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Visiting the Palm Springs Desert Museum

Modern Sculptures: Henry Moore at the Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com)

Modern Lighting: The Sputnik Starburst Chandelier at the Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com).
Modern Lighting: The Sputnik Starburst Chandelier at the Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com).

Modern Lighting: The Sputnik Starburst Chandelier at the Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com).

Modern Lighting: The Sputnik Starburst Chandelier at the Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com).

Modern Lighting: The Sputnik Starburst Chandelier at the Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com).

Modern Lighting: The Sputnik Starburst Chandelier at the Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com).

Modern Lighting: The Sputnik Starburst Chandelier at the Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com).

Modern Architecture in Palm Springs
Palm Springs Desert Museum
E. Stewart Williams, 1976

One of the most iconic institutional modernist buildings in Palm Springs: the Palm Spring Desert Museum. The Palm Springs Desert Museum was designed by one of Palm Springs greatest modern architects, E. Stewart Williams. E. Stewart Williams created this fantastic building in his unique modernistic architectural style. Construction was completed in 1976 and most of the building remains pretty much unchanged, albeit a few additions were later made (additions were all done by E. Stewart Williams). Visiting the museum is a fantastic time trip, not so much for the art it displays, but the for the architecture of E. Stewart Williams itself.

The museum has a very impressive modernist stairways over which a massive luminous starburst/sputnik chandelier is suspended.  This chandelier reminds us of the chandeliers which the Austrian firm J.&L. Lobmeyr designed for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. But this one is perhaps even more phenomenal. One of the guards told me he loved this chandelier but that the light bulb replacement job was just never ending, as you can see on our pictures (kinda like the painting of the Golden Gate Bridge, it just never ends). Unknown who designed this chandelier; the museum only lists its benefactor and named it the Marjorie Edris Chandelier. When we asked the museum, nobody had a clue. Anyone out there who knows the creator of this chandelier?

On a recent trip, our beloved Henri Matisse painting and Alexander Calder mobile had been removed; according to the receptionist they were placed in storage. Rather odd since these must be some of the best works they have. Why replace it with newer works from unknown artists that clearly lack any direction?  Still, they do have many nice works including Anish Kapoor's Corona.

Anish Kapoor, Corona from 2003.  Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com).

Anish Kapoor, Corona from 2003.  Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com).

And Andy Warhol's Pop Art is always worth to see:

Andy Warhol Brillo Box Dress 1964.  Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com).

If you love architecture, you will love the toilets of the Palm Springs Desert Museum. Yes, the toilets! We are sure nobody blogs about toilets but you better believe me: 'you can judge a place by the toilets it keeps'. They are in their unaltered original condition from 1976 when E. Stewart Williams designed them (thank you Palm Springs Desert Museum for leaving them untouched...unlike the removal of some ceiling lights in your courtyards...bring them back will you). The toilets could possibly be the the highlight of the art at the Museum, like a beautiful minimalist composition that would make Donald Judd blush, but in orange. E. Stewart Williams was a perfectionist and every details is a piece of art, including these fancy toilets.

Modernist Toilets designed by E. Stewart Williams in 1976 (remain in unaltered form).

Note to Palm Springs Desert Museum: don't you ever replace that carpet!

Toilets at the Palm Springs Desert Museum

The Holy Grail: The Palm Springs Desert Museum Toilets!

You will love the lower sculpture gardens as well, again for the architecture. The sculptures at the sculpture garden are a bit hit or miss as well (they have two sculpture gardens, each with their own separate entrance) with some impressive sculptures by Henry Moore, Max Bill and Yaacov Agam (fun to spin around)...and some newer badly curated ones that belong in a cheap art store. Still, it is worth to spend some time at the sculpture garden next to the mid century modern water ways and fountains E. Stewart Williams designed. Very relaxing atmosphere.

Yaacov Agam in the lower sculpture garden of the Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com)

Yaacov Agam in the lower sculpture garden of the Palm Springs Desert Museum (credit nova68.com)

Established in 1938, the Palm Springs Art Museum has become the center of the desert’s art community. What began as a museum about the desert has evolved into an oasis for the arts, focusing on international Modern and Contemporary painting and sculpture by artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Duane Hanson, John Chamberlin, Anselm Keifer, and Anthony Gormley. It includes works by historically significant west coast artists Sam Francis, Robert Arneson, Nathan Oliveira, Mark di Suvero, and Edward Ruscha, among others, as well as contemporary Native American artists. Additional areas of focus include Contemporary and Studio Art Glass by Dale Chihuly, Karen LaMonte, Howard Ben Tré, Lynda Benglis, and William Morris; Classic Western American Art by Thomas Moran, Charles Russell, Frederic Remington, Walter Ufer, and Agnes Pelton; Native American baskets; Mesoamerican artifacts; and Photography with special attention to natural, built, social, and leisure environments. The modern building, designed by renowned California architect E. Stewart Williams and newly renovated, is the focal point of the 150,000-square-foot complex. Architecture holdings include the Albert Frey Archive and Frey House II, the E. Stewart Williams Architecture Archive, and a drawings collection, including works by prominent architects Richard Neutra, Frank Gehry, and Daniel Libeskind among others.

Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1909 and died in Palm Springs in 2005, Williams received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1933 from Cornell University and his architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania the following year. From 1934 to 1938 Williams taught art and design at Bard College, Columbia University, followed by six months in Europe studying Modern architecture (where he met his future wife, Mari). After brief stints in the architectural offices of his father, Harry J. Williams, and the industrial designer Raymond Loewy, Williams spent three years in the U.S. Navy supervising ship construction. In 1946 Williams joined his father, Harry, and his brother, Roger, in establishing an architectural office in Palm Springs. For over sixty years the Williams family of architects have designed buildings in Palm Springs and neighboring communities. Inspired by the topography, materials and climate of the desert environment found at the base of Mt. San Jacinto, they have created spaces that address human values.

Born 100 years ago, E. Stewart Williams was a harbinger of hip. The architect was born and raised in the Midwest but became inexorably linked with Palm Springs, Calif., where his cool, modernist designs became the toast of mid-century style. Among his iconic visions are homes which pioneered open floor plans, a relationship with the outdoors and intimate socializing.

“They are party houses, built for entertaining,” said Michael Stern, curator of the Palm Springs Art Museum and a friend of Williams, who died in 2005 at age 95.

Stewart was only 38 in May, 1947, when ascendant crooner Frank Sinatra sauntered into his office. Fresh from filming On the Town, Sinatra wore a jaunty sailor’s cap. Between slurps from a ice cream cone, he asked the architect to build him a Georgian-style mansion—in time for a New Year’s Eve bash.

Williams presented Sinatra with two sets of drawings, one for the Georgian-style home and another for a long, low four-bedroom house in which every room has a view of a large swimming pool shaped like a piano.

Happily, the singer chose the modernist house, vacationing there first with his wife Nancy and three children, and later with his second wife, actress Ava Gardner. Sinatra and Gardner left behind a reminder of their tempestuous relationship, a crack in the bathroom sink made when Sinatra broke a bottle of whiskey on the porcelain during an argument.

Sinatra installed a two-story flagpole on the property, hoisting the Jolly Roger to signal the cocktail hour. As the sun began to set, a pergola over the patio cast shadows on the pool that mimicked piano keys.

“Stew always said the piano was never his intention, although it certainly looks like it,” Stern said.

More residential commissions followed as Palm Springs became a haven for the hip—and for contemporary architects, including Don Wexler, Albert Frey and John Porter Clark, Williams’ closest friend.

Perhaps his finest residential project is the gracious and graceful home he built in 1954 for Seattle hoteliers William and Marjorie Edris, recently designated a historic building by the Palm Springs City Council. The Edris house is lean and spare, in keeping with its stark desert surroundings.

“There is not a wasted movement in that house,” Stern said. “Everything flows like the perfect puzzle, each piece fitting together.” He designed his own home in 1956, in a northern enclave of Palm Springs where most of the neighbors were other modernist architects. Mostly wood and glass, the house was pure Williams, with a wide, V-shape roof that created shade for outdoor living and a garden that cascaded into the living room.

“It was a smaller house, beautifully situated, facing the mountains,” said Sidney Williams, assistant curator of the Palm Springs Art Museum and wife of the architect’s son, Erik. “Stew was incredibly sensitive to the outdoors.”

Williams’ clean, lean designs were naturalistic, integrating redwood and rock.

“He brought natural materials to modernism,” said Peter Moruzzi, an architectural historian and founder of the Palm Springs Modern Committee. “He built for the desert, with deep overhangs to shade the house from the sun.”

Wood might have not been the first choice for homes in the desert, where trees are scarce. Williams’ inspiration sprang from the austere cathedrals of Scandinavia, where he studied as a young architect.

“Those churches are all about wood—and he loved them,” Stern said.

The architect’s Scandinavian sensibilities are reflected in the Mountain Station of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Instead of the desert sand, the landscape is dusted with snow. The wood and stone of the exterior mirror the pines and boulders surrounding the site. In 1976, Williams designed the Palm Springs Art Museum, which the architect integrated the structure into a mountain, conjuring the image of the mouth of a pyramid.

“The rocks on the mountain have a beautiful patina they’ve acquired over the millennia,” Sidney Williams noted. “Inside, the galleries are incredibly friendly to people.”

By them, Palm Spring was evolving from a retreat into a full-fledged city. Building codes prohibited structures more than 35 feet in height. Williams’ creative solution was to place the museum’s outdoor sculpture gardens and theater below grade.

Twenty years later, Williams came out of retirement to draw plans for a third-story addition to the museum. He was 86.

“It was absolutely seamless,” Stern says, “like everything Stew designed.”

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