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My Palm Springs: Author and Architectural Historian Steve Vaught

With Modernism Week kicking off in just a few days, we thought it’d be fun to take a look at Palm Springs through the eyes of someone who really knows it. Many of you will know Steve Vaught as a contributor to the series of books he’s done with Marc Appleton and Bret Parsons documenting LA’s architectural history but we’ve long been fans of his writing! His works include Einstein Dreamt Here, a book about the Willows hotel, articles on Hollywood history for Architectural Digest, and his fabulous blog, Paradise Leased. We were especially thrilled to see his recent and much-deserved shout-out in AD. So read on for some great inside tips from a man who truly understands Palm Springs’s spectacular history.

 Desert House Party, Palm Springs, 1970 by Slim Aarons Desert House Party, Palm Springs, 1970 by Slim Aarons

SD: What are a few of your favorite places in Palm Springs—what do you like to recommend do people?

Steve: I loved Palm Springs from the first time I ever heard of it. The very name conjured up images of swaying palm trees, purple-tinted sunsets and movie stars lounging around sparkling pools. When I first moved to L.A., I wanted to go out and see it, but my budget didn't match my ambition. Still, I was not to be denied and I waited until the prices dropped into my range, which was, of course, during the depths of the sweltering summer. I solved the problem by switching to vampire mode—sleeping by day and drinking by night—a habit I have yet to break. Because I love the historic, I searched for "old" Palm Springs and found it in what is known as the Historic Tennis Club Neighborhood. This a fantastic spot located right in the center of everything and is a real treat for lovers of vintage architecture. Within this relatively small section, there are works by Wallace Neff, Hunt & Burns, Paul R. Williams and A. Quincy Jones, as well as local desert masters such as Albert Frey, William Cody and Hugh M. Kaptur.

There are a wonderful collection of small, charming historic hotels here that range from Casa Cody, which has a vintage 1916 Spanish adobe on its grounds, to the 1950s retro space age Orbit Inn. Of course, my favorite is the Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn, which is a world unto itself. But wherever you stay in the Historic Tennis Club neighborhood, you are in walking distance to everything. It's the perfect spot to get to know and explore Palm Springs.

SD: What’s your favorite way to enjoy the wellness aspects of Palm Springs?

Steve: I love to walk and Palm Springs is a great place to do just that. It's got an international reputation yet it’s really at heart just a small town. Everything is easy to get to. I love exploring different neighborhoods and seeing all the interesting architecture. There are whole areas that are filled almost exclusively with mid-century modern houses, some of which looked liked they came straight out of a Shag illustration. And the hiking is fantastic. There are many trails of different lengths and difficulty. I love going up the Lykken Trail, which starts at the end of Ramon Road. If you stay on it, you can get way above the village and the whole Valley. The views are breathtaking and there's even a view point with picnic tables.

SD: And what are a some of your favorite restaurant indulgences?

Steve: I was really surprised about the quality and variety of the restaurants in Palm Springs. You can get pretty much anything, although I'm not sure they're that big on seafood. I've tried many different types of restaurants from Elmer's (for breakfast) to Wally's, but I have a couple of favorites. One is Thai Smile at Tahquitz and Indian Canyon. And Las Casuelas is always fun. But, when it comes to Mexican food, my favorite is the El Mirasol on Indian Canyon and Tamarisk. It's so much less of a scene than Las Casuelas and has great service, margaritas, and food. The best is the peaceful courtyard. And I love Cafe Jasmin on Tahquitz. It looks like a little coffee shop at first glance, but when you look at the menu, it has a much richer variety of unusual dishes from Eastern Europe. It turns out the owner, Mike, who is from Croatia, and wife, Jasminka, have brought a little of the Dalmatian Coast to the desert with authentic old country goulash, spinach and potato pie. And the desserts—wonderful little treats made by Jasminka daily. I don't even know what most of them are called but they are delicious.

 Villa Grigio, from Tim Street-Porter’s  Palm Springs: A Modernist Paradise  (Rizzoli)  Villa Grigio, from Tim Street-Porter’s Palm Springs: A Modernist Paradise (Rizzoli)

SD: Tell us a little about some of the great local preservation efforts you’ve been involved with and what you’re most looking forward to at Modernism this year.

Steve: I am a big fan of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation. They are doing so much to help preserve and honor the village's historic architecture all the way from the first settlements of the Agua Caliente Indians to the modern masterpieces. They work tirelessly to not only promote Palm Springs’s historic treasures, they actively help preserve them by identifying potential historic landmarks and advocating for their designation. I recently had the honor of doing two nomination applications for PSPF: the old Field Cabin ruins and Inspiration Point, the stone walled lookout up there above the O'Donnell Golf Course. I'm also preparing a nomination for the fabulous mid-century masterpiece Villa Grigio, which was designed by James H. McNaughton in 1963. It is owned by famed interior designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard [published in AD] and will be the site of PSPF's Retro Martini Party fundraiser on February 22nd. It's going to be one of the "not to be missed" events during Modernism Week.

And speaking of Modernism Week, one reason I love Palm Springs is how they honor the mid-century architectural treasures that give Palm Springs its distinctive look with Modernism Week. This has gone from being a small local event to an international one and it gets bigger and better every year. There's so much to see and do, and one of the hottest tickets is the Villa Paradiso fundraiser cocktail party being held on February 17th and sponsored by Save Iconic Architecture. A worthy cause in a stunning setting—one of the most magnificent vintage estates in Old Las Palmas. [Click the image below for tickets.]

Related posts:

My LA: Realtor and Author Bret Parsons

Convo By Design: Episode 27. Christine Anderson with Marc Appleton, Bret Parsons and Steve Vaught

Two to Know: Ron Woodson & Jaime Rummerfield

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