The People Who Made Palm Springs

Over the years, citizens have shown strength by collectively pursuing interests and causes.

Janice Kleinshmidt History

Desert Riders built, improved, and maintained local trails.

Infrastructure, government, businesses, and residents give life to a city. But only when people come together to socialize and support causes do you find a community. A city without a community lacks soul. 

Organized groups of like-minded individuals in Palm Springs predate the city’s 1938 incorporation. The desert’s open space and blue skies lent the area a Western vibe conducive to horseback riding. Migratory paths, established by Cahuilla Indians long before settlers arrived, lured equestrians to the trail. When the Desert Riders Association formed in 1931, group rides began at daybreak and culminated in chuckwagon breakfasts. The sporting/social tradition even corralled celebrities looking to escape the glitz of Hollywood. Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Walt Disney were among those joining full-time residents in the saddle. Over the years, Desert Riders has improved, built, and maintained trails — some named after early members, including Carl Lykken, Art Smith, Boo Hoff, and Earl Coffman.

The McCallum Abode is the oldest building in Palm Springs. Now cared for by the Palm Springs Historical Society, it has been preserved in a new location as a museum.

Appropriately, the Palm Springs Historical Society reigns as one of the city’s longest-running coordinated efforts by citizens. Established in 1955, it archives and preserves documents, photographs, and ephemera and maintains a repository and research center at Welwood Murray Memorial Library, named for a city pioneer and designed by the city’s first resident architect, John Porter Clark. The society also protects the legacy of settlers John Guthrie McCallum and Cornelia Butler White by operating museums in their late-1800s abodes at the nearby Village Green Heritage Center.

Desert Art Center opened in 1950, when local artists joined forces to establish a gallery where they could exhibit and sell their work and offer classes to the community. In 1974, President Gerald Ford dedicated Palm Springs’ first school (built in 1927) as a permanent home for cultural arts. Desert Art Center operates two galleries on Palm Canyon Drive and awards scholarships to high school seniors and grants to middle school art programs. 

Interest in the performing arts expanded in 1968 with the establishment of the Palm Springs Opera Company. A year shy of its 50th anniversary, Palm Springs Friends of Philharmonic tipped the scales for music by bringing symphony orchestras to perform in the Palm Springs High School auditorium. In 1988, the organization moved its concerts to the newly constructed McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert.

The Palm Springs Library.

In 1970, the nonprofit Friends of the Palm Springs Library formed to support the idea of making reading and research sources available to everyone for free. The group helps fund library operations and programs through membership dues, holiday bazaars, and book sales .

The Desert Film Society launched in 2002 to promote the appreciation of independent cinema. On Saturday mornings, members attend non-mainstream movies, including foreign films, and engage in discussions about filmmaking at Camelot Theatres.

It was only a matter of time before citizens would join forces as proponents of the city’s early structures. In 1997, the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation (previously the Palm Springs Historic Site Foundation) began its mission to educate people about the city’s architecture and history. In addition to advocating for buildings of merit, the foundation publishes books and journals about local architects and architectural styles.

Later, the foundation shifted its focus to preserving the city’s Spanish and adobe structures. Individuals concerned about a planned demolition of architect Albert Frey’s 1955 fire station on Indian Canyon Drive formed the Palm Springs Modern Committee in 1999. The group’s advocacy prevailed, and the City Council designated the structure a Class 1 Historic Site. The group’s annual Preservation Awards formally recognize outstanding restoration projects.

If there’s one place residents need and want to engage with others, it’s close to home. In 2005, the Palm Springs City Council created the Office of Neighborhood Improvement and began “certifying” geographically based residential organizations. Today, Organized Neighborhoods of Palm Springs (ONE-PS) provides a forum for representatives from 50 recognized neighborhoods to bring community concerns to the city.

The foregoing groups, joined by others in an array of raisons d’être, contribute much to making Palm Springs a marvelous place to live and visit.

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