Luxury Boutique Relaxation at The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn

Luxury Boutique Relaxation at The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn

The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn began life in the 1920s as two Mediterranean-styled villas built for friends who wanted to spend desert vacations together. Lovingly restored by husband and wife, Tracy Conrad and Paul Marut, the secluded property offers privacy and comfort a short walk from the Palm Canyon Drive commercial district.

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The peaceful quiet of a desert setting

To reach The Willows, I turned west off N. Palm Canyon Drive onto W. Tahquitz Canyon Way.  Driving toward imposing Mt. San Jacinto, in two short blocks at the intersection of W. Tahquitz and North Museum Drive, I arrived at The Willows.

At the time the villas were built, besides the now long-gone Palm Springs Tennis Club and the Desert Inn, the area was sparsely developed. Today, looking south, tidy houses stretch as far as the eye can see. Secluded behind a grove of palm trees and a stone wall, The Willows hugged the contours of a sandy colored hill.

The desert is baked into my DNA. I grew up thirty minutes from Palm Springs. As soon as I had my driver’s license, I took long drives on the two-lane blacktop that cut across the seemingly endless tracts of sand, rock and sagebrush. On cloudless nights, with the windows rolled down, I jetted through the darkness. I wasn’t going anywhere in particular. Soaking up the dry desert heat, I just enjoyed the going in the middle of nowhere.

Pulling off the highway, I stood beside my car and looked out at that big sky and the vastness of the desert. What I remember about that time was the quiet. The only sounds came from the wind that passed over rocks and chaparral and pushed tumbleweeds skittering across the open desert.

At The Willows, I again enjoyed that enveloping quiet. On my first early morning I stayed comfortably wrapped in silky sheets, enjoying the firm mattress and listening to the absolute stillness. Happily delaying getting out of bed, the sheer curtains moved ever so slightly.

Suddenly a bright red light spilled into the room. I thought I was dreaming. I wasn’t.

Pulling back the curtains, sunrise’s blood-red light pushed back night’s darkness and revealed the outlines of houses, cacti, towering eucalyptus trees and bougainvillea cascading over backyard fences.

This was the desert I knew as a teenager. Quiet, dramatic and filled with color. I was home again.

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Comfortable Rooms with Views

I stayed in the spacious Rose Room with a king-sized bed, sitting area and two closets. The large bathroom had a glass-walled shower and a claw foot, white porcelain bathtub. A corner room, the windows faced the mountains to the west and the Historic Tennis Club neighborhood to the south.

Each room at The Willows was unique.  Some had cozy patios. Others had spacious bathrooms with free standing bathtubs. All had views ether of the mountains, Palm Springs or the Inn’s gardens.

The grounds offered many opportunities to relax and recharge. Desert flowers, native plants, fruit trees and palm trees added to the feeling of a perfectly curated hideaway. Chaise lounges, citrus trees and flowers surrounded the rectangular pool, an ideal place to enjoy Palm Springs’ sunny weather.

Both the Willows and Meade Houses had large verandas with views. Outfitted with comfortable couches, I found time after breakfast to sit on the veranda near my room to enjoy the cool of the morning and at sunset to watch the sun slip away behind Mt. San Jacinto.

An elegant, complimentary breakfast was served in The Willows House. The outdoor patio and adjoining dining room faced a waterfall fed by a natural spring. Besides breakfast, in the early evening, complimentary wine and gourmet snacks were served in the Great Room in the Meade House. Room service was available from the nearby gourmet French restaurant, Le Vallauris.

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The history behind the luxury

When I arrived at The Willows, I parked in the area to the rear of the property, facing an imposing hill marked with a stand of imposing palm trees. After announcing myself on the intercom next to the wrought-iron gate at the main entrance, I was met by Gordon, one of the friendly inn-keepers.

As he carried my suitcase up the stairs, he sketched out the history of The Willows.

Best friends William Mead (1862-1927) and Roland Porter Bishop (1855-1950) had successful Los Angeles businesses in the early part of the 20th Century. Looking for a desert retreat where their families and friends could vacation together, they settled on the emerging community of Palm Springs.

Bishop was wealthy from his confectionery business, Mead from real estate. To design their homes, they hired William J. Dodd (1862-1930). A well-known interior designer as well as an architect, The Willows reflected his attention to detail in the buildings and furnishings.

Dodd consulted with the two families and created complimentary homes, similar but not identical. Where the friends entertained and dined, he created rooms with high ceilings, fireplaces and large windows to bring the outside inside. The bedrooms varied in size, but all had bathrooms fitted with handcrafted ceramic tiles, classic fixtures and windows that flooded the rooms with desert light.

To build the houses, architect William J. Dodd pledged to respect the contours of the hill so much so that a massive boulder was incorporated into the building and is featured in the Rock Room’s bathroom.

The buildings were designed to house the two families and large enough to accommodate friends who traveled from all over the United States and Europe to enjoy the comforts of their Palm Springs desert retreat.  Their guests were renowned, like British writer John Galsworthy, author of the Forsyth Saga.

Through the years, as owners changed, the tradition of hospitality continued. Notable actors and filmmakers have enjoyed the comforts and privacy of The Willows including Robert De Niro, Sienna Miller, Lawrence Fishburne, Maya Rudolph and Sydney Pollock. Paul T. Anderson stayed in the Library Room where he worked on his screenplay for the 2007 Oscar nominated There Will Be Blood. At the time, Anderson was unaware that Upton Sinclair who wrote Oil!, the novel Anderson used as the basis for his film, also stayed at The Willows. A fortuitous coincidence.

But, perhaps, the most illustrious guest was not a movie star nor a writer, but a scientist.

Albert Einstein

Invited by the second owner of The Willows, Samuel Untermeyer, Einstein and his wife Elsa stayed at The Willows during the early 1930s.  A politically connected lawyer, Untermeyer purchased The Willows and created a tropical oasis.  Fed by an ample water supply, cultivated gardens and an orchard flourished in the desert climate. He built a stone staircase into the steep hill to access terraces with views of the valley below and the mountain range to the west.

Having suffered a life-time of ill-health living in New York, the wealthy Untermeyer chose the location as a winter home because he longed for a place where he could “sit in the sun and not worry.”  The Willows was his sanctuary where he could escape his stressful work, exactly what Einstein needed.

When Einstein visited, he was world famous. Whenever he appeared in public, he was mobbed by fans. His revolutionary work made him sought after as a speaker and scientific collaborator. He appreciated his fame but needed quiet and a place without stress. He relished his visits to The Willows where he could enjoy the beauty of the desert, with time to think and read and relax with his wife and friends.

Today, you will experience those same values that are at the heart of The Willows experience when you take a soothing bath in the antique bathtub, slip into one of the plush terrycloth bathrobes, then sit outside near the pool. As you read a novel and resist the impulse to nap, you can imagine Albert Einstein walking up the steps from his room to the terraces above The Willows where he would spend the better part of the day sunbathing and contemplating the mysteries of the universe.

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Palm Springs, Hollywood’s Playground

Early in its history, celebrities flocked to Palm Springs. Stroll on the downtown Walk of Stars and you’ll see a celebration of the hundreds of luminaries who loved the city.

Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, Rat Packers, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope built homes in Palm Springs, earning the city the nickname Hollywood’s Playground.

The construction of lavish pools, tennis courts and golf resorts gave the city a glamor that was enhanced by its picturesque location with stands of palm trees and cacti, starkly elegant mountains and a vast desert landscape. Making the most of that natural beauty, architects used the city as a canvas to pursue their visions of functional simplicity, especially Midcentury Modernist homes with their iconic geometric lines.

The northern entrance to the city was announced by the popular Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The city’s main commercial district was defined by Palm Canyon Drive and Indian Canyon Drive. Shops, restaurants and bars lined both streets, creating an easy-to-walk shopping district.

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The Willows was perfectly situated to take walks around Palm Springs. Within a few blocks of the Inn, on Palm Canyon Drive there were shops galore. Stores to pick up a t-shirt, resort sun glasses, toys for the kids or a designer outfit and then have lunch on a restaurant patio and slip into an ice cream store for dessert.  The Starbucks Reserve (101 N. Palm Canyon Drive) on the corner of W. Tahquitz Avenue offered a dozen different ways to brew coffee beverages in an upscale, lounge setting.

Within a ten-minute walk from The Willows, there were dozens of casual dining restaurants with a range of cuisines. For dinner one night I stopped at the Kaiser Grille. When I visited, seating in the dining room and outside on the patio was available.  A family-friendly sports bar, the expansive menu offered a great many choices. As manager Greg Janji told me, “Eat what you like. Relax, enjoy yourself. It’s your day.”  A sentiment that seemed to encapsulate the Palm Springs life style.

Server Manny Avalos walked me through the menu. Although the kabab mezze feast looked tempting as did the double-cut pork chop, baby back pork ribs and pepper crusted Ahi tuna, I chose the Neapolitan style pizza with San Marino tomatoes, mozzarella, marinated wild seasonal mushrooms and Calabrese sausage and a boneless ribeye with mashed potatoes and broccoli. A vodka martini up with an olive and an onion completed my lovely meal in the relaxed setting.

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Architecture, Art and Interior Design

For a deeper dive into a destination, a guided tour is always a good idea, whether you are looking for an active adventure experience, a historical-cultural tour of a city or a shopping expedition with an in-the-know local.

I was fortunate to have a tour of Midcentury Modern architecture, one of the city’s most notable attractions.  With Visit Palm Springs’ Randy Gardner driving, Robert Imber, an architectural authority, narrated a tour through the city’s neighborhoods. In search of Midcentury Modern buildings, we traversed the city’s commercial streets, the flatlands and foothills in pursuit of examples of an architectural style that epitomized “contemporary” design in the post-WWII period.

After the war, there was a feeling of excitement, energy and optimism. An aesthetic was needed to visualize a hoped-for future. A love of color, yellows, oranges, greens and blues, and rectilinear designs that avoided unnecessary decorations fit well with the spare Palm Springs desert landscape.

Imber noted that there were more examples of Midcentury Modern buildings in Los Angeles, but Palm Springs had the greatest concentration of those buildings. Untouched by urban renewal and embraced by local owners, the buildings we toured reflected how individual architects put their personal stamp on the style.

As we drove around the city, Imber identified the works of the movement’s icons. We stopped to admire the work of Jules Schulman, Herbert Burns, Albert Frey and William F. Cody, among many others. Sometimes an architect designed a single home, sometimes an entire neighborhood. Virtually all were one-story buildings with flat roofs and desert-appropriate landscaping. The style was embraced by movie stars and everyday buyers who wanted to live in modern, efficient homes.

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No car ride nor guide was needed to explore the exceptional Palm Springs Art Museum. Half a block from The Willows, the Museum had excellent exhibits of indigenous and contemporary art.  The two-story building’s low profile complimented its location in the foothills of the Mt. San Jacinto. I spent an afternoon walking through the engaging collection with a stop downstairs for a glass of wine at the Persimmon Bistro next to the Annenberg Theater.

When you visit the Museum, check out the open-air exhibition space across the street next to the city parking lot.  When I visited, “Con tus Tías” (“With Your Aunts”) was on display. Created by Sofia Enriquez who worked with local students aged 10-12 to paint a colorful mural that stretched across two long walls. Also, a replica of Paul Rudolph’s Midcentury Modernist Walker Guest House was recreated in a large space behind the mural wall.

Besides museums, Palm Springs has a thriving art scene with art galleries and stores devoted to garden and interior design. Bret Baughman gave me a tour of The Backyard PS and Landscape. His garden shop and landscape design office are located in The Shops at 1345, a collection of fourteen shops focused on art and design.

Bret uses his Backyard PS indoor/outdoor space to display vintage pottery and exceptional examples of native plants.  Besides selling collectables in the retail shop, Bret is available to design or refresh home landscaping.

At The Shops, I met Taib Lotfi who was weaving a Moroccan style wall-hanging on a vertical loom. In his store, Soukie Modern, besides curating clothing, blankets, accessories and rugs, Talib used fabrics he wove himself and those he imported to create colorful purses, bags, hanging art and pillows.

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A Last Walk Around

On my last morning at The Willows, I enjoyed breakfast at a table in front of the waterfall. Served a pot of coffee, scrambled eggs, French toast with hot maple syrup, sausages, a freshly baked muffin and a fruit salad, I was in no hurry to leave.

Before I checked out, I allowed myself one last walk around the property. Following in Einstein’s footsteps I walked past the sheltering palm trees and up the stone staircase to the hilltop terraces.

I sat on a metal chair on the highest terrace and looked out over Palm Springs and up at Mt. San Jacinto.  There were faint traffic sounds from Palm Canyon Drive, but mostly there was that quiet I remembered from growing up in the desert. This was the perfect way to end my visit. Relaxing in the sun and enjoying the view, taking in the quiet like so many other visitors to The Willows.

When you go

For information about the Palm Springs area, please consult Visit Palm Springs. Updated frequently, the website offers virtual tours and information about the area, including details about guided tours of Midcentury Modern homes, lists of area restaurants, art galleries, bars and hotels, active adventure opportunities, leisure attractions, golf courses, spas, museums and theaters.

For guided tours focused on your interests, go to Tours. Especially recommended are Red-Jeep Tours, Big Wheel Tours, Mod Squad tours for architecture and P.S. Walk with Me and Palm Springs Historical Society walking tours.

Centrally located, Palm Springs is a jumping off point for mountain hiking and biking, bicycling, horseback riding and, thirty minutes away, the BMW Experience where you can learn how to drive a high-speed, high-performance BMW.

LGBTQ-friendly, Palm Springs is easily reached by car. Depending on traffic, the city is a two to three-hour drive from Los Angeles or San Diego. Commercial airlines and private planes use Palm Springs International Airport (PSP), 3400 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs, CA, (760) 318-3800.

Consult Visit Palm Springs for a list of world-class events held in the city, including the Palm Springs International Film Festival in early January.

The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn, 412 W. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs, CA 92262, (760) 320-0771. Open from the end of September to May, the luxury boutique inn has seventeen rooms in the Willows and Meade Houses. Rooms range in size from 288 to 601 square feet. You can unplug or take advantage of the complimentary high-speed internet connection.

Please consult the website for a list of each room’s unique amenities and layout with a photograph of the furnishings.  A mix of restored antiques and modern furnishings were chosen to give the rooms a connection to the past and to lean forward with a look of contemporary elegance.  In the room where Einstein used to stay, the walls are decorated with photographs taken during his visits. The cozy room with a private patio is furnished with an antique plush bed, bureaus and a restored bathroom.

Befitting the importance in the city’s history, Palm Springs awarded The Willows a “Class One” historic designation. For a thorough history of The Willows, ask to see Einstein Dreamt Here: The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn (2015) by Steve Vaught and Tracy Conrad. A good read on many levels, the book has an excellent collection of photographs documenting the life lived by the people who owned and stayed at The Willows.

Most impressively, the extensive remodeling undertaken by Tracy Conrad and Paul Marut was evidence of the couple’s passion for the property and the enormous effort it took to bring back the glories of the original design.  Besides removing mirrored ceilings, lip-stick red carpets, a black velvet painting of poker playing dogs and stripping off garish colored paint, the married couple faced the formidable task of restoring Untermeyer’s landscape of which he was so rightly proud.

Kaiser Grille, 205 S. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs, CA 92262, (760) 323-1003. Casual fine dining with good food and well-crafted cocktails in a lounge-bar setting and outside on the covered patio. Call to check availability for patio dining, take-out and delivery.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, 1 Tram Way, Palm Springs, CA 92262, (888) 515-8726, pstramway@pstramway.com. Please consult the website for hours and days of operation, ticketing and seasonal activities. Two restaurants at the peak are open to the public. Reservations for waiter-serviced Peaks Restaurant can be made by calling (760) 325-4537.

Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 N. Museum Dr., Palm Springs, CA 92262, (760) 322-4800. Please consult the website for hours, exhibition details and virtual tours of the collection. Four hour free parking is available across the street in the municipal parking lot. Also visit the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center, 300 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA 92262, (760) 423-5260 and the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Desert, 72-567 Highway 111, Palm Desert, CA 92260 (760) 346-5600.

Palm Springs Walk of Stars, the Village Green Heritage Center, 10 N. Palm Canyon Drive, CA 92262. An outdoor celebration of hundreds of literary icons, civic leaders, show business personalities, Medal of Honor recipients and even three U.S. Presidents, Eisenhower, Ford and Regan, the Walk is free to the public.

The Shops at 1345, 1345 N. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs, CA, 92262 and on Instagram @theshopsat1345. Fourteen shops occupy a one-story Midcentury Modernist building by architect E. Stewart Williams. Expect handcrafted artisanal products that reflect Palm Springs’ love of color, tasteful design and personal statements. Please consult the website for hours and days of operation. Sharing the space, the shops offer unique and stylish visions of clothing, interior design, jewelry and landscape design.  Contact Bret Baughman, The Backyard PS, (760) 409-8954, bret@thebackyardps.com and on Instagram @thebackyardps and Taib Lotfi, Soukie Modern, text (310) 498-0241, email: taib@soukiemodern.com and on Instagram @soukiemodern.