A Brief History of Palm Canyon Drive - and Downtown Palm Springs

Did you know? It is illegal to walk a camel down Palm Canyon Drive between the hours of 4 and 6 pm.

As a wrecking ball swung through the Desert Fashion Plaza in the summer of 2013, opening the view from Palm Canyon Drive across to Palm Springs Art Museum, the excitement for Museum Market Plaza — the hotel, retail, and restaurant development intended to fill the space — became palpable.

So did the nostalgia for the early days of Palm Canyon Drive.

Generations of Palm Springs visionaries have brilliantly branded the city’s main street with glamour and magic. From Welwood Murray, who founded the Palm Springs Hotel in 1887, to Nellie Coffman, who founded the Desert Inn in 1909, to more than four decades of major upscale retail, Palm Canyon Drive has reigned for more than a century as one of America’s most storied destinations.

Celebrities galore have walked and shopped the street. Passionate factions emerge with every new building or rumor of a demolition. A national shopping prototype started here. Major retailers flourished and disappeared. Parade organizers love it. A historic district in the north end disappeared from the public consciousness. At one time, a bull took charge.

Building Palm Canyon Drive

Community standoffs, such as those now fighting over plans for the downtown renewal, are nothing new to Palm Canyon Drive.

The talk of the dusty little village circa 1910 was two now-revered pioneers who feuded over the location of what would become Palm Canyon Drive. Welwood Murray, who founded the Palm Springs Hotel in 1887, and Nellie Coffman, founder of the Desert Inn, each had clout but couldn’t agree on where to put what was to be called Main Street - which was later changed to Palm Canyon Drive. Murray wanted the main road to follow what today is Indian Canyon Drive. Coffman favored the roadway that ultimately became Palm Canyon Drive.

Murray liked to get his way surreptitiously. The wily hotelier enlisted a carpenter friend and erected a fence of railroad ties and barbed wire across Palm Canyon Drive a little north of the Desert Inn, where Indian Canyon Drive joined Palm Canyon. The signs proclaimed Palm Canyon Drive off-limits as a “private road.”

Nellie Coffman responded by posting what Palm Springs Villager reporter Jack Nelson described (in a 1948 article) as “pithy doggerel” on the impromptu fence. Murray’s fence quickly came down, and the present Palm Canyon Drive trajectory prevailed.

In 1914, highway bonds were passed in Riverside County for extensive road improvements and construction of new routes. As part of these efforts, the highway connecting Los Angeles and Palm Springs was completed in October 1916. Pavement of Highway 111 through to Indio was completed in 1924, allowing travelers to drive all the way from Los Angeles to Palm Springs in less than 4 hours, all on paved roads.

The renaming of Main Street as Palm Canyon Drive was a brilliant stroke, but the palm trees didn’t arrive until 1949 after then-councilwoman Ruth Hardy proposed the idea. Earl Neel’s nursery installed the lighted trees on both sides of the street.

A running of the bulls, desert-style, was an exciting ongoing occurrence along Palm Canyon Drive in the early years of the Desert Inn. Nellie Coffman owned a bull named Caruso that had the run of the pasture, now the site of O’Donnell Golf Club. Every now and then, Caruso would get loose. Unlike in Pamplona, visitors were never injured. Cars were another matter. Many unlucky Desert Inn guests left town with dents and scratches from Caruso on their fancy rides.

Prototype for open-air shopping

Julia Carnell, a prominent winter visitor from Dayton, Ohio, was another woman whose business acumen boosted the village street of dreams. Carnell, linked to the National Cash Register fortune, brought NCR’s architect, Harry Williams - the father of noted and influential modernist architect E. Steward Williams - with her to design the 1934 Carnell Building next to Carl Lykken’s general store.

Carnell enlisted Williams to design Palm Springs Plaza - known simply as "La Plaza" ever since - the country’s first open-air shopping plaza, in 1936. It was located farther south on Palm Canyon Drive — then considered the boonies. Desmond’s was the anchor store and the first major retailer on the street.

La Plaza, now a Class 1 historical site, was open-air and a forerunner of what today is trendy “mixed use.” Williams, the architect, wanted it to be open and lacking in pretense. There were stores, apartments overhead, parking, Palm Springs Desert Museum, and a movie theater, which opened with Camille, starring Greta Garbo, who, it was rumored, was spied slinking in through a side door to avoid the red carpet. For 22 years, The Plaza Theatre was home to The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, which ended in May 2014 when its impresario, Riff Markowitz, retired.

Realtor Robert Ransom, who managed La Plaza, advertised it as a place where one could “buy a piece of driftwood or the newest sportswear for men and women. Have your car fixed or rent a Hertz-You-Drive. Buy a Cadillac, a diamond, or a lamb chop. Have the family laundry and cleaning done, and with no effort at all select a gift for any member of the family.”

The family dynasty of La Plaza started in 1951 when Harry Pitts - dining at Louise’s Pantry - overheard that La Plaza was to be auctioned the following day. Harry Pitts quickly assembled an investment group of 10. They won the bid and created La Plaza Investment Company. From that day to this, the Pitts family - along with other investors - have owned, managed, and maintained La Plaza.

"When it was time for the Desert Circus parade,” Larry Pitts remembers, “my friends would join me on the roof for the best seats in town. In the summer, you could toss a ball down Palm Canyon Drive and hit nothing. The merchants covered their windows in aluminum foil before they left town for the summer. Then in the season you knew at least a third of the customers whenever you walked into a restaurant.”

The golden age of retail

Big-name retailers began tiptoeing into town with small stores limited to resort wear. J.W. Robinson opened a specialty store on the grounds of the Desert Inn in 1948. Ten years later, Robinson’s opened a midcentury modern masterpiece, designed by Pereira and Luckman.

Bullock’s opened a small resort store next to La Plaza in the late 1930s. In 1947, corporate opened an elegant modern store designed by Welton Becket and Walter Wurdeman. Built opposite La Plaza, where the Mercado sits today, it became a Bullock’s Wilshire outlet in the 1970s.

The golden age of shopping lasted from the 1940s through the early-1990s, by which time no major freestanding stores remained and Desert Fashion Plaza, redeveloped by the city and shopping center czar Edward DeBartolo in 1984, had begun to fail. By the turn of the millenium, apart from a few lingering exterior storefronts on Palm Canyon Drive, Desert Fashion Plaza ultimately went dark, before developer John Wessman purchased the block-long property with its two-level parking garage, in 2001.

The fashions and exquisite jewels at I. Magnin’s Laykin et Cie department attracted major customers in the 1980s. There were wonderful retail stores on Palm Canyon, all of them now gone: Besides I. Magnin, J.W. Robinson’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, there was Joseph Magnin, Bullock’s (later Bullock's Wilshire), Desmond's, Morrie Geyer, the Moccasin Shop, Matthews, Ann Taylor, Jolie Gabor’s Boutique, Waltah Clarke’s Hawaiian Shop, Jerry Maloof’s Menswear, Ted Land’s Shoes, and Uncle Don's Toys - among many others.

“Uncle” Don Du Bose, whose toy store for decades was a small-town version of FAO Schwarz, carried classic lines such as collector HO gauge train cars, Matchbox cars, Madame Alexander dolls, and other classics. He closed the store when big-box chains brought cheaper products to the desert. Du Bose knew the street well, having grown up helping in his dad’s 5-and-10 store.

Downtown hosted distinctive events

World War II changed the look and pace of Palm Canyon Drive. General Patton’s troops trained in the nearby desert and El Mirador Hotel was transformed into Torney Hospital to care for soldiers returning from the South Pacific. Khaki and camouflage uniforms replaced resortwear. For the first time, visiting family and workers arrived after Memorial Day and the city became year-round until after the war.

Thousands of reveling teens and college kids discovered the joys of cruising Palm Canyon Drive during the 1950s. The Easter Week migration grew annually until 1986, when thongs, rocket bikes, and water bombs rattled the establishment. The city, to the regret of many retailers and hoteliers, succeeded in killing Easter Week by sending press releases to college newspapers telling the kids to stay away. The substitution, a family harvest festival, closed the street and featured car shows, entertainment, and hay bales. It broke the spring break pattern, but quickly fizzled.

Desert Circus Parade, during a week of charity fundraising events, was a small-town shindig boasting big-time celebrity grand marshals like Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and Chuck Connors.

Ever since, parades and events have been prolific on Palm Canyon Drive. Various veterans groups, conventioneers, and local organizations have made the trek. The biggest today is the annual Festival of Lights, kicking off the Christmas season and drawing almost 100,000 specatators. Other enormously popular parades are the LGBT Pride Parade and Festival, Palm Springs High School Homecoming, and Veterans Day.

VillageFest, the street’s weekly Thursday evening event, was founded in 1991 to create awareness of shops and restaurants. Only artisans whose items are original are allowed to participate. It’s a fun place to sample food and people-watch.

One of the street’s most interesting destinations is The Village Green, home to the Palm Springs Historical Society (housed in the McCallum Adobe Museum), The Cornelia White House, the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, and Ruddy’s General Store Museum.

The north end of Palm Canyon Drive, starting at Alejo Road and the historic Frances Stevens School, home of the Palm Canyon Theatre, is undergoing a renaissance and historic rediscovery. Art galleries, modern design showrooms, fashion boutiques, and other businesses have joined restaurants in the city’s chic Uptown Design District — which also contains a long-forgotten historic district, the first of two in the city.

The forgotten Las Palmas Historic District extends from Alejo Road to El Alameda, and includes 16 contributing buildings representing Spanish Colonial and Midcentury Modern architecture, the city’s two most popular architectural styles.

Palm Springs’ “Cowboy Mayor” Frank Bogert proposed the Walk of Stars to the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce in the early 1980s. Noted for its egalitarian criteria - not every honoree is a celebrity - the Walk of Stars represents a microcosm of those who’ve found their dreams on Palm Canyon Drive.

A Timeline:

1774: The local native Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians encounter first non-natives, as Juan Bautista de Anza's expedition travels through the area

1853: A U.S. government survey party maps Palm Springs and its natural hot springs mineral pool - now the site of the Spa Resort Casino - and establishes the first wagon route through the San Gorgonio Pass

1877: As an incentive to complete a railroad to the Pacific, the U.S. government gives the Southern Pacific Railroad title to the odd-numbered parcels of land for ten miles on either side of the tracks running through the Southern California desert, around Palm Springs

1884: Judge John Guthrie McCallum of San Francisco arrives in Palm Springs with his family, seeking health for his tubercular son. The first permanent non-Indian settler, McCallum purchases land from Southern Pacific Railroad, and builds an elaborate aqueduct

1887: Dr. Welwood Murray builds the area's first hotel, The Palm Springs Hotel

1891: Congress passed the Mission Indian Relief Act, authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to make individual allotments from reservation lands

1909: Nellie Coffman's Desert Inn opens, west of the village and the route that would later become Palm Canyon Drive. A garage for servicing vehicles - Zaddie Bunker's Garage - also opens, as does a school for the children of a handful of year-round residents

1916: The highway connecting Los Angeles and Palm Springs is completed

1924: Paving of Highway 111 - through Palm Springs and all the way to Indio - is completed

1924: Pearl McCallum (daughter of John McCallum) and her husband, Austin McManus, build the Oasis Hotel (designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright) on Palm Canyon Drive, near the SW corner of Tahquitz Canyon Way

1927: Prescott Stevens - developer of the El Mirador Hotel - donates a block between Palm Canyon and Indian Canyon (then called Indian Avenue), at Alejo Road, and the funds to build the Frances S. Stevens School, in memory of his wife. The school - subsequently expanded and developed - still stands, as home to the Palm Canyon Theater.

1928: Built by Palm Springs pioneer Prescott Stevens at a cost of $1 million, and designed by Los Angeles architects Walker & Eisen, the El Mirador Hotel opens on New Year's Eve 1928.

1929: Silent film star Fritzi Ridgeway builds the 100-room Hotel del Tahquitz at 316 S. Palm Canyon Drive (just south of where the Santa Fe Federal Savings bank - now the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center - is presently located).

1932: El Mirador owner Prescott Stevens, unable to sustain the debt of ownership brought on by the Great Depression, sells the hotel at auction for $300,000

1934: California Water & Telephone Company constructs a business office and switching center at 365 N. Palm Canyon. The building was purchased by General Telephone in 1967, and continued as a switching center until 1984

1936: Jack Freeman opens the Desert Grill, a trendy café. with a celebrity clientele.

1936: Palm Springs Plaza - known simply as "La Plaza" ever since - built with money from the National Cash Register Corporation, opens in time for the 1936-37 tourist season.

1936: The Pacific Building - a Mission Revival building with Mediterranean/Spanish elements, containing office and retail spaces on the street level, with several apartments upstairs - is constructed at the SE corner of Palm Canyon and Tamarisk Road

1938: The village of Palm Springs votes to incorporate.

1940: Jack Freeman - owner of the successful Desert Grill - sells his financial interest to his business partner, Irwin Schuman, who revamps it as a Polynesian-themed restaurant, bar, and lounge, complete with live entertainment: the Chi Chi Grill and Cocktail Lounge.

1943: Acquired by the U.S. Government to serve military personnel, the El Mirador Hotel becomes Torney General Hospital.

1944: the Indians, taking their case to the U.S. Supreme Court (Lee Arenas v. United States), win the legal rights to have allotments approved

1947: Bullock's opens its first full-size store in a streamline modern building designed by Welton Becket and Walter Wurdeman, on the west side of Palm Canyon Drive, opposite La Plaza.

1948: The Center - anchored by the Town & Country Restaurant to the east, on Indian Canyon, and Bank of America, on the west, on Palm Canyon - subsequently and forever known as The Town & Country Center opens. The innovative, mixed-use commercial and residential complex, with central pedestrian courtyard, is designed by two internationally-famous architects, Paul R. Williams and A. Quincy Jones

1949: Rows of Washingtonia Palms are planted along either side of Palm Canyon Drive.

1955: Nellie Coffman's sons, George Roberson and Earl Coffman, sell the Desert Inn property to film actress Marion Davies.

1958: J.W. Robinson's opens its new Palm Springs store, designed by the Los Angeles-based architectural firm of Charles Luckman and William Pereira, at the SW corner of South Palm Canyon Drive and West Baristo Avenue

1958: Saks Fifth Avenue opens its first Palm Springs store, designed by Los Angeles architect Welton Becket, at the NE corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Ramon Road

1959: President Eisenhower signs the Equalization Law, allowing tribes to realize profits from their lands and develop the 99-year lease

1960: The famed Hotel del Tahquitz closes, after 31 years.

1960: Marion Davies sells the Desert Inn property for $2.5 million to developers Samuel Firks and George Alexander. Alexander envisions a commercial mall, 1,100 parking spaces, a convention center, a 450-room hotel, and also the city’s first skyscraper, for the site

1963: After nearly a decade of geological survey and scientific engineering and planning - mainly to control the 104-degree mineral spring beneath the site - and the efforts of four teams of very notable architects (William F. Cody, Wexler & Harrison, Parker-Zehnder & Associates, and Philip Koenig) the Spa Hotel opens at the NE corner of Tahquitz Canyon and Indian Canyon, 1 block east of Palm Canyon, anchoring downtown for over 50 years

1965: Owner Irwin Schuman closes the legendary Chi Chi Grill and Cocktail Lounge.

1966: The city council votes to approve the institution of southbound one-way traffic on Palm Canyon - from Alejo Road at the north, to the fork at Indian Canyon, to the south - and northbound one-way traffic on Indian Canyon

1967: Under the project management of Joseph Eichenbaum, Home Savings and Loan Association - which had acquired the Desert Inn property after the deaths of the Alexander Family in November 1965 - begins demolition of the property, including former locations of Zaddie Bunker’s Garage, the Village Theater, the Palm Springs Hotel, and the Rock House, to make way for a new, large-scale indoor shopping center.

1967: The first phase of what was originally called Desert Inn Fashion Plaza opens with twelve major establishments: Bank of America, Belmont Savings & Loan, I. Magnin, P'iddlers Three Restaurant, Stuard's Sahara, Silverwoods, Islamania, Michael's, Master's Candies, Village Card & Gift Shop and Orange Julius

1968: Joseph Magnin Co. opens their 26,000 square foot Fashion Plaza store at the corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Andreas Road

1983: Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. announces an agreement with the Fashion Plaza Partnership to renovate and expand the complex for $42 million

1985: I. Magnin's (moving from its original 1967 location) and Saks Fifth Avenue open large new anchor stores in the redeveloped and expanded shopping center, now officially renamed as Desert Fashion Plaza

1992: Despite the short-term success of expansion, renovation, new stores and a hotel - recently acquired by the Hyatt chain - shopper traffic declines at the Desert Fashion Plaza. I. Magnin closes its new anchor store, after only 7 years.

1999: The interior of Desert Fashion Plaza is approximately 75% vacant.

2002: Saks Fifth Avenue closes its Desert Fashion Plaza location after 17 years, relocating to El Paseo in Palm Desert

2012: Demolition begins at the southern end of the long-vacant Desert Fashion Plaza - starting with the old Bank of America at the NW corner of Palm Canyon and Tahquitz Canyon

2014: Demolition of the Desert Fashion Plaza - from Tahquitz Canyon Drive at the south, to Belardo Road, and the Hyatt Hotel, on the north - is completed

2015: Construction of a mixed-use retail hotel complex by Hyatt - under the name Andaz Hotel - begins late in the year, on an anchor parcel between Palm Canyon and Indian Canyon, at Alejo Road. The entire block had been demolished a decade earlier, for a similar mixed-use residential project called Port Lawrence.

2015: Further signifying the resurgence of what is now called the Uptown Design District on North Palm Canyon, architect Chris Pardo and business partner Peter Karpinski open Arrive Palm Springs - the first newly-constructed hotel and resort complex on Palm Canyon Drive - just south of Vista Chino, complete with ice cream shop, Customs Coffee, and Reservoir Restaurant and Bar.

2016: Palm Springs Preservation Foundation's Class 1 Historic Site nomination for the Town & Country Center is approved (4-1) by the Palm Springs city council

2016: West Elm - the first major retail chain to launch a new store on Palm Canyon Drive in more than three decades - opens in the new 201 North building, immediately adjacent to the Hyatt, on the NE corner of the old Fashion Plaza site

Above: Thursday, May 25, 2017 7:14 pm PDT

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