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All aboard Charles Phoenix’s Modernism Week bus tour of Palm Springs

Michael Juliano

“It’s almost like the rest of the world no longer exists,” Charles Phoenix says of Palm Springs. “You can go through the layers of time there—to feel the legend, the lore, the landmark of it.”

Thousands of visitors step into that living history each year during Modernism Week, an 11-day celebration of Palm Springs’ midcentury modern architecture, design and culture through parties, open houses and tours. For the third year, Phoenix—a historian, humorist and self-described ambassador of Americana—hosts a bus tour of the desert city’s storied and stylish highlights.

Phoenix’s guided double-decker bus tour whisks visitors around Palm Springs, stopping for photo ops and commentary at Rat Pack–era landmarks that he describes as akin to an architectural petting zoo. He enthusiastically explains to his guests why we should appreciate the movement’s bright open-floor, post-and- beam aesthetic.

Photograph: Courtesy David A. Lee Photography

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Charles Phoenix’s favorite midcentury modern landmarks in Palm Springs

Palm Springs Visitors Center
A former gas station built in 1965, the cantilevered, sail-like structure is now the city’s visitor center. “It’s the first building that you really see when you drive in from Los Angeles. That’s like the ‘you have arrived’ building.”
2901 N Palm Canyon Dr

Bank of America
You can easily spot this 1959 bank by its bulbous roof and the refreshingly blue curved exterior.
588 S Palm Canyon Dr

Twin Palms Estates
Find these low-slung houses just south of the Ace Hotel. “It’s been so beautifully restored. It’s a great walking-and-gawking neighborhood.”
E Twin Palms Dr

Aerial Tramway
“I love the station at the top and the bottom, even though the one at the top could use a little bit of a restoration.” The bottom one, though—a 1973 structure with triangular windows—is as stunning as the tram’s views.
1 Tram Way

Palm Springs Art Museum
“We’re starting to get far enough away from ’70s architecture [like the Palm Springs Art Museum] that we can look at it objectively instead of with our twisted perception of how we used to feel about it.”
101 N Museum Dr

Modernism wasn’t always a valued part of the city’s identity, though. The style’s voyeuristic windows, sun-savvy materials and minimalist furniture aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy. “I suppose there are people who have [a negative] response to it,” says Phoenix. “Maybe they need to go find a barn or an old colonial home somewhere and be more comfortable there.” And they did—for a while, at least. Palm Springs hit a downturn in the 1980s and ’90s as megamansions sprouted up in surrounding desert cities. Midcentury modern started to seem woefully outdated. “It was despised,” he says. “But perceptions change. People realize that the built environment in Palm Springs is very significant and very appropriate to the weather there.”

These days, the legend and lore of the city’s escape-from-Hollywood history, along with its jet-setting aesthetics, helped visitors appreciate Palm Springs’ unparalleled bounty of midcentury modern homes. To Phoenix, there’s one aspect in particular that has visitors pining for a stay in those residences: the swimming pool. “Everything is all about focusing on that cool pool of water,” he says. “Palm Springs homes, at their core, are glorified pool houses. They weren’t built to be fancy, they were built to be recreational. They are pool and party pads.”

The Charles Phoenix: Super Duper Double Decker Bus Tour of “Palm Springsland” runs Feb 19–25 8:30–11am.

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