Modernism Week Tour of Royal Hawaiian Estates – Palm Springs


We had a great time last year at Palm Springs Modernism Week, but I was even more compelled to come back this year when I found out there would be a tour of Royal Hawaiian Estates, a 1960s condominium community that merged mid-century modern architecture with a Polynesian theme. It’s mentioned in Sven Kirsten’s book Tiki Modern, but I really took notice of it after seeing Bosko’s painting at The Book of Tiki 10th anniversary art show.


Borrowing its name from the famous Honolulu hotel, Royal Hawaiian Estates was initially intended as a Jewish retirement community. It was designed by the architectural firm of Richard Harrison and Donald Wexler (the latter made a special guest appearance the day of the tour). The five-acre complex is made up of 12 buildings, divided into 40 units, surrounding two pools where Moai bask in the desert sunshine.


After checking in at the front, we were given a map with self-guided tour information that highlighted unique architectural elements like the “tiki apex,” the orange flourish at the end of the center beam, and the parallel lines that flank it. These were once all over the property, but as they deteriorated in the 1990s they were removed rather than replaced.


In 2010, the Royal Hawaiian Estates HOA used grants from the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation to commission a new tiki apex prototype from o2 Architecture, who designed one with low-maintenance sheet metal instead of wood. Several of these have already been put in place, and our tour fees raised enough funds to restore the remaining 30 that are missing.


Another signature are the “Flying 7s,” these triangular buttresses supporting the patio roofs. They’re said to have been inspired by the lateral supports on an outrigger canoe.


Several homeowners graciously opened their doors to us so we could also appreciate the interior designs, with their vaulted ceilings, clerestory windows, exposed beams and open layouts.


Some units have been remodeled over the years, but others like this one here still had many original 1960 features, like terrazo floors and this shoji screen divider between the kitchen and living room.


It was also interesting to see how each owner put their own personal stamp on their home, whether it was through collections of vintage barware, Heywood-Wakefield furniture or tiki mugs. (Not surprising as liking tiki often goes along with having an interest in things mid-century.)


One of the units was literally a time capsule. Even though new owners had recently purchased it, they had kept nearly all the original furnishings, including the lush shag carpet, vinyl couches and vintage artwork.


We were really blown away by all the different outrageously patterned wallpapers, which were still in surprisingly good condition. My favorite was the green bamboo in the guest bedroom — it’s a difficult thing to pull off, but I think they did.

Admiration for Royal Hawaiian Estates was apparent in many of the owners we talked to, particularly this other couple who had on their wall an enlarged version of the original marketing brochure from 1961 (as seen in Tiki Modern.)

I took many more photos than I could include here, so head over to Flickr if you’d like to see more. To really get in the mid-century mood, listen to the playlists on the Royal Hawaiian Estates web site, inspired by the music that used to be played at the pool area 24 hours a day.

Related Posts:
Modernism Week 2012 – Mid-Century Mermaids Lecture
Modernism Week 2012 – Architecture Bus Tour
Modernism Week 2012 – Vintage Airstream Trailers

Modernism Week – Palm Springs Architecture Bus Tour

IMG_6952One of the most popular events during Palm Springs Modernism Week seemed to be the architectural double-decker bus tours. They were scheduled twice a day throughout the week and some sold out fairly quickly since there were only about 50 spots on the top level. (We got our tickets about a month in advance.)

IMG_6904You could venture out to some of these places on your own by purchasing the map produced by the Palm Springs Modernism Committee (available online and at the visitors center for $5). However, you wouldn’t have the higher vantage point where you can peek into walled yards with impeccable pools and mod furniture.

IMG_6910JR Roberts (Boccardo Roberts Architecture and Design) was an invaluable skipper on our three hour tour. Our weather was anything but rough, though. It was 80-something degrees by the time we departed at 9 a.m.

IMG_6916One of our early stops was the iconic Kaufmann house from 1947, designed by Richard Neutra. The history of its restoration is fascinating, including the re-opening of a quarry in Utah to match the original stone. (Sidenote: A print of Slim Aarons’ photo of a 1970 pool party at the house hangs at Hula’s Modern Tiki in Phoenix.)

IMG_6915The Alexander House was dubbed “The House of Tomorrow” by Look magazine in 1962, but it’s more famously known as Elvis Presley’s “honeymoon hideaway.” (The restored estate is open for guided tours — and you could even be like The King and rent it out for a honeymoon.) William Krisel designed it as a series of circular spaces, and it was originally built to be the personal residence of Robert Alexander of the Alexander Construction Company.

IMG_6956The Alexander Construction Company built more than two thousand mid-century modern homes in the Coachella Valley with Krisel’s architectural firm Palmer & Krisel, who designed many more in California and Nevada. Krisel has even consulted on recent restorations, like this Twin Palms house. Apparently that groovy geometric garden was part of the original plans! (Check out the inside on Design Furnace’s blog.)

IMG_6963Our guide was very entertaining, relating celebrity gossip and greeting people at yard sales as we passed. He even showed off a wicked sense of humor when an ambulance drove by with its sirens blaring and he said something like: “Looks like another mid-century house will be on the market soon.”

I was very pleased that he pointed out these three tiki torches on Palm Canyon Drive, which are all that remains of the Palm Springs branch of Don the Beachcomber that opened in 1953. (Jeff Berry‘s book Sippin’ Safari has some great stories about it, like gold-plated chopstick cases for the celebs.) The Royal Hawaiian Estates and the large A-frame of the Caliente Tropics hotel could have been other tiki points of interest, but our route just barely bypassed them.

IMG_6965We’re house-hunting in Los Angeles now, and I’m afraid Palm Springs totally spoiled me with all of its amazing architecture. Even the fast food joints are located in some striking buildings. This one is a KFC!