Phantom Architecture is a series focusing on vanished buildings, both in Berlin and further afield. In this special Palm Springs edition, guest contributor Jesse Simon chronicles the vanished buildings of Palm Springs, the Southern California vacation/retirement enclave that, despite its wealth, must occasionally give a structure back to the surrounding desert.
AT FIRST I didn’t realise the hotel was abandoned. It caught my eye while I was driving down South Palm Canyon, just another example of desert modernism. I decided to stop for a few pictures. It was only after I got out of the car that I realised there were chains across the driveway and thick curtains covering the floor to ceiling windows of the main lobby. The front door was chained shut but open just a crack. I could reach in and pull the curtain over just far enough to see that everything inside had been left untouched. There were still chairs and sofas and coffee tables and a check-in desk. Two giant spiral staircases dominated the room. Dusty shafts of afternoon sunlight came in through two of the windows.
It was Christmas Day of 1997. There was nothing open in all of Palm Springs, but aimless driving was entertainment enough. When I stopped in front of the hotel, my intention had been to take a few pictures and continue on my way. The car was parked next to an outer wall maybe twelve feet high, made of flat, unevenly laid stone: a popular look in the sixties and seventies and a fairly easy climb. It was just too inviting.
On the other side was a raised sitting area with deck chairs and tables, and a stairway leading down to the central courtyard. There were still ash-trays set out on the tables. If it hadn’t been for the brown palm leaves lying everywhere, I would have been convinced the place had been abandoned only a few days earlier.
The courtyard was dominated by a swimming pool, which now had about a foot of brown water in the deepest part. Overlooking it was a hot tub with something in the centre that must have been a fountain at some point. Many years later, on a late night search through the internet, I found an image of a postcard from the hotel with a black and white picture of the hot tub taken when it was still in use. It was unmistakably the same.
All of the hotel rooms on the ground floor had sliding door access to the courtyard, but the sliding doors were locked and the plate glass was covered by the same thick curtain material that had obscured my views into the lobby. The curtains weren’t completely opaque. If you looked closely, you could just about see the beds and television set. It was impossible to say if the beds were still made.
A door to one of the wings of the hotel stood open, unlocked and unchained. Beyond it were corridors that would lead to rooms, to the lobby, to an entire hotel untouched since the day it was abandoned. I went up to the door and looked inside. It was an ordinary carpeted corridor, with some plaster from the ceiling that had dislodged over time. It was at this point I became aware of the terrifying noise of the afternoon breeze blowing through the palms, like a machine in a factory that makes it impossible to hear any other sound. They seemed to be saying ‘go no further.’
Almost a decade later, I was sitting in my office in London. Some colleague was talking about this new thing called Google Earth, and soon everyone had it on their computers. Most people, for some reason, grew obsessed with finding their own car in their driveway; but I made my way straight for the past. It wasn’t long before I was hovering over Palm Springs. I spent ages looking up and down South Palm Canyon unable to find the hotel, convinced I was looking in the wrong place, that I had misremembered the cross street, or that I would somehow not recognise it from above. The only explanation that didn’t occur to me was that the hotel was no longer there.
I started trying to find out what had become of the hotel. The internet made it easier up to a point; but then, every hotel in Palm Springs seemed to have the word ‘Canyon’ in its name. The search results were nearly impossible to sift through. I found one article on the website of local newspaper the Desert Sun from a few years earlier; it mentioned a resort that had been torn down, but in the end I determined they must be talking about somewhere else. Information about the hotel, the reasons for its abandonment and its eventual demolition may have existed in some local archive five thousand miles away, but it had not made it as far as the public memory of the internet.
At the time I suspected I would never see Palm Springs again – after all, what reason did I have to be in that part of the world – but circumstance brought me there only a year later, in the summer of 2007. I drove out from Los Angeles in a monstrous black pick-up truck, a forced upgrade from the car hire company. The streets were deserted. The intersection of South Palm Canyon and Murray Canyon Drive, where the hotel once stood, was now so nondescript that I drove straight past it the first time and had to backtrack only when I realised I’d gone too far. There was nothing to see, but I parked the car anyway. The land looked exactly like any other undeveloped part of the desert, just sand and rocks. Only the palm trees still stood.
They were, without a doubt, the same palm trees that had once stood in the pool area of the hotel. Whoever had removed the building had managed to leave them undisturbed. Yet the grand arches of the lobby, the wings of hotel rooms, the pool and the hot tub with its curious fountain, all of these had been erased completely from the material record. Two parts of the curb were still dropped, suggesting that once there had been a driveway. But among the sands, one could find not so much as a brick to confirm that a hotel had once stood on this spot. Only the noise of the breeze making its way through the palms still remained.
Jesse Simon is a writer, cartographer and opera critic based in Berlin. In addition to writing about urbanism, cocktails and classical music, he also designs hand-drawn maps of various cities at the Office for Metropolitan Geography (@metro_geography).
All photographs (except postcard photo) by the author.