PS Modernism Week: Sinatra’s Twin Palms Estate

My PS Modernism Week adventures continued today with a tour of Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms Estate. This house, built in 1947, was architect E. Stewart Williams’ first residential commission and established him as one of the early stars of Palm Springs modern architecture.

There are many stories told about this house, most of which (according to the docent giving today’s on-site lecture) probably aren’t true. Yes, one of the sinks in the master bath is cracked — but there is no way to verify whether the actual cause was a thrown champagne bottle during a lover’s spat with Ava Gardner. The pool is not really shaped just like a grand piano, and the shadows cast by the graceful portico do not resemble piano keys at all. It is true, however, that Sinatra requested a two-story Georgian-style mansion with columns. Williams responded by creating two sets of plans: for the requested mansion and for the daring-for-its-time desert modern home that Sinatra ultimately selected. He asked for the home to be done by Christmas, and depending on which reference you check, it was… or it wasn’t.

The home is situated on a completely flat street-to-street lot on the desert floor, near the “Movie Colony” neighborhood but more or less out in the middle of nowhere at the time it was built. It is about 4,000 square feet including the pool house. Although the house features the usual walls of glass that slide wide open, Williams minimized the industrial steel look, opting instead to use natural materials such as Douglas fir, redwood, and stacked fieldstone. The ceilings are high and angled, creating space for expansive clerestory windows. A highlight of the living room is the built-in state of the art (for its time) recording equipment. The house takes its name from the twin palm trees growing beside the pool.

Sinatra lived here for about ten years before moving to a large compound in nearby Rancho Mirage. Like so many mid-century houses here, Twin Palms then fell into disrepair as it passed through multiple owners and its history was forgotten. A local designer tracked it down in the late 1990s and then advised an investor who had the means to restore it to its original glory. The two worked from vintage photos taken by architectural photographer Julius Shulman, and were able to verify many details with Shulman himself.

While I admired and appreciated the house for its architectural grace and historical significance (both its famous owner and its lasting influence on the Palm Springs celebrity cultural scene), for me Twin Palms did not have the “wow” emotional impact of other homes that I have seen this week. There was nothing about this house that stopped me in my tracks and left me gaping wordlessly. But I’ll share a few of the photos that I took and let you judge for yourselves.

The original main entrance faces a major street, but the large courtyard creates a sense of distance and seclusion:

The portico runs from a quieter street at the original “back” of the house. This is now considered the main entrance and it is (to my eye at least) a more dramatic approach. But I do not see any piano keys here — do you?

The cabinet containing the audio equipment is a highlight of the living room:

The stacked fieldstone wall and concrete floors blur the threshold between inside and outside:

The Douglas fir paneled, angled ceiling accommodates large clerestory windows that cast diffused light through the living room:

This is a totally cool vintage light fixture!

The twin palms that gave the home its name:

No doubt about it, a celebrity lived here!

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Posted on February 23, 2012, in Architecture, Place and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hey,
    I see keys in the shadows, you’d have to be lower for slimmer looking keys… (ok sort of).

    • Yes, I understand what people think they see, or want to see. But the “piano-shaped” pool isn’t really shaped much like a piano, and the so-called keys lack the distinctive black/white groupings of piano keys, to say nothing of the fact that they are oriented the wrong way to the so-called piano.
      Not to be picky or anything! ;->

  2. Definitely ho-hum in comparison to some of the other places! Way past this time, but one of my hiking friends here toured with Sinatra for 7 years. She tells her stories of that time, but doesn’t talk about Sinatra.

  3. I think it’s supposed to be the lid of the case, and loosely, ya, I can see the general shape, fwiw. I think you would have to know what to look for, though…..

  4. It’s still quite impressive, but I agree with you…I thought the previous homes with the boulders were breathtaking. I’ve heard the lore of this house for a long time and always been curious, so I am glad to have seen it through your eyes. The view of the mountains looked pretty spectacular! Just love this tour! Debra

  5. Palm Springs in February is pretty hard not to love, and Modernism Week is certainly the highlight of it for me! I do hope you’ll get a chance to enjoy some of these tours next year.

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