris was eager to make her mark with something else, and the new museum project was perfect.

“At the time, there were very few public spaces where people could admire midcentury,” she says. “I was afraid that the architecture movement might end up being a flash in the pan if there wasn’t public access to it. What I loved about the Santa Fe building as a museum was that the public would finally get a chance to walk around inside of one of these buildings and, through the exhibits and the structure itself, learn more.”

Williams’ other pals, Trina Turk and her husband Jonathan Skow, also wanted in. “It was Williams’ passion that convinced us to be part of this,” Turk says. (For their contribution, the main gallery is named for her with the Trina Turk Gallery.)

Turk and Skow can relate — they are currently restoring a John Lautner home in the Echo Park suburb of Los Angeles and had already restored the Ship of the Desert in The Mesa area of Palm Springs. Not so coincidentally, they also have a heavy investment in creating on-trend fashions that fit perfectly with the midcentury outlook. The popular lines of boldly patterned Trina Turk and Mr. Turk apparel have a lot to thank Palm Springs modernism for. “The city has been a vital building block in the development of our brands,” she says. “We wanted to reciprocate.”

The other member of the quinquevirate, Boccardo, has a long history here in the desert; his mother owned a jewelry and fine-china store in the now-demolished Desert Fashion Plaza, Charles Naywert Ltd. Boccardo and his former husband, J.R. Roberts, owned the Boccardo Roberts Architecture and Design firm in Sausalito, and together they won many desert fans for their restoration of the Edris House, another of E. Stewart Williams’ works, as well as the Glass House they built in Little Tuscany.

“I just felt the museum would be a wonderful addition to the city and really help in bringing attention to preservation,” he says. Also helping in preservation is his donation, which has made possible the space and resources for the museum’s archives in an area on the lower floor named after his mother, Lorraine Boccardo.

After those folks provided the funds to buy the building, the donor group began to grow exponentially, especially when managing director Roberts joined the project. As the former mayor of Sausalito and a portrait of dynamism, he began the search for new donors to handle the restoration, or what the cognoscenti call “rehabilitation.” He was persuasive, but he was also preaching to the choir: There was no dearth of folks eager to see the museum take shape. “We had great acceptance from the community right from the start,” he says.

Greg Polzin, the Palm Springs Art Museum’s director of development, confirms: “We really significantly increased our donor base with this expansion project. What’s more important, many of these new donors up to that point hadn’t had much interest in the museum.”

(In fact, there are now three different categories of museum patrons — the Old Guard of Palm Springs retirees who were big shots at their hometown museums and whose collections may one day end up on Museum Square; the new East Valley donors from Bighorn Golf Club and other upscale country clubs whose names are sprinkled all over The Galen in Palm Desert; and now this younger set of architecture and design devotees.)

This new group is enthusiastic and responsive, no doubt. An email asking for comments produced a deluge of replies.

L.J. Cella is a perfect example. He was looking for a home for his architectural drawing and furniture collection. “I knew Steven [Nash, the executive director of Palm Springs Art Museum] from when he was at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and I had a high regard for both him and Sidney. I knew that this would be the perfect place to house my collection.” 

Cella’s roots in the desert also played a part in his decision.

“My family has owned a home in Little Tuscany for 55 years,” he says. His donation of the collection, by the way, was only part of his generosity; he also made a capital campaign contribution. “I originally wanted it to go to establishing an endowment,” he says, “but was persuaded to make the gift toward the archival/repository space downstairs.” (That area will serve to hold significant archives from Frey, Williams, and Arthur Elrod/Harold Broderick, as well as others in the future. “This will allow,” Williams says, “for us to ensure access for scholars, other architects, and the general public, and help us develop future exhibitions.”)

The outdoor garden in front of the design center on Palm Canyon Drive is another example of donor generosity, this from Joan and Gary Gand. The Gands, whom some in the desert know from their musical performances as The Gand Band during many of Modernism Week’s more spirited parties, created the garden in honor of Joan’s late mother, Harriet K. Burnstein. “We always felt that this building deserved to be more than a real estate office,” she says. “We also see this museum as another example of Palm Springs’ moving from being a remote little village to becoming a sophisticated center for the arts, fashion, and music.”

Such donors as Sandy Edelstein and Scott King had yet another reason to become founders, in addition to an affinity for design. “We think this building will be a wonderful anchor for the corridor,” Edelstein, a mortgage broker, says. “This will spark a redevelopment of this part of downtown.” A quick look at the surrounding buildings shows many For Lease signs, and the new museum may cause new retailers and restaurateurs to huddle in closer to the expectant crowds.

Founders Brian “Skip” Schipper and Rick Lord had a personal reason to get involved: They live in a Williams-designed home. Schipper says he wants to spread the word about E. Stewart Williams’ “humanizing sense of scale and his unparalleled commitment to quality. Preserving this jewel … for the study of modern architecture is one of the most important things we can do for our city.” 

Still others wanted to memorialize loved ones through their donations. Denise and Larry Grimes, for example, wanted to help Charlie LaMorte honor his late partner of 15 years, Jim Budzinski, an architect (and designer of the Transamerica Pyramid lobby in San Francisco), and, according to LaMorte, “a huge fan of midcentury design from an early age.” How early? “Back when Jim was growing up in Indiana,” LaMorte says, “Jim’s mother tried to get him to stop trying to create a midcentury roofline with his Lincoln Logs!”

San Diego residents Kim and Joe Zakowski waxed poetic about their enthusiasm for midcentury: “It is an expression of a moment in time that is still fresh and new today,” Kim says, “of living one with nature.”

One of the most interesting gifts involves the restoration and maintenance of the drive-through teller station, one of Santa Fe Federal’s innovations at the time it was built. When Richard Crisman and Jeff Brock saw it, they immediately claimed it as their own:

“We were so excited it was still available for naming,” Crisman says. “It’s such an iconic part of the building. It’s the juxtaposition of old and new.”

Now that one of the oldest buildings in Palm Springs is brand-new again, it’s hard not to see their point.

 

Elevations

The project is now nearly finished when Roberts takes a group through a late-summer tour. Though it looks like there is still a lot of work left to do, it is deceptive. The building’s “good bones” gave the restorers a head start: About the only elements that were not part of the building’s original plans are an elevator and some refinements to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Marmol Radziner, along with the contractor D.W. Johnston Construction and Michael Kiner Associates, who served as the liaison, managed to make those modifications work with little disturbance.

The opening exhibition this month will celebrate E. Stewart Williams, naturally, and a steering committee is working on what will be showcased in the future. And it will cover more than midcentury modern.

“One thing I want to clarify,” Williams says. “The museum is also going to feature contemporary architecture and design.” Architect Doug Hudson, a member of the steering committee, sees it even more broadly. “Of course, like any nascent institution, there are numerous opinions about what this building portends for the future. But I’m very optimistic: There is a perfect storm here of appreciation for design and architecture, money to make it happen, and growing international media attention on Palm Springs.”

Roberts beams as he leads the tour. After all the struggle and the years to get the new museum preserved, paid for, rehabilitated, and ready for visitors, he’s ready for the unveiling.

A few contrarians may still call midcentury modern “god-awful ugly,” of course. But it’s mostly a trolling provocation mission; the battle’s been won.

You can forgive the backers if they, like this building, now seem to be floating on air.


Upcoming Exhibits

Don’t miss the opening shows at the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center, Edwards Harris Pavilion.

 

Nov. 9, 2014 – Feb. 22, 2015

An Eloquent Modernist: E. Stewart Williams, Architect

This inaugural exhibition honors the long career and significant contributions of E. Stewart Williams to midcentury modernist architecture, which includes not only the Palm Springs Art Museum but also the new Architecture and Design Center. The exhibition will include models, photographs, film clips, original renderings, and drawings to provide a complete view of his 50-year career.

From his first house — the Frank Sinatra Residence, built in 1947 — to his last projects in the 1990s, Williams designed numerous homes as well as hospitals, schools, colleges, civic buildings, and banks, bringing to each project his careful attention to siting, details, client program, and function. In addition to his architectural practice, he was active in the Coachella Valley and beyond, lecturing on the need for public understanding of city planning to protect the environment. He articulated an early awareness of the impact of urban sprawl on traffic, smog, and land use.

 

March 14 – July 12, 2015

Eye on Design: Andrea Zittel’s Aggregated Stacks and the Collection of the Palm Springs Art Museum

With an eye to considering the role of design in our lives, this exhibition combines objects from the museum’s permanent collection and commissioned original works by internationally known high desert artist and Joshua Tree resident Andrea Zittel. Working in collaboration with the museum’s curators, Zittel selects items from the museum’s holdings and integrates them into an installation environment she fabricated.

Living in a rural desert setting, Zittel must order most of the daily consumer products she needs online. The Aggregated Stacks first suggested themselves to the artist as she considered how best to reuse the mailing boxes of those goods. Stacking the boxes against the wall, they became an irregular accumulation that she realized was a reflection of her personal needs, habits, and consumption.

Wrapping the boxes in the same plaster material as a traditional body cast, Zittel creates durable clusters of boxes that are simultaneously random in their arrangement and ordered into irregular grids. Positioned on walls as reliefs and as freestanding sculptural islands in the gallery, her stacks provide open storage units to display holdings from the museum’s collection that resonate with the ways she has structured her own life. At the same time, they interrupt the usual museum practice of displaying objects in isolation and removed from daily life, allowing viewers to consider the subjective and arbitrary systems that they use to make sense out of their own experiences.

Maximum Minimalism was last modified: April 29th, 2016 by Stewart Weiner

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