Explore Palm Springs: La Plaza and Harry J. Williams

The architect initially scratched the design for the shopping and entertainment center of downtown Palm Springs on the back of an envelope in the 1930s.

October 7, 2020
Story by Renee Brown
la plaza harry j williams
Sketches by architect H.J. Williams reveal the look and feel of La Plaza in downtown Palm Springs.

La Plaza Shopping Center, located at 115 S. Indian Canyon Drive in downtown Palm Springs, started with an idea that architect, Harry J. Williams jotted down on the back of an envelope.

He came to Palm Springs from Dayton, Ohio at the request of Julia Carnell, a woman whose instinct told her that Palm Springs was ready to grow. He was not a stranger to Palm Springs and had designed the Carnell Building (184-196 N. Palm Canyon Drive) for her in 1934.

In an article written by Williams and published in the Palm Springs Parade, he proclaimed that Palm Springs had the finest winter climate in the world. Williams stressed that “the climate was an antidote to tension and that buildings and all else were mere conveniences that help to facilitate the enjoyment of one of nature’s garden spots.”

Another attraction was the Cahuilla reservation lands which created a “natural barrier against modern over-expansion,” Williams said.

Carnell allocated $1 million to the project and Williams took his design from the back of the envelope, to scratch paper, to a beautiful rendering that included a retail center with shops, a 600-seat theatre and bungalows and penthouses, chauffeurs’ quarters as well as an underground garage for winter visitors who came to stay and play in the village.

The Plaza, as it was called, was designed during 1935 and built during 1936. Harry Williams’ sons, Roger and E. Stewart, followed him out from Dayton and father and sons worked on the project together. They wanted the Plaza to be open and without pretense.

Williams said the lines should be horizontal and inviting and not deflect from the million-year-old mountains that shade the complex from the afternoon sun.

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There is a multitude of ways to learn more about Palm Springs, which turned 82 in 2020. One of the more intriguing methods is by exploring the city’s history.

The Palm Springs Historical Society will share a story whose time and place corresponds with today.

For more information, visit pshistoricalsociety.org, or visit their location at 221 S. Palm Canyon Drive.