While Palm Springs is extremely well known for its mid-century modern architecture, it should be just as well known for its stunning Spanish revival architecture. No where was this better executed than the spectacular El Mirador Hotel, which operated from 1928 to 1972. El Mirador is a perfect example of Palm Springs’ glorious Spanish styling and the city’s innovative repurposing to save its history.
El Mirador was one of the first grand hotels to hit Palm Springs when it opened its doors New Years Eve, ringing in 1928 with such Hollywood elite as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in attendance. But like many costly endeavors that were born in the late 20s, it was slightly ill-fated.
The history of El Mirador begins when Prescott Thresher Stevens. He and his wife moved to Palm Springs from Colorado in 1912 to, like many, alleviate his respiratory problems with the dry climate. He then turned to real estate. El Mirador was designed by Los Angeles architects Walker & Eisen, and cost $1 million dollar to build. Its 68 foot tall bell tower featured a bell imported from Italy, and it soon became an icon of the city. It boasted an Olympic size swimming pool, tennis courts, stables, and Palm Spring’s first ever golf course.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression hit El Mirador hard. In 1931 Stevens lost the property to creditors, who then sold it at auction for $300,000 to Warren Pinney, the attorney for the hotel, and Ralph Lecoe, a businessman and investor. Stevens died the following year. Anthony Burke was hired as publicist to the hotel to create a draw in a time of economic crisis, so he invited studio newsreel camera men, including Paramount and Pathe to be guests, with free rooms and meals. The hotel “put on a show” including diving exhibitions and swimming contests, which featured Duke Kahanamoku, the father of surfing.
In 1936 Burke left, and Frank Bogert, who later went on to become mayor of Palm Springs, stepped in. It is throughout the 30s, and thanks to these unique newsreels and that El Mirador survived and even thrived, with such guests as Clara Bow, John Barrymore, Salvador Dali, Shirley Temple, H.G. Wells, and even Albert Einstein.
After America entered World War II the United States Army bought El Mirador in the summer of 1942, and converted it into the Torney General Hospital, named after Brigadier General George Hentry Torney, a physician for the US Navy and Army. With over 1,000 beds, the hospital looked after wounded soldiers sent home from the Pacific Theater.
After WWII El Mirador was offered to City of Palm Springs by the Army. Residents voted on buying it and using it as a civic center, however, they opted not to, so it was put up for sale. It went through several owners before being purchased in 1951 or ’52 (depending on the source) by a group of Chicago investors, including Roy Fitzgerald, and oil man Ray Ryan. In 1956 Bogert returned and became the hotel manager, and the hotel saw an update by famed LA architect Paul R. Williams, who had recently redesigned the Beverly Hills Hotel. Williams is perhaps one of the greatest architects to ever live. He designed one of my favorite buildings of all time, LAX’s famous Theme Building. And if you are familiar with Las Vegas’ Neon Museum, then you will know that the lobby of the museum is the La Concha Motel lobby, also designed by Williams. A successful architect in his own right, he is also an icon of African-American history, and perhaps the most successful African-American mid-century architect.
With the charismatic Bogert back at the helm, El Mirador thrived once again with a multitude of movie stars and other entertainers visiting, including William Holden, Jimmy Durante, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, Lucille Ball, and Ginger Rogers. Bogert continued to come up with unique offerings at the hotel, like a faux bucking bronco suspended above the pool, so if guests fell, they fell right into the pool and Christmas parties with an underwater Christmas tree, and children dove to the bottom for presents. The pool also featured a window for spectators and photographers alike. Another oddity of El Mirador “was a full-grown lion, pacing in a cage above the hotel entrance and spotlighted at night. A temperamental lion that would eat only when its keeper was with it, stroking it gently as it ate.” I only found this claim in one article, and sadly could not find any photographic evidence of it. There are images of the pool’s bucking bronco and underwater Christmas tree in Peter Moruzzi’s amazing book Palm Springs Paradise.
The hotel also featured the South Pacific Room, which was, you guessed it, a restaurant themed to the south Pacific, featuring Tahitian dancers, “Island Serenaders” and a Polynesian buffet. In advertisements, it encouraged guests to “go native” and had luaus every Thursday.
In 1968 or ’69 (once again depending on the source) El Mirador was under new ownership, John Conte, and became part of the Hilton family of hotels. Conte also used part of the property for a television studio, KMIR-TV, an NBC affiliate.
But sadly, the late 60s and early 70s were not good to El Mirador, and it was sold to the already next door Desert Hospital in December of 1972 for $4 million.
When the hospital took over, they kept only the front building with the iconic tower. However, in July of 1989 tragedy struck when a fire engulfed the famed tower and last remaining building. Ironically enough the fire occurred just two hours after the hospital board of directors had approved a $2 million renovation plan to reinforced the tower and “reconstruct the hotel’s single remaining building in its original style.” The fire took three hours to put out, and had 30 firefighters, three of whom were injured. Officials said the fire was “suspicious” as “there were unconfirmed reports that transients – who had previously been chased from the vacant building by hospital security guards – were spotted inside the structure.” Since the building had no electrical wiring, an electrical spark was ruled out. Investigators said they may never know the real cause.
In May of 1991 the hospital rebuilt the tower and accompanying building using original plans, and the original weather vane, which was salvage from the rubble. And it is this structure that stands today as part of the Desert Regional Medical Center, and the tower serves as the logo for the hospital.
The Desert Regional Medical Center is located at 1150 N Indian Canyon Dr in Palm Springs.
Brown, Renee. “El Mirador Hotel a big part of early Palm Springs life.” Desert Sun.
McGrew, Patrick. Desert Spanish: The Early Architecture of Palm Springs. Palm Springs: Palm Springs Preservation Society Foundation, 2012. Print.
Patton, Carolyn. “A Healthy Outcome at El Mirador.” Palm Springs Life.
Peterson, Elmer. “El Mirador – A Grand Hotel.” Palm Springs Life.
Warren, Jenifer and Harris, Scott. “Fire Destroys Palm Springs’ El Mirador.” Los Angeles Times.
Vintage images are from my postcard collection.