Monday, May 24, 2010

Palm Springs Ten Most Endangered Buildings

Every year the National Trust offers up it Ten Most Endangered Buildings List. Actually, a few years ago they increased it to eleven, but who’s counting? Anyway, they just announced this years list which is actually National Parks instead of buildings. Their rationale was that they are all endangered because of a lack of funding.

This got me thinking about endangered buildings and Palm Springs; I decided to put together my own list of the Ten Most Endangered Buildings in Palm Springs, which will be the subject of the next few posts....

Number 1 on my current list is the Welwood Murray Memorial Library. A proposed project to remodel the existing tiny Library building at 100 South Palm Canyon Drive will sadly result in the building being gutted; substantial amounts of the building’s extant historic fabric will be demolished to allow a new tech-centric use to be installed. Its hard to understand how a city so pressed for funding that it is already curtailing the operating hours at the Main Library Center, will find the funds for staffing the “new” Welwood Murray, once the demolition and reconstruction is complete.

Equally sad is the proposed conversion of the existing courtyard to a distinctly anti-homeless design. As mentioned in the following building history, it was in this courtyard that the Palm Springs Historic Society was formed. This project reeks of what was known in certain Oklahoma circles as “Killing Granny for the Tiara.” I hope the Library Board will rethink their insensitive treatment of this handsome and important Palm Springs Historic Site.


The following is a brief history of the Welwood Murray Memorial Library (WWML) based upon information contained in former head librarian Henry Weiss’ At Sunrise, The History of the Palm Springs Public Library, published by the Library in 1999. It should be required reading for members of the Library Board and any consultants involved in possible upgrades proposed to the building.

A parcel of land for the WWML measuring 80' x 80' was secured as a gift from Murray’s son and heir George Welwood Murray. A second 20' x 80' parcel was added to the east of the original Murray donation as a gift of Cornelia White. The combined 100' x 80' site then contained 8,000 sq ft. The gift from both Murray was conditioned on the building being named as a memorial to Murray’s father, and both donors required that the building being maintained in perpetuity as a library. Failure to do so would result in the property reverting to the owners or their heirs.

The Library is the oldest intact civic structure in Palm Springs. The tiny but distinctive 3,000 s.f. original building (only the third Palm Springs Class 1 Historic Site to be designated) was designed by architect, John Porter Clark, who was the first full-time Palm Springs resident who was a licensed architect. The handsome exterior shelters an interior that embodies the high-minded civic ideals of the emerging city just as it was formally incorporating in 1938. Clearly expressive of a vanished time, the dark and cool rooms, with their wooden baseboards, moldings and cabinetry, are serene expressions of their time, before air conditioning, when the building served as a recreational haven for the citizenry during the long hot summers.

The building opened on February 19, 1941. It featured a diagonal entrance that faces the intersection of South Palm Canyon Drive and East Tahquitz McCallum Way. The diagonal section has a taller roof than the connecting east and south wings That entrance, and a second entrance to the community room along Tahquitz Canyon Way, are trimmed with a green-hued integrally colored cast stone, as are the entrance steps and all of the window surrounds on the principal facades; the building rests on a plinth of this same material. Floor vents in the planing beds along Tahqitz are also trimmed in this material. The building is constructed of board-formed, poured-in-place concrete, painted white, and is surmounted by a red clay tile gabled roof. A small patio courtyard containing approximately 3,000 s.f. is located at the rear of the L-shaped building.

John Porter Clark continued to serve as the Library’s architect for many years and completed the only very minor alterations to the building in 1955 and 1958; several years later he designed the Francis Crocker Branch Library on Via Miraleste.

Founding of the Historical Society

The Library was essentially the center of culture in the growing village and, within a few years, “The community was also developing a strong interest in its history. Trustee Melba Bennett believed it was time for the citizens to be retrospective as well as forward thinking. She suggested creating a Palm Springs Historical Society that would chronicle and preserve the city’s unique heritage. Bennett presented her unique concept to the Library Board and very interested City Council, and with their support she drafted a letter, dated February 4, 1955, which was sent to twenty-one villages seeking their participation in the new Society. On February 17 that group met on the patio of the Murray Library and both the need and commitment for historic preservation became evident. By Council resolution, the Palm Springs Historical Society would be an “auxiliary” of the Board of Library Trustees.”

“In March of 1957, Architect John Porter Clark was commissioned to prepare plans for the expansion of the Welwood Murray to the south, for an additional reference space and shelving. [This “expansion” was actually the enclosure of a portion of the existing roofed porch area. An $11,000 estimate included the expansion, lighting and furnishings.] Later that year the expanded reference room opened on the south end of the Murray building. On April 16, 1958, the Board approved a number of improvements to the Welwood Murray memorial Library. These included improved general illumination, air conditioning of the new reference room, adding a motor to the dumb waiter which served as the book lift, partitioning the basement, heating the basement, adding cabinets, adding shelving in the children’s area, installing an accordion door on the south wind, new carpeting and tile throughout the facility.” These are the last verifiable changes to the building.

By 1973, in anticipation of the completion of the new main library, the Board approved a reduced evening schedule for the WWML and in 1975, the New Palm Springs Library Center (William F. Cody, FAIA) opened. Plans were developed “to renovate the WWML during its transition from its role as the community’s main library to a downtown branch. The WWML reference section would become a children’s area, and the focus of the collection would change to recognize the needs of the downtown residents and businesses, Regrettably (or not, depending upon your point of view) funds were not available to remodel the WWML, so some of the proposed improvements never occurred.

Founding of the Historic Site Preservation Board

As was the case with the Historic Society, the Historic Site Preservation Board (HSPB) was also founded with the assistance of the Library, which by this time was located in the new Library Center building. “In late 1978, the City Manager assigned the Librarian the task of establishing a Historic Site Preservation Ordinance for the city. Former Mayor Bill Foster had been dismayed at the demolition of the former Plaza Theater ticket office which so powerfully reflected the 1930s architectural style of Palm Springs. Foster asked the City Council to develop mechanisms to protect historic sites in the future. The Librarian staffed a committee to investigate local preservation opportunities. The committee worked with a group of Historical Society volunteers to survey the entire community for potential historic sites and, consequently, offered some level of protection against future unwarranted demolition.

After more than a year meetings, research, and surveying, the committee identified over 150 potential sites, and the Librarian drafted a Historic Site Preservation Ordinance which was adopted by the Council and continues to be in force, with modifications, at the time of this writing. By 1999, thirty-five local buildings [including the Welwood Murray Memorial Library] had been designated as official historic sites and, consequently, offered some level of protection against future unwarranted demolition.“

The issue of whether or not to close the WWML branch became controversial. “A local developer was considering converting it into retail space, and he approached the Board about a possible sale to him as a component of a larger project...In an effort to accurately gauge public sentiment regarding the Murray branch, the Board conducted a written and random telephone survey before it convened a public hearing on the issue on April 30, 1987. The survey results were compelling...94% expressed their wish that the building remain a library. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Board voted 3-0 to recommend that the WWML branch remain a public library. The Council accepted the Board’s recommendation, and the developer committed to completing his project excluding the 100' x 80' parcel that was the Welwood Murray Memorial Library site. However, he was successful in having non-buildable easements placed on the southern edge of the property to accommodate required fire exits for his development; trash storage and removal resulted in the eastern windows of the Library being filled in. In September of 1991, the location of the Welwood Murray library in the true center of downtown made it a natural venue for visitor’s information services. Tourist materials were gathered and seven-day service began, increasing WWML branch customers for the first time sine 1978.”

“The most poignant event of 1992 was the Library Board’s decision to close the WWML branch after more than a half-century of continuous operation. On June 30, 1992, the staff permanently closed the Murray building as a public library. It opened as a private library in September of that year.” In 2009 it was again closed, in anticipation of a proposed remodel. Given the Library’s ongoing involvement with preservation of the city’s history and architecture, it is difficult to understand the current development proposal that would severely diminish the WMML’s important historic architecture.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

La Plaza Theater Blade Sign

When Peabody's was putting up their blade sign, someone asked if the blade sign at The Plaza Theater was built as part of the original 1936 design. Turns out it was originally built for the Palm Springs Theater in the early 1930s and moved to the Plaza in the 1940s. Still, it has been there for many years, and has achieved historical significance in its own right. That, in itself is insufficient justification to keep adding blade signs to La Plaza Shopping Center....

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ruth Hardy Park Modernism

A few weeks ago, my friend Tom and I were walking our dogs around the Movie Colony neighborhood and we wandered into Ruth Hardy Park. In the middle we discovered this really nice little modernist rest room facility that I had never seen before. It was clearly designed by one of our local Mid-century Masters, but I have no idea who. Anybody out there have any info on this one?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Max Palevsky Residence

According to the LA Times, "computer technology pioneer and venture capitalist Max Palevsky, perhaps best-known for funding then-startup chipmaker Intel Corp., has died. He was 85. Palevsky died of heart failure Wednesday at his Beverly Hills home. The early high-tech pioneer became famous for having transformed mainframe computer builder Scientific Data Systems into an industry powerhouse that he sold to Xerox for $1 billion in 1969. The billionaire financier and philanthropist then became a founder and director of chipmaker Intel. He left the corporate world in the 1970s. Over the years, Palevsky helped finance then-fledgling Rolling Stone magazine, bankrolled movies, became a political activist and built a world-renowned art collection that transformed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art."

His interest in art extended beyond paintings and sculpture to include architecture. He commissioned Craig Ellwood (1922-1992), often referred to as “California’s Mies van der Rohe,” to design Scientific Data Corporation’s headquarters. Ellwood, who was born Jon Nelson Burke, was the definitive Hollywood-style building designer who was largely responsible for the modern image of architecture as a glamour profession. In addition to Palevsky’s corporate projects, in 1969-69 Ellwood also designed Palevsky’s Palm Springs home on West Cielo Drive on what was then described as “the best site in Palm Springs.” The house was based on desert houses in Casablanca that were white-walled compounds with structures set within rectangular walls, and it is beautifully integrated into its boulder-strewn site. Its minimalist aesthetic makes it one of the town’s most enigmatic structures. I had always wanted to nominate the property as a Class 1 Historic Site, and was told that Palevsky was supportive of the potential designation. With his support, the nomination would have sailed through the process. I hope Max rests easy; his was a great gift to the architectural history of Palm Springs. I do wonder what will happen to the house now that Max is gone...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Fueling Stations

Palm Springs has been home to a number of architecturally significant Fueling can't really call them service stations anymore since there is no service. But I digress....

The best known of our architecturally significant stations is the original Esso Station designed by Albert Frey (first image) that has now been designated a Class i Historic Site and currently serves as the Visitor center. Others tend to favor Bill Cody's Union 76 Station (2nd image) for its elegant "floating" roof canopy. Sadly, Don Wexlers' elegant structural expressionist Station on Palm Canyon has already been demolished. Lately, I've fallen under the spell of the last Station in the set...Located on Indian Canyon, it has an anthropomorphic quality that reminds me of a friendly puppy.

Casa Palmeras

This is a fascinating photograph of the Casa Palmeras because it bears the information “Palmair Apartments, 1930, Paul R. Williams.” Information on this building is a bit sketchy, but the attribution to Williams is a definite possibility. Although much information on his projects was lost during the LA riots, he was known to be working in Palm Springs as early as 1927 when he created the W. P. Anderson Residence, and he was definitely skilled in the Spanish Colonial style that was extremely popular at the time. When built, the building was on the outskirts of town, as evidenced by that lack of sidewalks or paved streets. The building is faintly visible through the window in a 1934 photo of the Kocher-Samson Building. The Pacific Building (a Class 1 Historic site) adjoins both properties and it was built in 1936. All three of these buildings are located in the Old Las Palmas Commercial Historic District. In 2007 there was a $2.82 Million Dollar loan on the assembled three properties with a ten-year term. Today they are on the market for $4,925,000.