Featured Architect: E. Stewart Williams

Emerson Stewart Williams (1909-2005) was once quoted as saying, “While Albert Frey and Richard Neutra brought Modernism into the desert, I brought the desert into Modernism.” Indeed: structural walls jutted outward into the landscape, pointing the eye towards incredible mountain views, while massive boulders of the native landscape were left intact, seeming to tumble through vast expanses of glass into interior living spaces.

Williams had an artist’s vision, and a romantic’s passion, but he also had a pragmatist’s sensibility: his bank buildings always looked like banks; his professional buildings contained additional rental units for income; and his houses – as he himself was known to point out – were “homes”, warm and livable, countering contemporary criticisms of modernism as being unsuitable for human living. He accomplished all of this beautifully, with simple but intelligent use of local landscaping, and proletariat building materials. And he always worked with a keen eye for the best use of the site.

Williams’ esteemed career spanned 50 years; he completed his last project at the age of 86. He was essentially born into the business: at the time of his birth, Williams father was partner in a highly-successful architectural firm, Schenck and Williams, of Dayton, Ohio. He received a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Cornell University in 1932; he earned a Master’s in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1933. In doing so, he was awarded the Theophilus Parsons Candler fellowship. He took a position at Bard College, with Columbia University, teaching art and design, and while there, entered one of his original works into the American Watercolor Society Exhibition. The original painting won the Zabriske Prize, the top purchase award.

During this period, Williams father and mother had relocated to Palm Springs in semi-retirement. However, in 1936 Harry Williams had accepted the commission to design the block-wide La Plaza shopping center – between Palm Canyon and Indian Canyon – completed in 1937, in the popular Spanish Revival style, which stands virtually unchanged and intact, and in active use to this day.

In 1940, after an extensive tour of Europe, and a brief period of working in his father’s firm, Williams went to work with the prestigious and sought-after industrial designer, Raymond Loewy. After enlisting in the Navy in 1942 (and designing the dry docks for the Mare Island Naval Yard, in San Francisco) and serving through World War II, Williams joined his father – and his brother, H. Roger Williams – in establishing the firm of Williams, Williams, and Williams (1946-1957; later Williams and Williams, 1957-1976; and finally Williams, Clark, and Williams, 1976-1990).

The timing was certainly right. The company of prestigious architects – working in the immediate area, and working in the modernist vernacular – was spectacular: Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, and William Cody all completed striking and influential, and now landmark, projects within the first year of Williams launch in Palm Springs.

Throughout his career, Williams and his firm collaborated with other well-regarded architects and designers, particularly on larger public buildings. He was important in the design and construction of Palm Springs City Hall in 1956, working jointly with Clark, Frey, and Chambers, while later additions in 1964, 1972, and 1984 were entirely the work of Williams, Williams, and Williams, or Williams, Clark, and Williams.

But among Williams favorite works - and perhaps his greatest local legacy - was the Palm Springs Art Museum (originally the Palm Springs Desert Museum), first completed in 1976, which was remodeled and expanded - both outward and upward - in 1996. Williams came out of retirement to design the project.

E. Stuart Williams was in the vanguard of a revolutionary design movement that at once defined – and largely continues to define – Palm Springs, to the rest of the world. His legacy upon the city (and in then-unincorporated surrounding areas, such as Rancho Mirage) is enormous, and continues to be influential. Some of his beautiful projects (such as the Bisonte Lodge, and the Potter Clinic) have been demolished, victims of declining revenues and years of owner neglect; others (such as the Temple Isaiah, and the Pepper Tree Inn) have been obscured beyond recognition over time.

But many striking examples of William’s Palm Springs legacy remain. A brief list, separated by residential and commercial, or public, buildings, and with address and cross street, is shown below:

Residential Homes:

1. Mari and E. Stuart Williams House, 1956. 1314 Culver Place (between Colony Way, and Verdugo Road), Palm Springs

Roderick Kenaston House, 1957. 39-760 Desert Sun Drive (Kaye Ballard Lane), Rancho Mirage

2. Erik and Sidney Williams House, 1986. 800 W. Stevens Road (Camino Norte), Palm Springs

3. Leon Koerner House, 1955. 1275 S. Calle de Maria (E. Ocotillo Avenue), Palm Springs

4. Marjorie and William Edris House, 1954. 1030 W. Cielo Drive (Panorama Road), Palm Springs

5. Frank Sinatra House (Twin Palms), 1947. 1148 E. Alejo Road (between N. Arquilla Road, and N. Hermosa Drive), Palm Springs

Commercial and Public Buildings:

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Mountaintop Station, 1963. Palm Springs

6. Palm Springs Art (Desert) Museum, 1976, expanded and remodeled in 1996. 101 Museum Drive (between N. Belardo Road, and W. Tahquitz Canyon Way), Palm Springs

7. Oasis Office Building, 1952. 222 S. Palm Canyon Drive (Tahquitz Canyon Way), Palm Springs

8. Coachella Valley Savings and Loan #1, 1956. 383 S. Palm Canyon Drive (between W. Baristo Road, and W. Ramon Road), Palm Springs

9. Coachella Valley Savings and Loan #2, 1961. 440 S. Palm Canyon Drive (W. Ramon Road), Palm Springs

10. Santa Fe Federal Savings, now Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture + Design Center, 1960. 300 S. Palm Canyon Drive (W. Baristo Road), Palm Springs

11. Temple Isaiah, 1950. 332 Alejo Road (Cahuilla Road), Palm Springs – expanded and remodeled*

12. Pepper Tree Inn, now Alcazar Hotel Palm Springs, 1949. 645 N. Indian Canyon Drive (Granvia Valmonte) – remodeled beyond recognition*

13. Potter Clinic, 1946. 1000 N. Palm Canyon Drive (E. Tachevah Drive), Palm Springs – demolished*

14. Bisonte Lodge, 1946. 260 W. Vista Chino (N. Palm Canyon Drive), Palm Springs – demolished*


For more information about local architecture and architects, builders and developers, design and real estate - both the history in our area, and our recent and current real estate market, please contact me: 760-641-9416, daleswanson@bhhscaproperties.

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