Pioneering a Modernist Future for Palm Springs

By the early 1920’s Palm Springs was already becoming a resort town and the competition for building the finest hotel was fierce. Enter Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., the Oasis Hotel (1923) and Modernism to Palm Springs history and the key to its prosperous future. Pearl McCallum McManus was the daughter of Palm Springs first permanent resident, John G. McCallum. A former Indian Agent, McCallum found the dry desert climate conducive his son’s tuberculosis and settled on a ranch in Palm Springs. Pearl and her husband, Austin McCallum, also made Palm Springs home and established their real estate development company Pioneer Properties in town. (1)

Oasis Hotel Tower, Palm Springs, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr, 1923

Oasis Hotel Tower, Palm Springs, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr, 1923

Pearl’s competitive spirit led her in the direction of Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. (Lloyd Wright) in planning for her Oasis Hotel across the street from the already popular Desert Inn owned by Palm Springs’ other grand dame, Nellie Coffman. Pearl met Wright, Jr. while he was pursuing Helen Taggert, who would become his future wife. (2) Taggert was married to the actor Reginald Pole and owned a home in town. Hollywood had already discovered Palm Springs and its desert as location for filming, a private hideaway and a playful resort town.

By this time Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. was based in Los Angeles, had apprenticed under Irving Gill and was supervising architect of his father’s Los Angeles projects such as the Hollyhock House (1923) for socialite Aileen Barnsdall, the Ennis-Brown House and Pasadena’s La Miniatura (1923) for Alice Millard. These projects showcase father and son’s use of concrete block as an artistic and structural form. Wright, Jr. discovered a love of the medium of concrete from Gill and may have passed this enthusiasm and skill onto his father. (3)

Oasis Hotel Tower with E Stewart Williams

Oasis Hotel Tower with E Stewart Williams Oasis Office Building next door.

By choosing Lloyd Wright as her architect, Pearl made a strong choice to move away from the Spanish-Revival style of other hotels and embrace a modernist vision for her resort. The Oasis Hotel featured interior courtyards for private swimming and sunning, lush landscaping, and a 40ft tower that would become the landmark of the property. Modernist details abound in decorative concrete block, cast concrete tower, slatted sun-shades and the symbiotic relationship between landscape and architecture.

Wright also incorporated the McCallum adobe home of Pearl’s childhood into the property and its dining room was built around its cottonwood trees, which poked up through the ceiling. The tower, built like an upside-down concrete indian basket (4), was texturized on the inside to look like adobe. Its top room was named after Loretta Young, who said it was her favorite view in Palm Springs.

Features like the Oasis Hotel’s courtyard living, lush landscaping, decorative concrete work and the idea of bringing nature indoors would become part of the Palm Springs lifestyle and are just as important today.

Most of the hotel is either unrecognizable or gone but the tower is still visible on next to the Oasis Office Building on Palm Canyon Drive. The McCallum Adobe was moved to its current spot on the Village Green to make room for the Oasis Office Building (1953) by another famed architect, E. Stewart Williams. (5) This international style building continued the modernist tradition that Lloyd Wright began in Palm Springs.

If you love Palm Springs style with some history mixed in check out Palm Springs Holiday, by Peter Moruzzi – history, heyday and holiday!!

     ––Tracy Merrigan

Reference: 1., 2. Palm Springs Legends: Creation of a Desert Oasis, Greg Niemann, 3., 4. Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920, Kevin Starr, 5. Palm Springs Holiday, Peter Moruzzi

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