The Ace Hotel & Swim Club, Palm Springs, photo D.L. Thompson & Jon Johnson
With Palm Springs Modernism Week on the horizon, Imogen Adams shares some thoughts on her recent stay in the Capital of Mid-Century Cool.
Cooling Off at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs
This summer, I fulfilled a long running desire to go beyond the pages of my Julius Shulman coffee table books and visit Palm Springs. Speeding along the freeway through desert dust and strip mall monotony, the city emerged like an oasis. Driving down Palm Canyon Drive, it’s easy to appreciate how intrinsic modernism is to the city. Aside from forming a significant part of the architecture around you, it is vital to the very economy of the city. Indeed, the visitor’s center that hails your arrival from its location perched on the edge of town, is a former gas station designed by Albert Frey. Its soaring roofline is a direct assault to the all too typical lack of imagination evinced at the majority of tourism offices.
Due to its desert location, temperatures in Palm Springs soar in mid-summer to a staggering average high of over 40°C, and due to my inexperience of such temperatures, I decided to visit during August, the height of the heat wave, when all but the most hardy have vacated the city for cooler climes. With the sun beating down, I opted to spend a day poolside, reclining at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, a 173-room hotel housed in a former Westward Ho motel and Denny’s diner. In addition to providing a luxurious place to stave off sunstroke, I was drawn to it for its mid-century style, and this got me pondering the subject of nostalgia.
Poolside Dusk at the Ace Hotel , photo D.L. Thompson & Jon Johnson
‘Retroretailing’ at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs
I’ve visited countless 1950s diners, which, with their glittering red leatherette booths and overflowing milkshakes, proclaimed authenticity, but in reality supplied stage sets worthy of Disneyland. With such memories in mind, I headed into the lobby of the Ace Hotel with a slight sense of trepidation, worried at the prospect of another ‘Beach Boys B.B.Q. Chicken Sandwich’ or Elvis Presley medley. It soon became apparent that the hotel had chosen to incorporate their heritage in a more unusual way.
The 1950s is indelibly associated with America. Whilst Europe was recovering from the Second World War, America was a frenzy of postwar consumerism: housing tracts proliferated like rabbits, cars swirled around futuristic cloverleaf highways, and Hollywood broadcast these changes to the world with as much intensity as propaganda. Just look to Charles and Ray Eames’ film ‘Glimpses of the U.S.A.’ for example, produced to introduce the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow. Consisting of 2,200 images projected on to seven 20-by-30-foot screens, the film still has the power to dazzle, bombarding the viewer with the allure of 1950s American life.
Retailers tapped into the fact that the 1950s is considered a ‘Golden Age’, almost as soon as the decade ended. In 1972, Life magazine ran an article titled ‘The Nifty Fifties’ in which the tagline read, ‘Here they are again in practically instant revival’. The journalist analysed the ‘flight to the ‘50s as a search for a happier time, before drugs, Vietnam and assassination’. From the beginnings of the 1980s, ‘retroretailing’ has boomed as companies use the trappings of the decade as a selling point. Johnny Rockets is exemplary as the global leader of 1950s themed diners. It’s easy to scoff at with its dancing staff and lack of sophistication, yet with outposts in sixteen countries in addition to the US, it was sold for a staggering $126,000,000 in 2007.
According to retro theories, nostalgia increases during times of instability. When looking back on a past decade, we derive a sense of completion and security: we know what happened, it is quantified, understood and safe. Theorist Marshall McLuhan neatly refers to this as living life ‘in the rearview mirror.’
The 1950s is one of the most misappropriated decades in history, the circulated vision of it as a Chevrolet driving, poodle skirt-swirling decade is woefully blinkered. The nostalgic paradise we have bought into conveniently forgets the racism, the prejudice and the fear that was also prevalent. In the numerous companies, restaurants and hotels subscribing to the same business model as Johnny Rockets, the presentation of 1950s America is about as well rounded as watching TV sitcom Happy Days.
Clubhouse Exterior at the Ace Hotel, photo Spencer Lowell
The Ace Hotel and 1950s Palm Springs spirit
With this in mind, the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs is worthy of remark as a point of divergence. It plays with its architectural history and iconic location in an eclectic and humourous way. Rather than recreate historical scenes in the rooms, the colour scheme is stripped back to be almost bare, the space enlivened by a few well-picked vintage pieces like an Acapulco chair or an Eero Saarinen table.
The interiors of the Desert Modern buildings were masterminded by Los Angeles based design firm, Commune, who are renowned for their deft weaving of vintage 20th century design into resolutely contemporary spaces. The 1950s is a constant presence but one which remains in the background, surfacing occasionally but never dominating. Mesozoic stonewalls, so dominant in postwar design as a prehistoric counterpart to the futuristic expanses of glass and steel, form the backdrop throughout the converted diner, renamed King’s Highway, and the communal spaces.
There is kitsch abound, with bears perched on bars, taxidermy-stuffed cabinets, and various trinkets; plus there are regular bingo nights. The same kind of playfulness that conceived of tailfins and jagged roofs is apparent here today and in this way Ace Hotel has been faithful to the spirit of the time, if not the décor.
King’s Highway, Ace Hotel, photo Ace Hotel
Avoiding 1950s cliché at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs
Ace Hotel incorporates 1950s Americana in such a way that it draws attention to the very theatricality of it. Though it is inarguably afflicted by our decade’s fondness of irony, in this case, it’s welcome, drawing attention to the artificiality of our retro longings. Visiting the Ace leaves you feeling content to be living now. It avoids the clichés of re-enactments to be resolutely contemporary whilst historically aware and, in the process, serves as a model for the restoration of modernist buildings in a thoughtful, inspired, and very much present way.
Ace Hotel, King Lounge, photo Ace Hotel
For more information about reserving a room at the Ace Hotel, click here
For information on Palm Springs Modernism week, click here
For more on the revived interiors at the Ace Hotel, see interior design website Commune