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Palm Springs: Preserving the Rat Pack era

Palm Springs, Rat Pack oasis
Palm Springs is still the Rat Pack's town 05:04

For all those longing for a journey to yesteryear, a desert oasis beckons. And thanks to Margaret Brennan, we’ll be traveling in style:

Driving in Palm Springs is like going back in time. From the architecture to the classic cars, the city has an old-school vibe.

Many of the homes were built in the middle of the 20th century, or patterned after that so-called mid-century modern aesthetic: Flat planes, open floor plans, and giant walls of glass that bring the outside in.

Even the commercial buildings in downtown Palm Springs have that glow of an earlier era: The Chase Bank, City Hall, and the local Catholic church.

Architecture guide Robert Imber said, “It’s the Mecca of modernism, absolutely. The Mecca of modernism, you’re looking at it. You’re standing in it.”

He has dedicated his adult life to helping Palm Springs celebrate its mid-century chic.

Modernist architecture and design in the California desert oasis continues to project a ‘50s and ‘60s vibe. CBS News

“So, think ‘Mad Men’?” asked Brennan.

“Think ‘Mad Men,’ absolutely. That whole country club scene, the whole ‘Mad Men’ scene. The hair, the cigarettes, the glass ash-trays, the glass tables, the hanging lamp. All that swag was all mid-century.”

After World War II ended, a newly-wealthy middle-class began settling in this desert oasis, and enlisted a a number of modernist architects who had become stars of the genre, such as Richard Neutral, Albert Frey and William Cody.

But it wasn’t just cool homes and 85 degree weather that made the city a sexy destination back in the day. What gave Palm Springs its cool cache were the Hollywood celebrities who flocked here in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

With the movie studios just 100 miles away, stars like Cary Grant, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby built homes here in the Movie Colony.

Their neighbor, Frank Sinatra, lived within the giant hedges of what was known as the Twin Palms Estate, for the trees that tower above the pool.

Sinatra, the leader of the Rat Pack, lived here for a decade, during his first marriage, to Nancy Barbato, and his second, to Ava Gardner.

Architect E. Stewart Williams convinced Sinatra to build it in the modern style of the day.

He designed the pool in the shape of a grand piano, and when the sun hits the openings in the veranda at the right angle, the shadows form piano keys on the pool sidewalk.

The Chairman of the Board was in his 30s when he built the house. “And for a young guy to enter into such a venture back then was huge,” said David Monaghan, director of guest services at the estate. The house can now be rented out for a cool $2,500 per night.

It is no surprise that the home was designed for entertaining. Cocktails flowed as the music wafted across the pool.

The stereo, according to Monaghan, was also pretty serious: “This is the piece of all pieces. This is an original Valentino piece that Capitol Records presented to Sinatra back in the day. And it said that it could record onto vinyl, and also transmit back to the studios in Hollywood.”

Ever the ladies’ man, Sinatra enjoyed a master suite that occupied a wing of the house.

“He was known to have a few companions in the bedroom?” Brennan asked.

“A few, that’s fair -- that’s very delicate, Margaret, ‘a few companions,’” Monaghan replied. “This is where the magic happened, and if the walls could talk, Margaret, we’d be deaf, I’m sure, right now. But yes, he had a few companions. I think the last social tabloids explosion was about Ava Gardner. He was supposedly seeing, having an affair with Lana Turner.”

His affairs reportedly led to an epic fight with Gardner, who managed to duck a flying champagne bottle tossed at her by Sinatra. The damage is still evident in the sink.

Thanks to the cool factor, Palm Springs has undergone a renaissance in recent years -- more than 70,000 people attended last year’s annual “Modernism Week.” The young and hip now regularly descend on the city’s boutique hotels.

“So that excitement, that fun, that partying, all of that stuff that is the Rat Pack and was Hollywood in those exuberant years, was happening here, and now quite revered here,” Imber said. “And so now we live in houses here that maintain that and respect that and relive it.”

CBS News

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