Palm Springs is celebrating Modernism Week, February 12-22, and one of this year’s highlights is the new Architecture and Design Center, a satellite of the Art Museum. It occupies a former bank building designed by E. Stewart Williams in 1961 for Santa Fe Savings & Loan. The museum purchased the empty building on its fiftieth anniversary and it was impeccably restored and adapted by Marmol + Radziner, a firm that has specialized in reviving modern classics, especially in this desert city. Appropriately, the inaugural exhibition (which closes on February 22nd) was “An Eloquent Modernist: E. Stewart Williams, Architect.”
Along with Albert Frey (who arrived in 1934 and continued working into his nineties), Williams enjoyed a long and productive career and left an indelible mark on Palm Springs. Through his 50 years of practice, he stayed true to the clean-lined elegance and rational construction of the post-war decade. He loved to recall that, in 1946 after he had returned from military service to take over his father’s architectural office, Frank Sinatra strolled in though the open door and told his brother (who was minding the store) that he wanted to commission a Colonial-style house. “I don’t think Stewart does Colonial,” said the brother, “but you should talk to him.” Stewart laughed at the memory: “At that point I hadn’t built anything! Luckily, Sinatra was quite happy with the modern house I did for him.”
Alone or in partnership with others, Williams designed a succession of covetable houses, before developing his special skill in creating timeless schools, civic and commercial buildings, most of which have survived intact. The bank turned architectural showcase is a key example, and one can explore it close-up to discover how rewarding are its simple geometries. As a lasting record of the exhibition and the architect’s achievement, the museum has published an exemplary catalogue, with scholarly essays, plans and sketches, and a mix of new and vintage photography.