Everyone knows that countless masterpieces of midcentury architecture are sprinkled liberally throughout Thunderbird Heights, Vista Las Palmas, Racquet Club Estates, and many other west valley neighborhoods. Some streets are so packed with Krisels, Wexlers, and Alexanders you almost wish for a generic stucco ranch house or double-wide trailer to break up the party.
To be sure, if you cast an even larger net, there are amazing midcentury gems all over Southern California: Neutra’s research house in Silver Lake, Pierre Koenig’s Stahl house in Hollywood, and John Lautner’s gravity-defying home in Beverly Crest are a few of the hundreds of architecturally significant homes across the Southland. Get lost in Highland Park or Long Beach or Pacific Palisades or Palos Verdes and you will no doubt come across a midcentury wonder that will cause you to hit your brakes faster than drivers merging from the 10 to the 405.
This little white gem in Salton City has probably seen countless commercial ventures come through its doors and die. It waits for the next big dream.
It’s easy to forget that the powerful postwar enthusiasm that brought about the construction of these homes and commercial buildings from the late ’40s to the mid-’60s had waned a decade later and countless numbers of these unique structures (Ships Coffee Shops!) went under the bulldozer’s treads. Even when midcentury and modernism were universally rediscovered in the late ’90s, an astonishing number of extraordinary buildings disappeared (and continue to do so). Yet this renewed enthusiasm has literally put dozens — if not hundreds — of great buildings on the map. Architectural tour maps to be precise. Just program the coordinates into your car’s GPS and go and gawk.
However, not all great modernist structures will make it onto maps (or even their footnotes). Just south of us, along the shores of the Salton Sea, the dreams and enthusiasm and inspiration that fueled postwar design and building are on naked display. Never was postwar optimism more misplaced than in the misbegotten communities of this once fabled playground.
After being abandoned for over 20 years, the restoration of the Albert Frey–designed North Shore Beach and Yacht Club (now the Salton Sea History Museum) signaled a determination by civilian, local, and federal authorities to save an important historical landmark from the environmental and economic apocalypse that engulfed nearly everything around it.
The police station in Calipatria. Note the winged overhang reminiscent of the work of Palm Springs architect Ric Harrison.
But the argument can also be made that the restoration of this famous building — once the hub for Salton Sea yachtsmen and entertainers from The Beach Boys to Jerry Lewis who came here to water ski and race their speed boats — only throws into more stark relief its lost, abandoned, and disintegrating neighbors. A scenic tour of Bombay Beach, Desert Shores, Salton City, Desert Beach, and North Shore reveals an astounding number of extraordinary structures. Most are in decay, but some are strangely preserved and even, occasionally, occupied. Many of these buildings are hidden by the detritus of other ruins, squeezed inexplicably between salt-encrusted, rotting trailers. Other structures stand sadly solitary, left bereft by the retreating sea, shrouded in toxic dust.
This Assemby of God church in Salton City is an ongoing venture, selling hope to true believers.
If you look closely, you might think that the porch canopy of the Desert Shores police station is too similar to the work of Ric Harrison, Donald Wexler’s onetime partner, to be a coincidence.
And what about all the decorative brick that looks exactly like the breeze-block that fronts nearly every Alexander-built home in North Palm Springs? Could the master architects, designers, and builders responsible for Palm Springs really have been lured to this wasteland to practice their art?
If Mr. Frey was tempted, why not all the others?
After all, 60 years ago, it wasn’t a wasteland. Sixty years ago, it was still a dream, a futuristic fantasy just beginning to unfold.
This mercado in North Shore may have been shuttered for days, months, or even years. Nonetheless, certain distinctive midcentury details survive.