Palm Springs leaders stand with models of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Mountain and Valley stations.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
SECOND IN A FOUR-PART SERIES CELEBRATING THE 85TH ANNIVERSARY OF PALM SPRINGS’ INCORPORATION.
Picture Palm Springs without buildings — or, for that matter, any infrastructure or planted landscaping. Might you think the desert and rugged mountain slopes too imposing to create a community where people would want to live? Fortunately, there were visionaries who became pioneers by undertaking the task. Such was John Guthrie McCallum, the first non-Native settler to buy land with that in mind.
John Guthrie McCallum
McCallum got the ball rolling, but Palm Springs’ development gained momentum through the efforts of three women in particular. Nellie Coffman and Pearl McManus (a daughter of McCallum) opened hotels — The Desert Inn and Oasis Hotel, respectively; McManus also established the Tennis Club and Palm Springs’ first apartments.
Ohioan Julia Carnell introduced Spanish-style structures on Palm Canyon Drive that included La Plaza and The Plaza Theatre.
Architect Harry Williams moved from Ohio after receiving Carnell’s La Plaza commission. E. Stewart Williams, one of his sons, made his own mark on Palm Springs with modern designs for multiple bank buildings, as well as Palm Springs Aerial Tramway’s Mountain Station, Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms house, and Palm Springs Art Museum.
Modernism gained a foothold in Palm Springs with several innovative architects using the landscape as their muse. Among them are William Cody (Del Marcos and L’Horizon hotels, Seven Lakes Country Club, St. Theresa’s Catholic Church), Albert Frey (Palm Springs City Hall, Loewy House, Palm Springs Aerial Tramway’s Valley Station, Tramway Gas Station), John Lautner (Arthur Elrod and Bob Hope houses), Richard Neutra (Kaufmann House), William Krisel (Twin Palms, Ocotillo Lodge, Racquet Club Estates, House of Tomorrow), and Donald Wexler (“Steel Houses,” Palm Springs International Airport terminal). Krisel and Wexler designed houses for tract developers George and Robert Alexander, including one for Dean Martin (Krisel) and Dinah Shore (Wexler).
Francis Crocker set his sights so figuratively and literally high that his idea for a tramway up the San Jacinto mountainside was dubbed by some as “Crocker’s Folly.” But the electrical engineer persisted for 25 years and construction began in 1960. Much of the credit for Palm Springs Aerial Tramway goes to Earl Coffman (a son of Nellie Coffman), a community leader.
Charles Farrell and Marilyn Monroe
PHOTO COURTESY © BILL ANDERSON COLLECTION/PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
Big names in entertainment, business, and politics gave the village celebrity cachet. A Hollywood-to-Palm Springs trek became so popular in the 1930s and ’40s that many film stars and producers established residences here. They included Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, Kirk Douglas, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Howard Hughes, Peter Lawford, Marilyn Monroe, William Powell, Donna Reed, Debbie Reynolds, Red Skelton, Elizabeth Taylor, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Jack Warner, and Daryl Zanuck.
Though gatherings of stars at Palm Springs’ swimming pools and bars diminished over the years, famous people continued buying desert homes. Hope, Sinatra, and Shore lent their names to annual golf tournaments that raised millions of dollars for charitable causes.
Further woven into the fabric of Palm Springs is a culture of philanthropy that defines a caring and welcoming environment. Today’s benefactors stand on the shoulders of people who laid the groundwork for assets that serve the community.
Interior designer Steve Chase, who died in 1994, bequeathed $1.5 million and 130-plus artworks to Palm Springs Art Museum. The Steve Chase Art Wing and Education Center honors his legacy. Chase was instrumental in Desert AIDS Project (now DAP Health), using his connections to generate support.
Over almost 30 years, the annual Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards has raised millions of dollars to sustain programs and services. DAP’s Greenburg/Peet Campus recognizes another of its late supporters: Earl Greenburg, a television and then marketing executive, died in 2008 after having made substantial contributions to DAP, Palm Springs International Film Festival, and other local organizations.
Jackie Lee Houston Plaza is named for a philanthropist whose diverse contributions made a major impact in the community. In 2009, the city dedicated the park on the west side of Palm Springs Convention Center in appreciation for the local TV station owner’s support of numerous nonprofits. It seemed every local resident knew her or at least recognized her face — to the extent that a public memorial service was held at the convention center to accommodate a crowd when she died in 2011.
Ric and Rozene Supple, who died in 2021 and 2022, respectively, used money they made as radio station owners to help launch the film festival and Palm Springs Air Museum. They founded Palm Springs Cultural Center and established an endowment for Palm Springs Unified School District that allowed for renovation and expansion of the high school auditorium.
Coachella Valley residents are invited to celebrate the city’s 85th anniversary April 8, from noon to 9 p.m., in the Downtown Park. For information, visit palmspringsca.gov.