Swimming Pools in Greater Palm Springs, Captured by a Drone Photographer

Inspired by the season, we set out to document the eclectic pool designs that decorate our desert and learn a little history along the way.

June 26, 2023
Story by Ronald Ahrens

Nothing beats immersion in a body of water on a warm day. No matter if that body is circular, oval, square, rectangular, shaped like a piano, a tennis racket, or internal organs (heart, kidney). If it features a bubbler, a tanning bench, or a stone grotto with an integrated slide — all the better.

Would our contemporary Palm Springs be possible without pools? There would be no quick morning dip, no reason to go out on hot afternoons. We wouldn’t buy inflatable sea serpents, cabana-stripe towels, or resort wear. Floating LED lights bearing hotel logos would be useless. Without pools, there would be neither “Poolside Gossip” by Slim Aarons nor “A Bigger Splash” by David Hockney. The 2012 Palm Springs Art Museum exhibition Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography, 1945–1982 would have been inconceivable.

Our brave forebears did things right. Swimming for sport had become popular in the late 19th century with competition included in the 1896 Olympic Games. Modernism’s emphasis on health and efficiency led to construction of outdoor public pools a century ago. El Mirador Hotel’s opened on New Year’s Eve of 1927 where Desert Regional Medical Center stands today. Being of Olympic size, that pool for years hosted Amateur Athletic Union swim meets with hundreds of competitors, including Esther Williams, later the star of Hollywood “aqua musicals.” The Desert Inn staged diving exhibitions, typically for “a large and enthusiastic group of spectators,” a newspaper said.

After World War II, backyard pools proliferated. The piano-shaped marvel at Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate (1947) dared to approach the house itself. At Raymond Loewy’s place (1946–’47), the pool swirled under the plate glass and into the living room, though practicality came into question when burglars swam in while the Loewys were away.

The Desert Sun deemed pools “the very nucleus of Palm Springs life.” A 1959 report counted 1,827. With a population of 15,000 in the city at the time, it worked out to “a scant 8.21 swimmers apportioned for each and every splash arena.” Three years later, the count neared 2,800 pools to 16,500 townies (5.89 per plunge), supporting the claim for the world’s highest per capita swimming pool rate. Old-timers who were interviewed for the article couldn’t say who put in the first one — city record keeping on the subject only started in 1951 — though someone recalled a “big, raised pool” at Smoke Tree Ranch that apparently dated back to 1917.

Today, considering pool design and attendant social activities to be highly refined, we do without once-standard bathing-beauty contests (sexist), diving boards(dangerous), and bathing caps(pool filtration has improved). If lifeguard whistles (barbaric) go away, no one will complain on the road to pool perfection.

albert frey pools

Wading at the Edge

Infinity is easy to comprehend from this private residence overlooking Palm Springs. Thought to be the area’s first infinity pool, it and the cheery canopies are the work of Albert Frey. (Was the boulder in the hot tub a giveaway?) Besides matters of infinity, it’s a “beach access” pool, meaning you just wade right in. A waterfall built into the hillside adds a sense of move- ment, although the koi hardly notice. Best time to swim: summer nights with stars twinkling above and city lights below.

Joshua Tree

Contemporary Cowboy

Looking out across the Joshua Tree and Southern Railroad Museum, this newly built infinity pool replaced the former “cowboy tub,” bringing a splash of modernity to a dusty High Desert compound. A saltwater system is gentle on eyes already bugging out at scale-model steam trains and vast hills spilling out of the national park. A sturdy lounging net supports poolside stargazers. Chaises and a tanning shelf emphasize that you’re not at the John C. Argue Swim Stadium in Los Angeles anymore.

Racquet Club
palm springs pools

The One With the Fountain

Commissioned in 1960, Racquet Club Cottages West received historic district designation in 2013. Philip A. Shipley, landscape architect to the stars (Disney, Spielberg, Sinatra), conceptualized the community gardens. “It’s like a crazy little ecosystem in here,” says resident Don Van Dijk, pointing out a stream that meanders through the grove at the east end of the pool. He and others triumphed during a contentious renovation in 2021, ultimately preserving the pool’s original shape and submerged fountain.

Shadow Mountain Club

Figure Eight

Developer Clifford Henderson had a postwar fever dream. Designer Tommy Tomson realized it for him in 1947 at the Shadow Mountain Club (now Shadow Mountain Resort): a figure-eight pool extending 130 feet in length and gorging on 350,000 gallons of water. The dream included an aqua ballet, with girls kicking up their legs in unison. Tall slides and an Olympic diving platform circled them. Competitors raced and set regional and national records. It’s tamer today but still quite shapely.

Movie Colony
Natural Retreats

The Spanish Swimmer

La Chureya, a Spanish colonial revival estate in the Movie Colony neighborhood of Palm Springs, was commissioned in the late 1920s by San Francisco businessman George Newhall. He had retired and was living in Valencia, Spain, where he fell in love with the hand-painted ceramic tile that proliferates in Spanish design; thus, tile features prominently in the home. While the rectangular pool was installed later, at an unknown date, its tiled border fits right in and would surely please the original owner.

Tennis Pool

Love, All!

Canyon Country Club Estados began life as a tennis club, built in 1976–’77, complete with three racket- shaped pools. Measuring 75 feet long and 32 feet at the widest point, each pool holds 77,000 gallons. Are-do last year converted the pools to a saltwater formula and added tiles that look like racket strings. “It’s an eye- catcher,” says HOA president Michael Rossman. “It always gets people’s attention.”

palm springs
pools in palm springs

Long and Lean

“There’s something about stripping down to your swimsuit that is a great unifier,” writes Libby Page, author of The Lido. The art deco cabana concealed behind that oft-photographed pink door in Palm Springs accommodates 10, so stripping down here is a touch more private than, say, Venice Beach. Yet it offers more than the average backyard pool. Stretching 75 feet, the modular design features a shallow tanning shelf with Bisazza tiles from Italy, and a coupled spa.

Palm Springs Tennis Club
Palm Springs Tennis Club

The One the Cameras Loved

Originally circular in the 1940s, this haven flanked by natural rock at the Palm Springs Tennis Club became “the most photographed swimming pool in the world,” at least that’s what original owner Pearl McManus told The Desert Sun. The prime perspective atop the slope’s landing reveals Shangri-la amid a grove; it once contained a trout stream, where Tennis Club guests could catch their dinner. Renovations in recent years elongated the pool and added the spatulate entry. A scalloped hot tub was added nearby at an unknown date after the original pool.

High Desert

Pointing Toward the Future

Aglow with red-violet light, the pool at sunset is ethereality itself, seemingly verifying myths of the High Desert’s connection to the other side. Although its trapezoid form draws instant attention, architect Tom Pejic explains that he sited it along the bedroom wing because it’s meant to be a family pool, not a showpiece catching stares from the living room. “[It’s a] good lesson that you should pay attention to the site and not do the expected thing,” says Pejic, noting that the warped geometry lets all lines converge in the distance.

pools in the desert
high desert

A Dip in the Landscape

Co-owner Kenneth Lord commissioned this contemporary design for his property in Joshua Tree from his brother, James Lord, principal of Surfacedesign in San Francisco. Anchored in the rocky landscape, “the pool seems to be rising out of the rock in a naturalistic manner,” Kenneth says. Diagonal strips of hardscaping present strong graphical elements. A mirrored privacy wall, to be installed along the pool’s eastern edge, will “accentuate the connection between the earth, sky, and water.”

Frank Sinatra piano pool
Frank Sinatra piano pool

Where the Music Lingers

Tommy Tomson was busy in 1947, what with Shadow Mountain and then executing a fantasy for Frank Sinatra: a pool in the shape of a piano. (Some have said “amoeba.”) According to landscape historian Steven Keylon, “[Tomson] helped shape our image of Southern California as a relaxed, seductive, sun-soaked Eden.” The rest of America had to adjust. Today, the original flagstones and the ladder at the bottom-left side of the “keyboard” are gone, but the “sly come-hither” stairs remain.