Travel - Palm Springs Gets a Makeover. Again

December 5, 2004

Travel - Palm Springs Gets a Makeover. Again

Young fashionable people. Glamorous cocktail parties. Kidney-shaped swimming pools. In Palm Springs, Calif., the present is looking an awful lot like the past, with a new generation of Hollywood types returning to the desert playground of Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals. Only, this time around, it's a little less hedonism, a little more hideaway.

Just a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, sheltered by the San Jacinto Mountains and the famed warm, dry climate, Palm Springs has always had geography on its side. And a few years ago, a new appreciation for the space-age design of its midcentury architectural gems - flying-saucer roofs and heat-repellent steel and glass - accelerated the comeback of this in-and-out-and-then-in-again community.

In March of 2002, Trina Turk, whose popular clothing line's bold prints and hues were inspired by Palm Springs thrift shop finds, opened her first retail store in town. In the spring of 2003, Kelly Wearstler (interior designer of the Viceroy, Avalon and Maison 140 hotels in Los Angeles) completed a stylish facelift on the Viceroy Palm Springs, formerly the Estrella Inn, a former haunt of Carol Lombard and Clark Gable. And now, this fall, Jonathan Adler, the mod god of groovy mass-market design, has revamped the former Merv Griffin Givenchy Resort and Spa, rechristened the Parker Palm Springs, creating buzz that has already landed him in the pages of Vanity Fair and Travel & Leisure.

It's all combined to attract a design-savvy group that wants to drink cocktails and lounge by grand pools while discussing the historical importance of the structures that surround them. A war-torn copy of the $5 Palm Springs Modern Map is a popular accessory.

"It's a retro culture," said Howard Johns, author of "Palm Springs Confidential," a history of celebrities in Palm Springs. "It's a throwback to the Eisenhower feel-good 50's, but they're adapting it in a modern context," he said. "It's very sophisticated."

Kim Vo, a Los Angeles-based hair colorist, whose clients include Gwyneth Paltrow, Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone, started going to Palm Springs in the 1980's. "There's a fantasy that elevates Palm Springs above all the rest," he said, adding that he would never have spent $800,000 on a second home in, say, Rancho Mirage. "Where else can you have a bar bigger than your kitchen, and it's socially acceptable to be drinking at noon?"

Palm Springs' ultimate charm is that the new coexists with the old. Right next door to the sleekly sexy Citron Restaurant at the Viceroy Hotel - where the food, California modern with a French twist, is among the best in town - visitors can still find vestiges of the 60's glory years at Melvyn's, a softly lit supper club-style institution where the martinis flow freely.

The perfect vantage point from which to view Palm Springs' old-meets-new convergence, Melvyn's, at 200 West Ramon Road, (760) 325-2323, is hopping with sequined seniors who know their way around a dance floor, and awed hipsters cheering them on. "Young people are coming here to rub shoulders even in an ephemeral sense with the past," said Mr. Johns.

Before opening her successful shop, which remains the sole designer clothing store in town, Trina Turk had been coming to Palm Springs since the mid-'90s, when she and her husband, the photographer Jonathan Skow, bought a 1930's Streamline Moderne house called the Ship of the Desert (No. 40 on the Palm Springs Modern map). "Palm Springs is extremely social," Ms. Turk said, although she added that house tours tend to steal focus from the serious partying.

Some of the most iconic homes are available for short-term rental from Time & Place Homes, a company offering three-day minimum stays along with concierge service. Two of the most hotly requested are Twin Palms, the Frank Sinatra estate with a piano-shaped pool, and the Elrod/Lautner House, made famous in "Diamonds Are Forever," according to Stephen Zapantis, Time & Place Homes' director of concierge services for Palm Springs.

For some, the small boutique hotels simulate this same house-party atmosphere. The Albert Frey-designed Movie Colony, at 726 North Indian Canyon Drive, (760) 320-6340, and Modernist-themed Orbit In, 562 West Arenas Road, (760) 323-3585, seem from another era, with furniture by famous modern designers like Bertoia and Noguchi. An eclectic mix of guests converges on the central bar areas for the popular 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. cocktail hour, hosted by the hoteliers.

But it's poolside at the new Parker Palm Springs, 4200 East Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 770-5000, www.theparkerpalmsprings.com, a luxurious and whimsical resort on 13 acres, that is ground zero for this jet-set revival. The hotel has been deemed so cool that practically every neighborhood around it has renamed itself "Parker-adjacent." From the Moroccan tea served upon arrival to the concierge's candy-colored jacket to the zebra-patterned lobby rug, the hotel is, in the words of Jonathan Adler, "very un-beige." It's your crazy rich aunt's estate, with all the trimmings: large rooms, four pools, lush gardens, golf, tennis and a world-class spa.

Since the Parker opened Oct. 1, with Mr. Adler's "hippy chic" design edict evident throughout, the crowd has been a mix of what Charlie Robles, the general manager, calls "the movers and the shakers," or movie studio executives, fashionistas and, yes, celebrities. While the service isn't yet on track, the well-heeled that lounge on the lobby's textile-covered Edwardian sofas sipping sidecars don't seem to mind. At least they can have that drink, bathe with their bathroom's Herm�s soap and order a Monte Cristo sandwich at midnight - all amenities they previously would not have found at other hotels in town.

"We're trying to raise the bar and do something different," Mr. Robles said. "People argue that we're spending $26 million for 'those people' when 'those people' don't come to Palm Springs, and I say, 'You're right. Because there was nowhere for them to go.' "

A decade ago, the only really hip place for devotees like Annie Leibowitz, Bruce Weber and Mario Testino to stay was the Moorish- and Mediterranean-influenced Korakia Pensione. The Korakia's funky, salonlike environment and Eastern-influenced rooms still draws an artistic crowd - albeit one that doesn't seem to mind living without an on-site restaurant or spa.

Kelly Wearstler and her husband, Brad Korzen, filled that hole in the market with the Viceroy, 415 South Belardo, (760) 320-4117, www.viceroypalmsprings.com (from $209 a night), the first larger-scale boutique hotel that had all the services that places like the Korakia and the 1950's-era motels lacked. Ms. Wearstler's new take on the Hollywood Regency style immediately caught on with the fashionable gay crowd, design purists and the Los Angeles scene-makers.

In an effort to play catch-up to the customer that they created, and ostensibly to the new competition at the Parker, the Viceroy has plans for 17 new one- and two-bedroom villas, a lap pool, an indoor-outdoor yoga terrace and a fitness center to open next spring. The hotel recently added full valet and bellman service but still has only limited hours of room service.

Back at the Parker, they will be striving to live up to Palm Springs' glamorous, indulgent past. Jonathan Adler had always loved Palm Springs ("It's the kind of place I go to feel much cooler than I actually am") but wanted somewhere bigger and grander to stay.

Having never designed a hotel or a project of that scale before, Mr. Adler nonetheless leapt at the opportunity to rid the Merv Griffin Givenchy of its faux-Versailles kitsch and create the place that he longed for. The result is a chic fusion of eras and cultures, with a nod to the midcentury, of course. Mr. Adler said, "I feel this passionate desire to make Palm Springs what it should be."

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