william f cody

Desert Prophet

Curators for a new Los Angeles exhibit, including his daughter, want the world to meet William F. Cody for a centennial look at his not-so-regional work.

Lisa Marie Hart Modernism

william f cody
William F. Cody and an unidentified colleague pore over a desert design.

Most architects working in a defined region are associated with certain kinds of structures: individual residences, commercial complexes, performing arts or recreational venues. Seldom does one design mind make as indelible an impression across so many forms of human activity as the fertile imagination of William F. Cody did within the Coachella Valley.

Within the space of a day, a visitor to the Palm Springs area could devise a tour solely of signature destinations designed by Cody.

You could awaken in the Del Marcos Hotel, his first major valley commission (1947) that won a vanguard award from the American Institute of Architecture’s Southern California chapter for its stone construction and angled entries. You could find inspiration at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church (1968), where the 10-foot marble altars were carved in Italy to Cody’s precise specifications, where the sculptured ceilings drape like tented fabric, and the clerestory windows welcome wide rays of strategic natural light. You might drop by the Palm Springs Public Library (1975), one of his last designs, which bears his affinity for angles. Then you could play a round of golf at Eldorado, Tamarisk, Seven Lakes, or Thunderbird, where Cody began working in 1950, although some of his structures have undergone renovation. You might conclude your day with a garden dinner, and bungalow accommodation featuring an outdoor shower at L’Horizon resort, which oilman Jack Wrather commissioned Cody to build in 1952 so he could entertain in suitable style.

Students of the architect’s work know that he was not simply a “desert designer” who stepped on the architectural treadmill of Modernism. He kept satellite offices in Phoenix, San Diego, and San Francisco, and his projects dot the California map in sometimes surprising form: What other mid-mod architect revved up the vision for a chainsaw factory in Lake Havasu City?

A brise-soleil and 
graceful arches define one boundary of the Palm Springs Spa Hotel (1959).

An exhibit through September 25 celebrates the man his youngest daughter, Cathy Cody, remembers following around at his office as a child, imagining the day she could be an architect, too. Fast Forward: The Architecture of William F. Cody is not a retrospective, says organizing curator Jo Lauria, but a focus survey. “We have 3,000 square feet of usable gallery space. We would need a bigger space and deeper pockets,” she says, to represent Cody’s broad body of work. The exhibit’s venue, the A+D Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles, points to his importance beyond the outline of the San Jacintos.

Although Cody designed a London apartment building and golf clubs in Mexico and Cuba, it’s the desert that wears his legacy like a Savile Row suit. He lived here, worked here, made a splash at parties, then conjured country clubs, fairway estates, and commercial commissions. Many of his projects were the result of the friendships he forged with people like power-tool entrepreneur/oil magnate Robert McCulloch and Wrather.

As E. Stewart Williams has said, “Bill Cody brought Fifth Avenue to the desert.” Thunderbird Country Club was Thunderbird Dude Ranch before William Cody gave the 1950s leisure set a more polished lifestyle. The Racquet Club and the Tennis Club were his brainchildren, too.

Cody’s first solo commission was the Del Marcos Hotel (1947). It garnered an architecture award as exemplary of new resort design. The rock walls invoke the mountain backdrop.

As architecture historian Emily Bills explains, Cody found his stride in the details. He was a famously happy man whose design elements reflected his outlook: toothbrush-skinny steel beams and paper-thin rooflines, conveyed, somehow, levity. Water features in transitional spaces cooled the air and threw a playful splashing sound throughout a home. Progressive technology and fabulous feats of engineering were his favorite play things.

Cody toiled long hours then worked overtime on the social scene, identifiable in a crowd by his boisterous laugh. He always made a positive impression. Beautiful stationery, striking typography, and innovative branding materials eloquently communicated his talent long before most architects began thinking outside of their literal boxes.
Dubbed a “modern sophisticate,” “desert maverick,” and “the outsider of Palm Springs Modernism,” Cody still inspires students and draws mod media attention to our fair city.

Above – both: The Cannon House at the exclusive Eldorado Country Club is a quintessential Cody design, offering a sense of both expanse and privacy. The use of natural materials brings the outdoors inside.

Last summer the A+D museum moved into an Arts District building with exposed bones and more architectural resonance. “The space is perfect for this show,” Lauria says. The steel gray exterior opens to a warm brick interior where skylights punctuate the truss ceiling with exposed framing. They summon light like Cody’s St. Theresa design. “The space makes a connection with Bill Cody as an experimenter.”

“Cody” is not a household name for most Angelenos, although he spent his formative years in L.A. working under designer and builder Cliff May. “[I]f you ask the man on the street, they won’t know who he is. They think of Wild Bill Cody,” Lauria laments, referring to the Wild West showman of Annie Oakley fame. “He is under-recognized, underrated, and underappreciated for his contributions, which are many.”

Cody was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1916. Asthma might have fortuitously shaped his destiny — and the desert urbanscape. When he was a boy, his parents moved west to ease his symptoms. “I think they were worried about losing him after losing his sister,” explains Cathy, one of three Cody children, explains. “If he hadn’t had asthma, they probably would have stayed in the Midwest. His father had a good business, and they sold it off.”

An artist, wallpaper designer, and well-established interior designer, Cody’s mother, Anna, was determined to see her eldest son become an architect. She taught him about structure by sketching buildings, and introduced him to plein air painting on trips around Los Angeles. She taught him about space planning, and they drew house plans together. They even carved and painted wood beams in one of their homes.

Top: Furnishings at the Del Marcos Hotel were classic midcentury design.

Above: Oil magnate/film producer Jack Wrather commissioned Cody to build L’Horizon Hotel (1952) as a desert retreat for his friends.

“He drew beautifully as a child,” Cathy Cody says, “from drawings and paintings to stage set renderings for the high school drama department at Beverly Hills High. He was a quick study and his mother encouraged him. It got to the point where they both admired each other’s work and were sharing ideas. It became their language.”

Bills attributes Cody’s use of colorful, highly textured interior spaces with multisensory appeal to his mother’s influence. He went to work for architects right out of high school. “He was really capable by the time he got his license. He had already done projects on his own out of his parents home,” Bills says. He graduated from the University of Southern California with an architecture degree during World War II, in 1942, and soon after enlisted in the Navy. Several months later, his asthma led to a medical discharge and he opened his first office in West L.A. Not long after, two elementary schools he designed won AIA awards. A gig as staff architect for The Desert Inn brought him to more asthma-friendly Palm Springs in 1946, where he set up shop for the duration of his career.

The Perlberg residence (1952) reflects Cody’s pared-down use of the rectangle; thin, extended roofs; and pools snuggled right up to living spaces.

Timing and collaboration forged the Architecture and Design Museum’s comprehensive show. Cathy Cody had been looking for a home for her father’s files and architectural drawings when Charles Hollis Jones, a friend and acrylic furniture designer, connected her to Lauria, an artist, writer, and educator. They decided the documents should join the rest of Cody’s archives at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo Kennedy Library Special Collections, where Cathy’s mother Winifred had donated the first batch in 1978 after his death. From the early 1960s Cody had enjoyed teaching design seminars there, and he often employed Cal Poly alumni.

“We began a friendship and I got very seduced by the project,” Lauria recalls. “I said to Cathy, ‘If we ever do a show, I want to oversee the artistic and creative legacy of William Cody.’” Three-plus years in the making, Fast Forward marks Cody’s centennial year. “The show reintroduces my father to the public and allows them to see what he was contributing,” Cathy says. “He was revered by other architects, but I don’t think his work was widely celebrated while he was alive.”

Strangers came to our home just to see it. I figured my friends had people coming to their houses, too. I knew our house was different, but i didn’t know how special it was.”

As the exhibit’s four curators attest, Cody left us more than a handful of functional, photogenic buildings. Cathy Cody and Lauria brought in Bills, who oversaw the 13 projects that are fully represented. Ancillary elements show the architect’s development stylistically and as a site planner. A smartly produced spiral-bound project book Cody would have handed to prospective clients joins colorful renderings of work since demolished (including the Huddle Springs Restaurant and his collaboration on the Spa Bathhouse and Hotel), remodeled (including Eldorado), or never built. One section beholds Cody the young artist. “The man had great hand skills,” says Lauria. “He could have been an artist. His skills and passion come through in his drawings. This was not a time of CAD programs and specialized software. Everything was done by hand.”

Bills chose projects that integrate Cody’s mastery of planning, daring experimentation, integration of color, materials, and nature that blend interior and exterior areas. “I’m blown away by his comprehensive approach to the modernist project,” she says. “He was an absolute master at organizing housing on a large site so that, without the use of fences or walls, every structure had access to views while maintaining privacy.”

Lauria admires Cody’s use of angles. She calls them “Cody triangles,” and cites Huddle Springs Restaurant and L’Horizon hotel as exemplary of how acute triangles frame the rooflines. “He balanced this tense kind of geometry with the natural environment .”

Window treatments at the
Palm Springs Spa were fun, a quality Cody embraced in both his personal and professional lives.

Professor Don Choi, Ph.D., in the Architecture Department at Cal Poly, became the final pillar of the curatorial team. Students from his recent architectural history seminar produced projects ranging from furniture to fonts, all inspired by Cody’s work. Part of the exhibit is devoted to their fabrications, the physical products of Cody as mentor.

“At first, using the Cody collections at Cal Poly’s Special Collections and Archives frustrated them,” Choi admits. Accustomed to accessing everything digitally with no delay, they had to make appointments and request materials. “Of course, once they were in the archives, there was a thrill in seeing the unique documents. Looking closely at the drawings, the students noted all kinds of intriguing features, from the level of detail to the groovy 1960s lettering.”

Some were fascinated by the ideal of the leisure lifestyle; they designed a rolling cocktail cart. Another group pored over the slender, elegant structure of Cody’s residential designs, then built a complementary table of redwood and steel. Others developed new fonts based on his hand lettering.

Choi says that although students are, or should be, familiar with architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, they don’t always realize there are exceptionally talented and creative architects closer to home. “One of the most important things my students learned is that Cody’s work is as universal as anyone’s in terms of its spatial, material, and aesthetic qualities.”

The hotel’s pool deck opens to the looming desert landscape.

Although Cody was recognized by his peers in the architecture world, at home he was still just dad. “I was 10 years old when I realized he was famous,” Cathy says. His investiture into the AIA’s College of Fellows took the family to the Park Sheraton in Washington, D.C., in 1965. “I saw people all dressed up for the awards. It was like a hoopla thing. I’d never been exposed to anything like that,” she recalls. Save for the stream of visitors who came to see her family’s home.

Steel-framed with a mere 4-inch-thick roof and walls of glass opening to atriums and the outdoors, the Codys’ Palm Springs residence made Cathy feel as if she lived outside. His inventive, curious mind prompted Cody to connect with engineers to implement his visionary bomb shelter, reflection ponds, and a retracting ceiling panel in the master bedroom that opened to the heavens.

“I understood that strangers came to our home just to see it, but I figured surely my friends had people coming to their houses, too,” Cathy says. “I knew our house was different, but I didn’t know how special it was.”

Cathy says her father was fun, and didn’t let his work preoccupy him. When people met him, they wanted to work with him. McCulloch hired him to design a long line of projects. Many of the projects were never built; the two friends just had fun designing them. Cathy recalls McCulloch as an inventor whose Thunderbird Country Club home had a bed that tilted up so the maid could clean and a bar where liquor was served on a conveyor belt and glasses were frosted. “He and my dad loved putting their heads together. … He would say, ‘Keep this kid around. We’ll keep him busy.’”

William Cody designed the erstwhile Huddle Springs Restaurant in the Googie style 
popular at the time — 1957. It was demolished in the 1990s, and today the site is vacant.

To escape the desert summers, the family purchased a summer home on Catalina Island in 1958. Winifred would pack up the girls, their dogs and cats. On weekends, Cody would drive to the coast, hop on an amphibious plane, and land on the beach like James Bond. “I would … [wait] on the pier for that 4:20 flight and greet him coming out of the plane,” Cathy says.
Relaxing at Avalon, Cody loved to read James Michener’s Hawaii, Nabokov’s The Eye, or Time-Life nature books. Cathy loved it when he read the funny papers aloud.

“Nothing could stop him,” Cathy says. “Whenever I think of Road Runner, I think of him. The [coyote] wasn’t going to catch him. He was too sharp.” She remembers parties where he invited the tony “Las Palmas group” as well as the woman who cleaned their house. “Everyone received an equal amount of respect. He really embraced the world and everybody in it.”

A debilitating stroke cut short Cody’s life and his calling. Ten years after it was built, St. Theresa’s held his memorial service.

Although Cathy followed in her father’s professional footsteps, ultimately it wasn’t the career she wished for as a kid. “[It] wasn’t at all like my dad’s office. He was gregarious. He worked people hard, but played hard. People smiled a lot there. In the 1990s, people were in cubicles doing CAD drawings and not looking up. I only enjoyed architecture because of him.”