The architects who built Palm Springs: William Cody
Palm Springs is one of the global epicentres of tasteful big ‘m’ modernism, a sprawling desert city where the dreams of architecture’s new generation came to glorious fruition, usually unrestricted by budgets and the tiresome burden of inclement weather. It was here in the desert that architects could explore the limits of glass and steel to their heart’s content; the resulting spindly paeans to open-plan living brought the arid desert landscape into the heart of the post-war house.
Palm Springs continues to bask in its modernist heritage, with an annual celebration of design, exhibitions and open houses and a strong ongoing tradition of innovation architecture. The pioneers who shaped the city included Albert Frey, Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, whose Kaufmann House continues to be the defining image of desert modernism. John Porter Clark, Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison and Palmer & Krisel were also prime movers, working hand in hand with property developers and hoteliers to transform Palm Springs into a destination for holidaymakers and weekenders, keen to escape the smog and stress of Los Angeles (the resort started life in the early 20th-century as a health retreat).
William Cody-designed gas station in Palm Springs. Photography: IK World trip
In addition to the restrained modern elegance of the post-war era, Palm Springs was also home to eclectic design voices, drawn by both the light and space and the eccentricities of the burgeoning city’s clientele. ‘Desert Modern’ was the result.
William F. Cody is one of the style’s prime exponents. Cody came to Palm Springs in 1945 in search of fame and architectural fortune. He had been lured by the formidable Nellie Coffman – ‘The Mother of Palm Springs’ – to extend the Desert Inn, the sanatorium she founded in 1909 and which evolved throughout the century. Cody was just 29, a recent graduate from the College of Architecture and Fine Arts at the University of Southern California (alumni of the era included Paul Revere Williams, Pierre Koenig and William Krisel).
The following year, Cody received his first stand-alone job, the Del Marcos Hotel. Commissioned by Samuel and Adele Marcus, the 17-room hotel was modest in scale but big on ambition, with a low-rise, linear approach to design. The suites were generously sized, their glazed doors opening up onto a terrace with loungers arranged around a pool; it was the quintessential Californian dream transformed into an accessible experience. The mix of wood, stone and glass, paired with a futuristic sheen created by canted walls, thrusting angles and elongated forms became his aesthetic calling card.
The Del Marcos, which was restored to its former glory in 2012, won awards for its audacious, populist take on modernity. It set Cody on the path to local fame, a process that accelerated after he moved to the city and designed his own residence. In common with his peers, he didn’t specialise, choosing to apply his design magic to any building typology that came his way. His next major project was a conversion, transforming the Thunderbird Ranch into a country club and golf course, complete with clubhouse and a number of private houses scattered around the 663 acre site. Cody had arrived.
William Cody’s Del Marcos Hotel. Photography: Paul Narvaez
Additional country club designs came his way, as did private houses, churches and the city’s library. Clients included Frank Sinatra, for whom he created a second Palm Springs home at Rancho Mirage, but it was in hospitality design that he excelled.
Cody’s houses were only slightly more austere, sprawling modern pavilions that were typically arranged over a single level, united by pergolas and patios, pools and breakout areas. He was a local, well connected and therefore in tune with the desert lifestyle, with its glamorous mix of golf, cocktails and pool parties. His residences shaped a world of perpetual lazy hedonism, making the most of the desert’s space, light and landscape.
Many of these houses survive, albeit remodelled for the modern era, as do his civic buildings. William F. Cody died in 1978, aged just 62. He never saw Palm Springs’ resurgence as a modernist mecca, but would have relished his place in the pantheon of names that defined the city. More than anything else, his eccentric approach showed that modern architecture needn’t be constricted by aesthetics. §
Read more in our series on the architects who built Palm Springs here.