Remember the old Palm Springs? A sunny desert town where Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and many other Hollywood types partied in the ’50s and ’60s?
It crashed and burned when new communities developed nearby. Stores closed. Restaurants died. Builders abandoned construction sites.
But a funny thing happened as the decades rolled by: The city discovered a way to turn back the clock.
Everything old is new. Once again, this town is hot, hot, hot. Once again, it’s the capital of cool.
The proof is in the clubs, restaurants and hotels that are popping up and in the hipsters who are flying in from San Francisco and New York City.
They marvel at the Midcentury Modern architecture, shop in vintage stores, spend the rest of the day lazing around the city’s sparkling blue pools, then cap the night drinking single-barrel bourbon and craft beer in bars such as the Truss & Twine and the Amigo Room at the Ace Hotel.
There’s also proof in a younger generation of celebs who are buying property here. Forty-two-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio, for instance, took over actress Dinah Shore’s former home.
You can also find evidence in the evolving city, which is trying to preserve its Midcentury Modern heritage while catering to new visitors and longtime residents.
I spent some time in Palm Springs last month, talking with city officials, hoteliers and visitors about the changes.
The biggest turnaround is in the heart of downtown, where a seven-block patch of dirt used to remind visitors that an enclosed mall called the Desert Fashion Plaza failed here in 2002.
A lot of the dirt is gone now. In its place is a $450-million redevelopment project that includes restaurants, shops and hotels. Some of these are scheduled to open this fall, including the seven-story hotel anchor, Kimpton the Rowan Palm Springs.
I dodged workmen and piles of construction material on a hard-hat tour with general manager Abe Liao, who showed me some of the 153 guestrooms, plus the public spaces.
I found a sunny mix of minimalist design and contemporary colors. Nice.
But then we moved to the top-floor conference rooms, and I caught a glimpse of the panorama visible from the seventh floor. Amazing.
Spread before me was the entire desert valley, the craggy San Jacinto Mountains and Palm Springs glinting in the afternoon sunlight.
“This is going to be a popular place,” Liao said. “Wait until you see the rooftop pool.”
We moved outside. The pool was every bit as impressive as he indicated, with luxury cabanas, fire pits, lounge areas and a bar.
“It’s the only rooftop pool in Palm Springs,” he said.
The opening date is listed as mid-November, but I tried to make a reservation and couldn’t do so until December, so perhaps the hotel is hedging its bets.
The facility’s completion has been a long time coming. There have been problems along the way, including an FBI raid at City Hall two years ago that resulted in criminal corruption charges against former Mayor Steve Pougnet and two developers. The case is making its way through the court system. (The hotel is not involved in the corruption charges.)
Chris Pardo, project designer, said the furor that surrounded the criminal case “definitely took the wind out of the project for a while, but we worked through it.”
The almost-finished Kimpton is consummate Palm Springs — Midcentury Modern, only better.
“What I was trying to do was build off the architectural heritage that was already here. I didn’t want to mimic it, but build off of it,” said Pardo, who also designed and owns a popular local hotel named Arrive and a string of restaurants.
Kimpton the Rowan isn’t the only new hotel in town.
Two other nearby lodges opened their doors in the last few months. Both helped me remember why I love this city and its beautifully designed hotels.
La Serena Villas, originally built in 1933, spent decades as a community eyesore before its renovation and reincarnation as a super-chic downtown hotel. Its 18 cottages, stark white and accented by brilliant bougainvillea, are at the edge of the imposing San Jacinto Mountains.
Rooms are plush and have patios, fire pits and outdoor claw-foot tubs. The hotel pool is busy, and Azúcar, a new Frida Kahlo-inspired restaurant, keeps guests and visitors happy with tapas, shareable plates and dinner entrees such as a spiced tempeh bowl ($22) and Moroccan roasted chicken with saffron rice and dates ($25).
I found another winner at the nearby Holiday House. The hotel, designed in 1951 by Herbert Burns, considered a top Palm Springs modernist, was most recently named the Chase.
It was sold and remodeled with an emphasis on preserving its original Midcentury Modern bones. Among the many changes are a new lobby bar, pool and lounge areas.
I loved the airy blue-and-white color scheme and the over-the-top art collection that features works by David Hockney and Roy Lichtenstein, among others.
Also undergoing renovation in the same neighborhood is the Ingleside Inn. The 30-room inn is a Spanish Colonial Revival-style lodge that dates to the 1920s.
The plan is to restore the hotel, once a Hollywood celebrity favorite, to its original glam, complete with vintage tiles.
The Ingleside sits next to Melvyn’s Restaurant, which is also undergoing a face-lift. Melvyn’s was a favorite of Frank Sinatra, who held the reception for wedding No. 4 here.
Back in the day, the Ingleside-Melyvn’s complex also drew stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando and in more recent times Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.
What do the longtime residents think of the town’s renewed popularity and growth?/
“Palm Springs is being reborn, and is repositioning itself for a new generation of visitors and locals,” said Eric Chiel, a nine-year resident and neighborhoods advocate. “Some development reflects our architectural and cultural heritage, and some moves us beyond that legacy. Maintaining that balance is an ongoing challenge.”
As evidence of that balance, Chiel pointed out new large-scale commercial development on the western side of downtown and a planned low-rise Agua Caliente Cultural Center and Museum complex on the eastern side.
“This juxtaposition alone speaks to the balance between past and future, commerce and culture, and the diversity of our community,” Chiel added.
Robert Moon, the city’s mayor, said keeping residents happy and moving ahead with changes is a balancing act. “But we’re working hard at it.”
Moon, a retired Navy commander and financial advisor in the Reagan White House, said the city “used to focus on golf; now we’re getting a younger, hip generation of people from Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and New York. This is a new demographic that has rediscovered Palm Springs and enjoys what we have.
“We’ve spent millions of dollars on bike paths” and are emphasizing hiking and encouraging entrepreneurs to develop high-end food and beverage outlets, he said.
But they haven’t forgotten golf.
“There are more than 100 courses here, and we work hard to keep them in good condition,” he said. “Golf is not the booming thing it once was, but it’s important to us.”
And to some of those long-time residents.
New hotel in Palm Desert
Palm Springs isn’t the only desert city that’s getting a chic new downtown hotel.
Palm Desert, 15 miles southeast, is the site of Hotel Paseo, a 150-room property adjacent to the city’s primary shopping district, El Paseo, which desert dwellers call the “Rodeo Drive of the Desert.”
I took a tour of the construction site with general manager Gil Reyes, who said the new three-story facility would be “the first luxury hotel built in Palm Desert in more than 30 years.”
The hotel appeared to need more work done before opening, but Reyes said he hoped to start welcoming guests in December.
Among the interesting guest suites in the works are a billiards room with a wet bar, lounge and bed, and a glamour room, with space to get prepared for a wedding or other big event.
Another unusual feature is a refurbished 25-foot,1950s Airstream trailer, which has taken up residence in the Backyard, an outdoor space that will feature a lawn, stage and activities courts for playing boccie ball, shuffleboard and cornhole toss. A pool, spa, cabanas and bar will also be built.
The lounge will have a rotating art gallery and colorful art installations, Reyes said. It will also have a restaurant with a pedigree: AC3 Restaurant + Bar will be created by three well-known desert restaurateurs, Trio owner Tony Marchese and Andrew and Juliana Copley, owners of Copley’s on Palm Canyon.
The hotel will also have a full-service spa and offer yoga and tai chi classes.
Rates are expected to start at about $200, depending on the season.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO PALM SPRINGS
Take Interstate 10 west about 100 miles to California 111 toward Palm Springs. Follow 111 about 10 miles to Palm Canyon Drive and downtown Palm Springs.
WHERE TO STAY
Many Palm Springs accommodations require a two-night stay on busy weekends.
Kimpton the Rowan, 100 W. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; (800) 532-7320. Multistory downtown hotel is scheduled to open in November, but that date may slide. It will offer great views of Palm Springs, a cool design and a rooftop pool. Doubles from $249 per night.
La Serena Villas, 339 S. Belardo Road, Palm Springs; (844) 932-8044. This 1933 historic hotel has been completely renovated, offering stylish rooms and grounds. Pet-friendly, restaurant, pool. Doubles from $299 per night.
Holiday House Hotel, 200 W. Arenas Road, Palm Springs; (760) 320-8866. Recently renovated Midcentury Modern boutique hotel is drawing raves from guests. Pet-friendly, restaurant, pool. Doubles from $149 per night.
WHERE TO EAT
Lulu California Bistro, 200 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; (760) 327-5858. This popular corner restaurant has a fun menu with indoor or outdoor seating, a 12-hour happy hour and a nice vibe. Another plus: It’s dog friendly. Try the seafood chowder for $8.99 or meatloaf a la Arturo, named for the chef, $16.99.
Truss & Twine, 800 N. Palm Canyon Drive; Palm Springs; (760) 459-3451. Hip gastropub in the historic El Paseo building is known for classic cocktails. Combine them with charcuterie, cheese plates and bar bites featured on a desert-inspired menu that starts at $6. A sister restaurant, Workshop Kitchen & Bar is at 800 N. Palm Canyon.
Johnny Costa’s Ristorante, 440 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; (760) 325-4556. Old school Italian restaurant, once a favorite of Frank Sinatra, has just reopened after a summertime renovation. Try Steak Sinatra, $30, or spaghetti and meat sauce, $19.
TO LEARN MORE
Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism, 2901 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; (800) 347-7746
Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, 70-100 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, Calif.; (760) 770-9000