August 9, 2009

The Road to Palm Springs, Part One: Reaching Orbit

Orbit In entrance, July 16, 2009 (click all photos to enlarge)

Those of us who follow Route 66 and other old highways are all too familiar with vintage motels that defy age and cultural obsolescence, but typically cling to life by a thread and some well-placed duct tape. So it was a thrill to arrive in Palm Springs one hot July day and discover that the city's modernist movement has sparked the rebirth of several mid-century motels. Not only do they look better than ever, they carry a cool, upscale atmosphere and rank at the top of any Palm Springs traveler's must-see list.

Some personal backstory: midway through last month's photo trip (read here), I'd fallen into a bad slump after an evening by the Salton Sea where everything that could go wrong did go wrong. So I'd departed Indio with plans to head back to LA. While entering Palm Desert, a little voice suggested taking the long route back via Highway 111. I hadn't visited Palm Springs in over a decade, and being a fan of photographer Julius Shulman -- who had captured so many timeless images in this desert town -- the timing seemed right. Besides, I'd heard about this restored motel called the Orbit In . . .

That afternoon, with the mercury at 116 degrees, I stumbled upon the Orbit In with its atomic-era sign and closed gate. As I approached to peek inside, manager Jade Nelson spotted me and invited me in for a tour. For the next 40 minutes it was 1957 again, the year this hotel opened as The Village Manor. Portland residents Christy and Stan Amy purchased the aging motel in 1999; aided by Shulman's photos, they transformed it into today's Orbit In. The mid-century hotel reopened in March 2001 and Shulman himself was a guest at the grand opening party, signing copies of his book Modernism Rediscovered. In 2002 the Orbit was joined by an expansive sister hotel, the Hideaway, located nearby.

Julius Shulman was on my mind as I snapped photos of the courtyard in gorgeous late day sun. The Orbit lies at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains which add a stark, beautiful backdrop. As shadows slowly engulfed the pool area, it was time to tour "Atomic Paradise," one of the Orbit's nine rooms with decor straight out of a mid-century design museum.

The heat eventually drove me to the outdoor bar and its phalanx of misters, where I enjoyed the company of Jade and a fun couple who'd recently driven Route 66.

My thanks to Jade for an ultra-cool afternoon. If you're a fan of 1950s desert architecture, or looking to escape the bland sameness of today's hotel chains, check out the Orbit In. Their website is Yes, it's a shameless plug. Yes, I hope to return as a guest.


Gail said...

Great shots, Elrond. Makes me want to stay at the hotel!

Gail said...

But wait..."phalanx of misters" ?

Elrond L said...

You know... water misters! They're based along the roof of the bar. When it's 116 out, those babies are worth more than gold.

Although the thought of "misters and missuses" at the bar is pretty funny, too.... :-) Thanks for the comments, Gail.

Steve B said...

If you get to visit us here in the east I'll give you a tour of the Wildwoods at the Jersey Shore --- mid-Century architecture abounds! Even the new buildings are being built with 1950s/60s themes.