PALM SPRINGS — Jaime Kowal left Vancouver for Palm Springs in 2012, deciding to move to this southern California paradise almost on a whim.“I came for Christmas vacation and never left,” she says.
A freelance photographer, she decided to channel her creative spirit into being an entrepreneur of another sort. She founded The Desert Collective, which in three years has grown to include a coffee house, tiki bar, and boutique accommodations.
She’s not stopping there. A yoga retreat in nearby Joshua Tree is also in the works.
“There’s a lot of culture. We have a lot of entrepreneurial friends,” Kowal, 38, says over wine at Ernest Coffee, one of her properties. “It’s a new generation that has seen the potential of the architecture and history. It’s a new wave.”
Palm Springs was once known as a desert playground for retirees and Hollywood celebrities of a bygone era. Now, a new crop of young entrepreneurs is reviving the community with restaurants, hotels, boutiques and art galleries.
This town of 47,000 is a beaming example of mid-century modern architecture. The Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center highlights the town as a go-to place for design buffs.
Each year, the city plays host to Modernism Week, an 11-day festival celebrating mid-century modern design, architecture, art and culture. This winter, the festival drew 97,000 participants, an increase of more than 25 percent over last year.
“It’s much of what put Palm Springs back on the map,” says Robert Imber, an architectural enthusiast and tour guide who executive produced the documentary Desert Utopia: Mid-Century Architecture in Palm Springs. “Palm Springs became the mecca of modernism … People have some kind of a bond or affinity for modernism.”
An effort to preserve buildings from the 1930s and 1970s, from private homes to civic centers, became the focus of the community.
Notable homes include the Edgar Kaufmann house, a local landmark by architect Richard Neutra built for the Pittsburgh department store millionaire in the 1940s. The southeast part of town is where Howard Hughes had his tri-level mini-estate erected. The Alexander Estate, more commonly known as “the house of tomorrow,” is where Elvis Presley spent some of his time off from Los Angeles in the 1960s. Even the Visitors Center is a popular spot for architectural buffs, as it is housed in a 1965 gas station designed by Albert Frey.
The Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center is one of the most recent success stories. Housed in a building designed by E. Stewart Williams in 1961, it was originally used as the Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan. The art museum purchased it in 2011. Prominent members of the local community, including fashion designer Trina Turk, donated funds to restore it.
The result: a 13,000 square-foot glass and steel building with floor-to-ceiling windows. Parts of the original building were restored, including the original terrazzo floor and the bank vault door.
“It’s a great preservation story,” Imber says. “It was a major, major win.”
Another win has been the development of the Uptown Design District, a growing retail district with about 60 boutiques and art galleries housed in historic buildings.
Turk, who dresses celebrities such as Halle Berry, opened her colorful and whimsical flagship store in the district in 2002. She has since expanded it to include a men’s store and a furnishings shop.
Walk around and the word modern pops out from many of the awnings. Furniture stores such as Interior Illusions have elaborate showrooms.
Woody Shimko, who owns the Woodman/Shimko gallery on North Palm Canyon Drive, sees the scene surging, “It’s changing big time and it’s only going to get better.”
The entire city is expanding thanks to firms such as Chris Pardo Design Elemental Architects, which is working on a new Kimpton Hotel.
Pardo is also the co-founder of the ARRIVE Hotel, one of the newest, hippest properties in the city.
The property spans nine buildings designed to echo the adjacent mountain ridges with mid-century modern roofs. Pardo chose materials such as rusted steel, wood and concrete to reflect the desert landscape.
The pool area has cabanas and firepits. In a hint of playfulness, there is also a bocce court and ping pong tables. There’s a full-service restaurant called Reservoir, a coffee house, and an ice cream shop. There’s no front desk. Guests check in at the bar and get their drink of choice. To make requests, they text message the staff.
The complex has transformed a once desolate block.
“We saw an opportunity to do this and make a big difference,” say Pardo, who is 38.
Pardo also designed Kowal’s Ernest Coffee, and the Bootlegger Tiki, located in the same complex. Both are just as hip as ARRIVE, which Pardo plans to expand to other cities, including Austin.
“This felt like a great city to launch the brand,” he says. “There’s a large group of architectural fanatics.”
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Many restaurateurs are also getting into the hotel business.
Tara Lazar owns F10 Creative, which has four restaurants and a hotel. Alcazar Palm Springs is a 34-room boutique hotel with sleek décor, a pool, and peaceful garden courtyard. Next to it are two restaurants, Cheeky’s and Birba, which both use farm-to-table ingredients.
“We take food a lot more seriously now,” Lazar says. “There’s a more sophisticated demographic and people care more these days.”
More chefs are coming from all over the country to take advantage of the local farms and the popularity of the entire Coachella Valley.
“The clientele is there for it,” says Paul Hancock, executive chef at Miramonte Resort & Spa, a Curio Collection. “People are here more year-round. Everyone is a foodie.”
At Sparrows Lodge, another hotel that has recently entered the market, chef Gabriel Woo’s twice a week family dinners are consistently booked. Woo, who is originally from Mexico, has a simple and rustic style of cooking. On one particular Saturday night, a long communal table is filled with guests from all over the country dining together on roast chicken, potatoes and vegetables.
“It’s up and coming,” Woo says of the town and the food scene. “I’m hoping to ride that wave. I want to represent Palm Springs.”
Nancy Trejos, USA TODAY