Pioneers & Influencers

Meet the visionaries who shaped the history — and future — of Palm Springs

Sheila Grattan History 0 Comments

Palm Springs attracts important people like desert shade draws roadrunners on a scorching day. It’s always been that way.

In the summer of 1905, John Muir and his two daughters showed up for a stay at Welwood Murray’s Hotel Muir. The Scottish-born author, naturalist, and preservationist inspired millions to revere and protect wilderness areas. He founded the Sierra Club and was instrumental in preserving Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park, and many other areas. John Muir Trail, Muir Woods National Monument, Muir Beach, John Muir College, Camp Muir, and Muir Glacier were all named in his honor. More than a century later, sustainability and respect for the natural riches of Palm Springs remain top priorities for most every item on the city’s growth agenda.

This 75th anniversary tribute to important Palm Springs people has narrowed the focus from legitimately famous or infamous to visionary. Visionaries come for more than a party and a fête. They see a better world, and they dig in to make it happen. Each of the following 35 individuals had a singular vision that shaped the city, its culture, and its image. They are the ones whose names and actions have left — and are leaving — significant permanent markers in the city’s remarkable history.


Highly prized and noted for their clean geometric angles, butterfly rooflines, high ceilings, and clerestory windows, the city’s hundreds of “Alexanders” — tract homes built here in the 1960s — were an inspired collaboration between developer George Alexander and architect William Krisel. Krisel designed more than 30,000 modernist houses in Southern California, almost 2,000 of them in the Alexander Tract in Palm Springs. Many of the Alexanders remain in existence, and represent the largest midcentury modern “subdivision” in the country.


Singing cowboy and brilliant businessman Gene Autry made baseball a major visitor attraction at Sunrise Park’s Angel Stadium until he moved his California Angels spring training to Arizona. He also operated the popular Palm Springs Autry Hotel, now Parker Palm Springs. Autry and his wife, Jackie, who built the Autry National Center in Los Angeles after his death, made numerous contributions to the local hospitals and Palm Springs Medical Center.


Bogert rode into town in 1927 as a wrangler and left as a legend when he died in his 99th year. The famously plainspoken “Cowboy Mayor” was the city’s biggest booster for 72 years. He was the first photographer/publicist for El Mirador Hotel and first manager of Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce. Elected mayor to serve 1958-1966 and 1982-1988, he founded Thunderbird Country Club and Palm Springs Rodeo Association, and was intimately involved in almost every effort to bring international attention to the city. An accomplished horseman who rode with luminaries on trails throughout the United States and Latin America, he is remembered as one of the city’s most colorful characters. A statue of him on horseback stands in front of Palm Springs City Hall.


The entertainer and his third wife, Mary, had recently moved to the desert and opened an Italian restaurant when a restrictive city sign ordinance spurred him to run for mayor. He won easily and, during his 1988-1992 term, founded the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The event, coupled with Bono’s celebrity, brought a welcome patina of glamour back to the city and marked its revival as a tourism destination. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994, and became known as a champion of the Salton Sea. After he died in a ski accident in 1998, Mary was elected to fill the 45th District seat.


Philip L. Boyd was the first to serve as mayor when the city was incorporated in 1938. By the time his term ended in 1942, the city had formed the Palm Springs Fire Department, established the Welwood Murray Memorial Library, and opened its first high school, ending the students’ long daily round-trip to Banning. Boyd also wrote the bill making Palm Springs Aerial Tramway possible and was later appointed to the University of California Board of Regents.


A wealthy Dayton, Ohio, matron, Julia Carnell spent her winters in Palm Springs, soaking up the sun and developing some of the city’s most iconic buildings. First was the 1934 Spanish-style Carnell building on Palm Canyon Drive. Designed by architect Harry J. Williams, the structure is undergoing a facelift to restore a second-story façade that burned in 2012. Another of Carnell’s downtown projects, La Plaza, was one of the first open-air, mixed-use shopping plazas in the United States. Williams became a permanent resident, and his sons, architects E. Stewart and Roger, joined his practice. E. Stewart went on to design Palm Springs Art Museum, the Mountain Station atop Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, and many other local landmarks.


In 1905 — the same year John Muir first visited — Nellie Coffman moved to Palm Springs with her doctor husband and two sons, George and Earl. Four years later, they opened Dr. Harry Coffman’s Desert Inn Hotel and Sanatorium on the downtown site of the former Desert Fashion Plaza. But Nellie envisioned a first-class hotel. The Coffmans parted ways, with Harry opening a sanatorium in Thermal and Nellie embarking on the new Desert Inn, which gained media coverage around the world. She also was the first president of the Board of Trade, predecessor to the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce.


In 1935, when he was the local manager of the California Electric Power Company, Crocker envisioned a tram that would carry people from the desert floor 8,500 feet to the top of Mt. San Jacinto. The plan took decades to materialize and final construction was underwritten by the sale of $8.5 million in private revenue bonds. Construction was an engineering feat, often called “the eighth wonder of the world.” Since opening in 1963, Palm Springs Aerial Tramway has transported more than 12 million people into the San Jacinto Mountains overlooking the city.


A trumpet player from New Orleans, Lawrence Crossley came to Palm Springs with his wife, Martha, in the 1920s. One of the first black men to settle here, he also was one of the city’s most powerful businessmen. He managed Whitewater Mutual Water Company; built the first golf course, at El Mirador Hotel, where he was also an investor; and was one of the developers of the Movie Colony and Las Palmas communities. He owned trailer parks, a laundromat, restaurants, and real estate that included the Crossley Tract on the east side of today’s Tahquitz Creek Golf Resort.


Maria and Florencio Delgado represent one of the city’s greatest success stories. Encouraged to close their San Bernardino restaurant, a favorite of L.A. visitors to Palm Springs, and bring their popular Mexican menu to the desert, the Delgados opened the original Las Casuelas on North Palm Canyon Drive in 1958. They opened a second Palm Springs restaurant, the landmark Las Casuelas Terraza, on South Palm Canyon in the 1980s, and have expanded throughout the Coachella Valley.


Legend has it that Hollywood actor Charles Farrell founded the Racquet Club with fellow actor Ralph Bellamy when Marlene Dietrich complained the pair was monopolizing El Mirador Hotel’s only tennis court. Farrell was a well-known silent film star, remembered for his many movies with co-star Janet Gaynor, first in silents, then in talkies. He became known as “Mr. Palm Springs” during his seven-year term as mayor, from 1948 to 1953. In the 1950s, he revived his acting career as the star of TV’s My Little Margie.


Recognized as the founder of desert modernism, Swiss architect Albert Frey came to Palm Springs in 1934 after working for Le Corbusier in Paris. He worked for John Porter Clark for two years before heading to New York to work on the Museum of Modern Art, and returned to the desert in 1939, making it his home until he died in 1998. His projects include Palm Springs City Hall, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station, Raymond Loewy House, and the Tramway gas station (now Palm Springs Visitor Center). The house he built for himself in 1964 now belongs to Palm Springs Art Museum and is an attraction for modernism enthusiasts when it opens to the public during Modernism Week each February.


Ruth Hardy was a city councilwoman when she proposed the idea of lining Palm Canyon Drive with palm trees, which Neel’s Nursery installed in 1947. Ruth Hardy Park was named in honor of Hardy, who had earlier purchased the Birge estate, transforming it into the now-historic Ingleside Inn.


Homesteading with his family starting in 1913, Alvah Hicks was a talented carpenter who built spec homes in the area now known as Las Palmas. He later built seven Tuscan-inspired homes in the Little Tuscany neighborhood, as well as the historic residence that Mel Haber operates as Ingleside Inn and Melvyn’s Restaurant. He also organized the Palm Springs Water Company and founded Palm Springs Builders Supply. An accomplished horseman, Hicks was one of the founders of Desert Riders and the Polo Club.


The publisher of Palm Springs Life magazine for more than 50 years, Milt Jones has built an elegant lifestyle brand and image for the magazine, the city of Palm Springs, and the communities it covers throughout the Coachella Valley. Each month, Palm Springs Life and its companion, Desert Guide, celebrate the gracious lifestyle of the area and provide residents and visitors with insider recommendations for the best dining, shopping, arts and culture, outdoor adventures, spas, and much more. Jones also launched the Jones Agency, an advertising and public relations firm, to help propel the businesses of Greater Palm Springs.


Lykken was a member of Mexico City’s “American Colony” when the Mexican Revolution took an anti-American turn in 1913, and President Woodrow Wilson ordered all Americans out of the country. Lykken headed straight for Palm Springs, and soon opened the city’s first general store. In short order, he brought the first telephone, first telegraph, first grocery store, and first home with central heating to town. A devoted community leader, he helped found Palm Springs Rotary Club, the Polo Club, Desert Riders, the library board, and the first police and fire protection districts.


Marketing and direct advertising mogul Harold Matzner generously supports almost every major cultural and charity cause in Palm Springs. He is known foremost as the longtime chairman of Palm Springs International Film Festival and as board vice president of Palm Springs Art Museum. He has led the restoration of the historic Tennis Club and built and operates popular Spencer’s Restaurant.


McCallum was a senator living in San Francisco when doctors suggested his tubercular son would have a chance at health in the desert’s fresh air. He made the move with his wife, Emily, and their five children in 1884. The family camped out under the trees until an adobe home could be built — a home that now is part of the Village Green Heritage Center downtown. He went on to found Palm Valley Land and Water, and persuaded his friend Dr. Welwood Murray to open the Palm Springs Hotel. 


Known in later years as “Auntie Pearl” for her delight in formal entertaining, Pearl McManus was John McCallum’s daughter. After attending private school in Los Angeles, McManus returned to Palm Springs, married, and tried to carry on her father’s vision of a thriving, growing city. She built the Oasis Hotel, the Tennis Club, and the city’s first apartments, and donated the land for Palm Springs Womans Club. The Palm Springs Historical Society occupies her childhood home, the McCallum Adobe, at the Village Green Heritage Center.


Chairman of the Agua Caliente Tribal Council from 1984 to 2012, Richard Milanovich brought life-changing self-sufficiency, visibility, and goodwill to his tribe. He skillfully navigated local, state, and national politics to improve the lives of all tribal members and inspire the entire Indian Nation. Under his leadership, the tribe became an economic powerhouse, acquiring and renovating the Palm Springs Spa Hotel, introducing gaming to downtown Palm Springs at the Spa Casino, and building the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa and its concert theater, The Show. The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum and Tahquitz Canyon Visitor Center were born during his tenure. Individually and as a tribe, the Agua Caliente are the largest landowners in Palm Springs. Milanovich led the tribe in sharing its newfound wealth to support local public safety and community groups. He also founded the Mountain Conservancy and Indian Heritage Park.


Patricia, a UCLA graduate and botanist, and her husband, Chester, a silent film actor and landscaper, founded Moorten Botanical Gardens in 1938 on South Palm Canyon Drive. The one-acre gardens are packed with thousands of rare and specimen plants collected during their travels in California, Baja California, mainland Mexico, and Guatemala. Their son, Clark, now runs the gardens, a popular tourist attraction.


Following his friend John McCallum to Palm Springs in the 1880s, the Scottish-born Dr. Welwood Murray founded the Palm Springs Hotel in 1887 and became an effective desert promoter. He hired local Indian, Willie Marcus, to dress as an Arab and ride a camel to distribute hotel brochures to train passengers. After his death, his family donated land for the city’s first library and the Welwood Murray Cemetery.


The city’s first African-American and first openly gay mayor, Ron Oden helped open a new terminal at Palm Springs International Airport, and was instrumental in convincing the College of the Desert Board of Trustees to select a Palm Springs location for its West Valley Campus.


Chair of the first all-woman Agua Caliente Tribal Council, Vyola Ortner was also the only tribal member appointed to the Planning Commission and elected to Palm Springs City Council. She changed her tribe’s destiny by convincing Congress to approve 90-year Native American land leases, a legal change that made long-term development of their land feasible. Ortner wrote her tribe’s first constitution and bylaws, and spearheaded the first master plan for land use.


When Agua Caliente ceremonial leader Albert Patencio died in 1951, a link to the tribe’s language, unwritten traditions, and sacred songs was broken. Recognizing that the last person to hold this knowledge was gone, the tribe burned the ceremonial house and decided not to rebuild it. It signaled both a break with traditional life and a renewed interest in tribal history. In 1991, the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum opened at the Village Green Heritage Center with programs to preserve tribal artifacts, teach language to new generations, and educate the community.


In his second term as mayor, Steve Pougnet has poured passion and energy into the redevelopment of the Desert Fashion Plaza site in the heart of downtown, attracting younger visitors with new hotels such as Hard Rock, Saguaro, Ace, and Kempton, and incorporating sustainability into every city project.


A cattle rancher from Colorado, Prescott T. Stevens began acquiring property when he arrived in 1912. He purchased most of the land on the north end of town, including what is now Las Palmas. He formed the Whitewater Mutual Water Company and built the famous El Mirador Hotel, which he lost after the stock market crashed in 1929.


When Earl Strebe worked as a bellman for Nellie Coffman’s Desert Inn, he often volunteered to screen movies for the guests. The nearby Oasis Hotel management soon asked him to show films for their guests, and his reputation as a projectionist grew. Thanks in part to the presence of film industry leaders, and with the help of his wife, Frances, daughter of “Flying Grandmother” Zaddie Bunker, Strebe built the Village Theater, noted for first-run movies. Strebe was president of the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce and a Palm Springs City Councilmember.


Through their RR Broadcasting, Camelot Theatre, and Palm Springs Cultural Foundation, the Supples have been integral supporters of almost every important local charity and cultural event. When Palm Springs International Film Festival struggled in its early years, they were its financial angels. They give significant support to the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, Palm Springs International ShortFest, ABC Recovery Center, and the Palm Springs farmers market. Their $1.4 million gift to Desert Regional Medical Center built the George A. Richards Trauma Center, named in memory of Rozene’s father.


John Wessman has played a major role in 40 years of Palm Springs development. As the Desert Fashion Plaza property owner, Wessman is a key player in the revitalization of downtown Palm Springs. Among Wessman’s better-known projects are The Mercado, the most successful downtown retail center, and Las Palmas Medical Plaza. A supporter of many charitable events, Wessman has been on the board of the Palm Springs International Film Festival since its inception.


Dr. Florilla White and her sister, Cornelia, were working as volunteers in Mexico City’s American Colony in 1913 when the revolution forced them to flee to Palm Springs with another colonist, surveyor Carl Lykken. The sisters purchased Welwood Murray’s old Palm Springs Hotel along with considerable downtown property, and were highly respected village leaders. Cornelia eventually donated land and her early desert artifact collection to launch the Desert Museum (now Palm Springs Art Museum). Her home is a historical attraction at the Village Green Heritage Center.

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