Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Valley Life: Early innovator and unusual tram ride

Cabot Yerxa. Photo courtesy of Cabot's Pueblo Museum.
Entrepreneur, explorer, adventurer, soldier, writer, artist, architect, eco-pioneer, homesteader, raconteur, humanitarian, Father of Desert Hot Springs. Just some of the titles Cabot Yerxa qualified for during his 82 years.

He was born to a serially successful merchant and his wife - a Cabot from the less affluent side of that vaunted Boston family - at their trading post on a Lakota Sioux reservation in North Dakota in 1883. At the age of 6 he began working for his father and by 14 he was supervising 20 people in the family department store. When gold was discovered in the Klondike, he used his earnings to buy 50,000 cigars plus mining equipment which he sold to the miners. That was in addition to organizing a stage  line, living with an Inupiat family and compiling an Eskimo dictionary which he sold to the Smithsonian Institute in 1909 for 12 cents a word.

Eventually Cabot made his way to Europe where he studied art for a year at the Julian Academie in Paris. After the Spanish-American War, the Yerxas moved to Cuba where Cabot developed a mail order cigar business. He served in the Army in France during World War I.

Eagle Nest, Miracle Hill
In 1913, he homesteaded 160 acres of California desert, building a tiny house and walking 14 miles to the railroad at Grant twice a week for water. After a year of that, killing four or five rattlesnakes on each trip, he decided to seek closer water. With a pick axe and shovel he began digging, eventually discovering 132-degree mineral water, becoming the first man in modern times to find water there. Desert Hot Springs had a name. Undaunted, he selected a spot 600 feet away and began digging again. This time he discovered the water he was looking for. Cabot's homestead had a new name, "Miracle Hill." We know today that the Mission Creek branch of the San Andreas Fault runs between the two wells with the cold water aquifer on one side, the hot water aquifer on the other.

Cabot had also accumulated a wife and a son, who did not care for life in the hot, dry, lonely desert with a husband who was always away accompanied by a burro he seemed to care for more than either of them.

Cabot saw a great future for Desert Hot Springs with the health-giving hot mineral water attracting people internationally and the natural cool water spring providing the water to turn the area into a garden.

At the age of 58 he began building his castle out of what he could scavenge - bits of metal, wood, broken glass, adobe bricks, even broken tools.  The size of the rooms was limited by the length of the wood he could find, from railroad ties and telephone poles to twigs. Creativity solved many a challenge.

A work in progress until his death at 81, the result is a Hopi inspired four-story, 5,000-square-foot pueblo with 35 rooms, 150 windows, 65 doors, 18 openings to the outside and 30 different roof levels. Cabot built it on the side of a hill on an East-West axis for optimum air flow, insulating it from extremes of temperature. A series of ventilation shafts keep the interior cool, sending hot air up and out.

Cabot believed symmetry suppressed the human spirit and in the Venturi effect, that the smaller the path, the faster hot air leaves. I can't speak for the symmetry issue but the Venturi effect works. It was much cooler inside than the 110-degree temperature outside.

Still a problem.
In 1945, Cabot married the love of his life, Portia Graham, a professor of metaphysics whose beliefs mirrored many of his.

Between 1946 and '47 electricity came to the Pueblo. Now power is generated by solar panels on an adjacent hill.

Portia Graham and Cabot Yerxa. Photo courtesy of Cabot's Pueblo Museum.
When you visit Cabot's Old Indian Pueblo Museum, the name on its National Registry of Historic Places, I hope you get Lecia Augustine as your guide. Her knowledge is encyclopedic and her enthusiasm is infectious.

In the room given to Cabot's biography, "Cody," the mounted brown bear, was a gift from Nome for his museum. Cabot's favorite room was the kitchen but Portia truly loved the blue bathtub he bought and installed for her and the studio where she could paint and study in peace.

Over the years, Cabot hosted famous visitors; John Barrymore, Tennessee Williams and Clark Gable were  a few who spent time with him at the Pueblo.

Ah-Ah Ota, two-faced white man
One first floor room was built for his Native American friends. A life-time advocate of their usually trampled rights and ways, he purposely left the floor dirt. Native Americans believed one had to stand on bare earth to be in touch with Mother Earth. Now it holds a sculpture of Ah-ah Ota, the two-faced white man and a portrait Cabot painted of a local chief.

Portia left after Cabot's death and the Pueblo fell into disrepair, much of its contents looted. Just as bulldozers were about to level it, longtime friend Cole Eyaured stepped in, faced down the machines and bought it. Cabot Yerxa had been such a popular benefactor to Desert Hot Springs, much of what had been taken was returned.

A cool idea

Another Coachella Valley visionary is responsible for the Palm Springs Tramway. It began the moment in 1935 when electrical engineer Francis Crocker was on a hike, wiped his sweating brow and wished he could go "up there where it's nice and cool."

"There" was the snow capped peak of San Jacinto Mountain, at an altitude of 10,834 feet.

 O. Earl Coffman, area pioneer and co-manager of the Palm Springs Desert Inn,  thought it would be nice, too, and a plan was born for what would be called Crocker's Folly, a tramway up the steep slopes of Chino Canyon.

A governor who did not favor the enterprise and World War II put their dream on hold, but it was sparked again in 1945 when the governor agreed and established the San Jacinto Winter Park Authority, naming Coffman the first chairman and Crocker his secretary. By 1950, engineers were working to solve the challenges or road and tower construction. Private revenue bonds raised $8.5 million, but the Korean War caused another delay.

In the end, no public money was used for construction or operation and the 35-year revenue bonds were paid off in 1996. Helicopters were used to build four of the five towers in 26 months, flying 23,000 missions to haul men and materials for the tram's support and the 35,000 square-foot Mountain Station.

Francis Crocker (right) takes over narration on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which he was known to do until his death. Photo courtesy of The PalmlSprings Historical Society.
Completed in 1963, the tramway welcomed its first riders on September 12. Since 1963, over 20 million people have taken the 2.5-mile ride, going from an altitude of 2,643 feet to 8,516 feet, up where it was nice and cool.

After spending the morning at the Pueblo in the Valley at 110-degree temps, I was good and ready for some of that cool.  Tickets come with a time slot and you wait around until yours arrives. Then come the Disney-style accordion lines until it is your turn to enter the tram which is different from any other I have ever encountered.

The floor turns, making two revolutions during the journey. It is unsettling at first but it does allow riders to see the view from all sides. The trick is to let a steadying hand slide as the floor revolves.

View from the top.
It is blissfully cooler at the top and the Mountain Station includes a film, exhibits and buffet and full service restaurants.

The only problem I encountered with the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was transportation. No trouble getting an Uber to the lower level, but after 45 minutes of unsuccessfully trying to get one back, I will be eternally grateful to the young hiker who let me share her prearranged cab back to Palm Springs and Desert Springs.

The kindness of strangers never ceases to delight me.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Hollywood houses and vintage apparel popular viewing in Palm Springs

Palm Springs was the perfect getaway for the Hollywood set. Warm and sunny in the winter, isolated from prying eyes and gossips yet within the 100-mile two-hour rule imposed by Hollywood studios: contract actors could travel no more than 100 miles (two hours) away in case scenes had to be shot or re-shot.

In the '30s, Spanish revival bungalows were the architectural style of choice. After World War II that changed drastically.

Following the leads of Le Courbusier, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, area architects like Richard Neutra, E. Stewart Williams, Albert Frey, Donald Wexler, William Francis Cody and William Krisel shifted the focus to one level, on-slab getaway houses with clean lines and floor-to-ceiling glass windows open to the mild, sunny weather. Practical and inexpensive, these houses and buildings came to be known as Mid-Century Modern and the Palm Springs area has the world's largest concentration of them.

The Good Girls took a Mid Mod Design tour with Lyle Boatman, who set the period and pointed out prime examples of the style as well as homes and businesses built for the stars.

Racquet Club Estates, designed by Palmer and Kisel and built between 1957 and 1964, was to consist of 1,600 three bedroom one bath houses with exactly the same 1,200 square foot floor plan. The cost was $10,000 apiece; population of Palm Springs almost doubled. There are several, like this one, you can rent.

In 1961, Wexler designed houses with steel structures. Only six were built because the price of steel rose dramatically. Originally priced at $20,000, the two bedroom one bath homes like this one with the saw tooth roof, now sell for $1 million plus.

"The House of Tomorrow," designed by William Kisel, is known today as where Elvis and Priscilla Presley spent their honeymoon.

Edgar J. Kaufman recognized good architects. He not only hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design his "Falling Water" summer home, he selected Richard Neutra to design his winter escape, the "Desert House," in 1946. The roof top terrace is known as a "gloriette."

Chrysler would have you believe Delores and Bob Hope lived in this contemporary space ship built on a mountain, but it was only used for entertaining during the golf tournament the company sponsored.

The couple preferred the more modest 1971 mid-century modern on a golf course.

Frey and Chambers designed the striking Tramway Enco Gas Station, now Visitors Center. That jutting roof was not merely for decoration: it protected un-air-conditioned cars from the sun and temperatures that can reach into the 100s and from up to 70 mph winds that whip through the valley.

Want to live the lifestyle?

How about Frank Sinatra's former Twin Palms digs at 1148 Alejo Road? The Chairman of the Board originally wanted Georgian but was talked into a more desert-friendly style which he commissioned from E. Stewart Williams in 1947. Later he lent the four bedroom home to Joan Crawford for the film The Damned Don't Cry. It has had some updating, but our guide Lyle says there is still a crack in the master bedroom mirror where Ava Gardner threw a Champagne bottle at Sinatra. He also says that for a smashing party, there is room for 300 tables around the pool.
Cost: $2,500 a night.

Want more than a piano-shaped pool?

432 Hermosa, built for Dinah Shore in 1964 by Donald Wexler, offers 6 bedrooms, 7 1/2 baths plus a one bedroom guest house, a grand piano, pool and a tennis court on 1.3 acres with views of the San Jacinto Mountains. According to Lyle, back door neighbors Kirk and Ann Douglas's children liked playing tennis on a second court so much that in her will she deeded it to the Douglases. We hear Leonardo di Caprio is the current landlord.

Cost: $3,750 a night plus housekeeping fee.

A good source for all things mid century is

Bargains for the Body

Chanel at Gallery 24.

 A lot cheaper and easier to take home are the sometimes bargain priced vintage designer apparel and accessories in boutiques throughout the valley. Here are a few to get you started, but do NOT go on Wednesdays as most will be closed.

Dazzles, 1035 N. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs. Owner Mike Soules, a former Jacksonville, FL resident whose best neighborhood friend was David Hasselhoff, has amassed an amazing collection of vintage jewelry from Bakelite and snazzy sunglasses to Eisenberg Ice to Carmen Miranda worthy fruity assemblages.

Mitchells, 106S. Indian Canyon, Palm Springs, stylish clothing for men and women fine clothing. Michael Karp is known for his lush collection of Pucci, which never goes out of style in resort climes.

Gallery 24 Jewelry, 457 N. Palm Canyon Dr. #9, Palm Springs, is a gem with an irresistible motto: "Jewelry because great sex doesn't last forever."
Carlos has an inside track on Chanel beauties and the rich and famous turn to his designer jewelry when they don't want to take the real thing out of the bank. Hats, bibelots and bejeweled belts, too.

Iconic Atomic, 1103 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, is so '50s-'60s you expect to hear Desi telling Lucy she has some 'splainin' to do. From appliances and decor to accessories and women and men's wear (the largest supply for men, we hear), this is the place to find everyday mid-century artifacts.

Marga's Repeat Boutique, 73-900 El Paseo, Palm Desert, had some of the best prices on her pleasing array of women's clothes and accessories. Both Good Girls found jewelry here.

After all this looking around and shopping we were ready for some mid century culinary therapy so we followed the Rat Pack's lead and headed to Melvin's in the befabled Ingleside Hotel.

Ingleside Hotel

 You can't do justice to a scene of frequent infamous revels without an adult beverage so we began with martinis.

Found the fab shades at Dazzles.

We had lovely salads but looked with longing at the enormous chicken pot pie.

Eventually reality has to interrupt one's trip back in time.


Thursday, November 7, 2019

Nine moods, one valley

Coachella Valley stretches across 45 miles of southern California desert from the San Bernardino Mountains to the Salton Sea. Within its roughly 15 mile width are nine cities,125 golf courses, the largest concentration of mid-century modern architecture, almost 500,000 residents in April, 200,000 residents in July, an aquifer, many hot springs and 350 days of sunshine a year.

Interstate 10 and Hwy 111 connect it all, though it is hard to tell one city from another without a guide, a good tourist map or the time to exit and explore each individually.

 Working West to East, here are verbal snapshots to guide your trip there.

Palm Springs is best known for its heyday in the 1930s to '60s, when the elite of  Hollywood bought or built winter vacation homes here and began to invest in the area, financing everything from country clubs (Charlie Ferrell and Ralph Bellamy, the Racquet Club of Palm Springs) and hotels (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) to fancy trailer parks (Bing Crosby, Blue Skies in Rancho Mirage and (hardware stores (Alan Ladd). Now its International Film Festival and Modernism Week attract cognoscienti from around the world.
Small portion of the wind farm shot in passing.

Desert Hot Springs sits atop a plethora of hot and cold springs. Its spas attract a steady stream of health seekers and sybarites, who have grown the population from 20 in 1941 to 29,000 today. It is also the windiest area in the valley which explains the huge wind farm on its outskirts. At 262 feet tall, their blade spans the length of a football field, each windmill can power 2,000 homes.

Balloon Glo, Cathedal City
Cathedral "Cat" City is known for its art scene and diverse LGBT and Mexican population. Late night festivals are the thing.

Mission Hills Country Club, Rancho Mirage
Rancho Mirage has evolved from rough and rowdy stop to fortune during the Gold Rush to the playground of presidents. Richard Nixon favored Sunnylands estates, Barack Obama liked the Thunderbird Country Club, after which the Ford Thunderbird was named (Ford's chairman was a member at the time). Speaking of Fords, Gerald Ford lived his last decades here.

El Paseo Shopping District
Palm Desert first attracted the likes of Bing Crosby and Jimmy Stewart and now boasts the El Paseo Shopping District, Fashion Week El Paseo. Palm Desert Food & Wine Festival and The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. Also Hotel Paseo, where the Good Girls stayed. It exudes a hip, boutique vibe and is right in the middle of the shopping action. The restaurant is good, too.

Tennis stadium, site of Indian Wells Masters
Indian Wells was described by one cab driver as "where the really rich and special lived," citing late billionaire Walter Annenberg and President Dwight Eisenhower as among residents of the area's most private estates. Perhaps better known as host of the "fifth Grand Slam of Tennis," its residents spread about among six residential country clubs.

La Quinta Resort and Club
La Quinta, one of two cities in the US to be named after a resort (Beverly Hills is the other), now has 25 top golf courses including six run by PGA West.

World's largest Tamale Festival in in Indio.

Indio is both an agricultural hub and the city of festivals. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival may be tthe most famous but don't discount the Tamale Festival and the granddaddy, the Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival. Toss an active food scene and polo into the mix to bring in even more tourism.

Coachella sits atop fertile land and is known for its farming and Mexican culture and history (Remember Cesar Chavez?). Famous murals, the internationally known El Grito Fiesta Patrias and Dias de los Muertos festivities and Mexican cuisine, have attracted the city's first hotel.

You would be hard pressed to find a more diverse series of adjacent communities, with residents ranging from some of the richest people in the country to some of the poorest. All have a similar goal: to live the American dream. Whether it be luxuriating in the leisure and baubles wealth can provide, hiking and exploring California's golden hills and deserts, creating or raising families and a better future, Coachella Valley offers the opportunity.