Saturday, June 4, 2011

Town & Country Center...The Saga Continues

Charles Tanner’s Desert Inn; Richard Neutra’s Maslon Residence; Wurdeman & Becket’s Bullock’s Department Store; A Quincy Jones & Paul R. Williams’ Town & Country Center; all, except one are buildings demolished in the name of efficiency and progress that were said to have outlived their useful purpose, deemed to be impractical and expensive to maintain; their loss continues to haunt the Valley.
Only the Town & Country Center still stands pending demolition for a huge retail development indistinguishable from similar developments elsewhere. This demolition is presented as absolutely essential to the future health, happiness and economic well-being of Palm Springs. A lengthy list of residents, architectural historians and other experts have urged the preservation of this historic mixed-use complex, but the Palm Springs City Council has turned them down, and is in the process of executing a Joint Development Agreement with the building’s owner that will ensure its demolition.
One might think that the Town & Country Center does not belong in this august company. Its current willfully dilapidated condition mutes its appearance. It is precisely like the Desert Inn and the others, in that it is a great work about to be destroyed before it can to be fully appreciated while the functional justification for its existence continues to be ignored. With its impossibly elegant horizontal lines, its surprisingly voluptuous curves, and its generous and unique open space, it embodies the spirit of the 1940s. Yet it faces the same fate as the Desert Inn and the others, lost long ago when they were considered out of fashion.
The Town & Country Center is not just an isolated building. It is part of a larger context of vacant sites on its block that provide a unique opportunity for a development that centers on its historic open courtyard. While the complex may need some upgrades, the extent of which is often exaggerated, its restoration and improvement is still a hard sell when it is owned by an obstinate developer hell-bent on its demolition, regardless of any cogent rationale. Some locals, frustrated by the owner’s contribution to downtown’s blight may look at the building and despair. But then, many had the same reaction when the Desert Inn was demolished; had it survived, today it would the downtown’s jewel, comparing favorably to the Beverly Hills Hotel, or Riverside’s Mission Inn, each of which serves as anchors of urban vitality.
In theory, the local system of listed buildings works to protect buildings over 50 years old that are of historic and architectural interest, as well as younger buildings of exceptional quality and under threat. The procedure is that Palm Springs Historic Site Preservation Board makes recommendations and the City Council accepts or rejects them. The false argument that revitalization of downtown somehow hinges of the demolition of this building and its replacement with a street lined with architecturally banal shops has prevailed with our decision-makers. In Palm Springs, the listing system often sidesteps difficult decisions – two recent designations - the front façade of the Palm Springs Airport and the upper story of the Oasis Commercial building - amply attest to that sad reality. One council member has declared his hostility to the protection of any building lacking owner support; he misses the point that it is the significant buildings whose owners object to designation are those most in need of protection. The loss of the Town and Country Center will continue the process of eradicating the town’s history, resulting in the disappearance of a vital period in Palm Springs’ architectural history. With time, Palm Springs’ staple of cultural tourism will also diminish with loss of important buildings like this one.
One has to also question the town’s commitment to sustainability considering the environmental loss of both the energy and the materials that went into the building’s original construction, which in the current proposal will be purchased again for the new buildings while the historic building’s remains will be sent to landfill.
Time is running out for this building. To urge the saving and restoration of this important structure risks offending some downtown business interests, as well as those of the building’s millionaire owner and his powerful friends at the Palm Springs Art Museum and the City Council. The merit of restoration could result in a thoughtful overall plan that helps to repair Palm Springs torn urban fabric, rather than throwing it all out, and with it a unique portion of the town’s heritage. Protection of historic properties is, and has always been, about asserting the intrinsic value of a place’s roots over immediate financial gain. As an object lesson, look no further than the decisions that resulted in the demolition of the Desert Inn and the construction of the Desert Fashion Plaza in the first place. At the risk of repeating a cliché, the City Council would be well-advised to heed the Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s words: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"