Talkin' Tiki

Now that the long-simmering, slow-rising revival of period Polynesian pop culture has arrived, full-force - along with a trendy young craft-cocktail crowd - into Palm Springs, I point to the arrival of not one, but three, new Tiki-themed watering holes over the last 24 months: Bootlegger Tiki (Uptown), The Tonga Hut (Downtown), and The Tropics, The Congo Room, and The Reef Bar, all at the Caliente Tropics Resort, on East Palm Canyon).

above: Bootlegger Tiki, 1101 N. Palm Canyon Drive

above: The Tonga Hut Palm Springs, 254 N. Palm Canyon Drive

above: The Tropics, The Congo Room, and The Reef - all at the Caliente Tropics Resort Hotel, 411 E. Palm Canyon Drive

As these high-ticket new ventures finally augment the longtime north side presence of the venerable Toucan's Tiki Lounge - which is, and always has been, a de facto gay dance bar, show lounge, and pickup spot, albeit in tropical drag - and The Tropicale Restaurant and Coral Seas Lounge, on Amado, it might be locally timely for us to talk Tiki.

In it's original design incarnation, Tiki was an example of American roadside architecture that evolved as American business and the middle class expanded, in the mid-20th century.

Particularly after World War II, travel by car became part of the American culture, and a reactive, playful architecture developed that captured America's imagination.

above: Aloha Jhoe's (1960), formerly Huddle Springs, (1956), William Cody, architect - Cameron Center, 950 S. Palm Canyon Drive

Tiki as architecture is a fanciful design that incorporates Polynesian themes. The word tiki refers to large wood and stone sculptures and carvings found in the Polynesian islands. Tiki buildings are often decorated with imitation Tiki forms, totems, and other romanticized details borrowed from the South Seas.

When soldiers returned to the United States after World War II, they brought home stories about life in the South Seas. The best-selling books Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl and Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener heightened interest in all things tropical.

above: Erawan Garden Hotel, 76-477 Highway 111, Palm Desert (1963-1996)

Hotels and restaurants incorporated Polynesian themes to suggest an aura of romance. Polynesian-themed, or Tiki, buildings proliferated - first in California, and then quickly throughout the United States.

above: Royal Hawaiian Estates, Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison architects, 1960

The Polynesia fad, also known as Polynesian Pop, originally reached its height in about 1959, when Hawaii became part of the United States. By then, commercial Tiki architecture had taken on a variety of flashy Googie* details. Also, some mainstream architects were incorporating abstract Tiki shapes into streamlined modernist design.

However, in various design elements both commercial and residential, Polynesia or Tiki continued through the late 1960s, only to wane - ironically - as other traditional architecture and design influences (e.g., French, Italian, Mediterranean, Colonial, Southwestern) began to emerge as decorative elements on otherwise modernist forms, yielding the original Post-Modern period.

Tiki Architecture Has Many of These Features:

  • Tikis and carved beams

  • Lava rock

  • Imitation bamboo details

  • Shells and coconuts used as ornaments

  • Real and imitation palm trees

  • Imitation thatch roofs

  • A-frame shapes and extremely steep peaked roofs

  • Waterfalls

  • Flashy signs and other Googie details

*Googie: Fanciful, forward-thinking, and highly-stylized midcentury modernist design, focused primarily on period concepts of an idealized future. Googie Architecture emerged - primarily in commercial design - concurrently with Tiki Architecture, and the two were often intermingled during the original period, often with striking results.

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