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03 Feb 2017

A Tropical Oasis in South Palm Springs: The Royal Hawaiian Estates' Annual Modernism Week Tiki-A-Go-Go Party Helps Preserve the Historic Complex

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The Royal Hawaiian Estates. The Royal Hawaiian Estates. Courtesy of Bill Lewallen

Modernism and tiki design go hand in hand—and since Palm Springs is a haven for midcentury modern architecture, it’s no surprise that tiki/tropical design found a home here, too.

Welcome to the Royal Hawaiian Estates. As part of Modernism Week, the complex will be throwing its big annual bash, Tiki-A-Go-Go, on Saturday, Feb. 18. Expect a fun night of music from DJ Baz, as well as a performance by The Hula Girls—and, of course, tours of the legendary grounds that were once a playground to many famous residents.

Bill Lewallen, a representative of the complex’s homeowners, talked about the history of the Royal Hawaiian Estates, located in south Palm Springs near the intersection of South Palm Canyon and Twin Palms drives.

“In the late ’50s, World War II was glamorized by the movie industry and the magazines,” Lewallen said. “It was all about the islands and the South Pacific. The GIs would come back and have all these stories of tiki torches, the dancers and this and that. Places like Trader Vic’s capitalized on that, and tiki became very popular.

“The developer, Phil Short, he was Jewish, and he wanted to build a place in south Palm Springs that had a Hawaiian/Polynesian influence. … It was sort of his middle finger to the Tamarisk crowd: Back in the day, through discrimination, they wouldn’t let Jews or anyone they considered not white join their country clubs. They didn’t care how much money you had. Phil Short said, ‘Screw you!’ and built this place.”

It’s believed that the Royal Hawaiian Estates—with 40 units in 12 buildings on five acres—constituted the first Hawaiian-themed structures in Palm Springs; everything else being built at the time had a more conservative modern appearance.

“Phil Short had a real thing about Hawaii,” Lewallen said. “He was a New Yorker, with (architects) Don Wexler and Rick Harrison. Don Wexler and Rick Harrison didn’t know much about Polynesia, so they researched it. Don Wexler did the interior, and Rick Harrison was responsible for the outside of it. Rick Harrison was the one who designed all the Polynesian elements. Phil Short advertised in the cruise-ship magazines that went from New York City to Florida and then South America, and to Los Angeles and Hawaii. He advertised heavily in those magazines.”

The Royal Hawaiian Estates, which opened as a 55-and-older complex, wound up being the last collaboration between Wexler and Harrison. “Don wanted to stay closer to commercial design, and Rick wanted to branch out more into residential. So they left amicably, according to Don, but this was the last project they did in partnership,” Lewallen said.

Lewallen said the complex was absolutely hopping in the 1960s.

“It was a party! One of the first residents was a guy named George Jessel, who was the toastmaster of Hollywood,” Lewallen said. “He was also a Vegas entertainer. He was a notorious partier. This is 40 units on 5 acres. In 1961, George Jessel had a unit on the west side of the complex, and he would bus in all these showgirls from Vegas, and they would wear these skin-tight latex bathing suits, high heels, huge hair and a full face of makeup at the pool. They would carry martinis and serve drinks by the pool. Hawaiian music was piped in throughout here 24 hours a day. When George was festive, he’d have huge blocks of ice shipped in, and they would have these ice glaciers in the pool during the summer. The models would float on the ice glaciers. It was wild. It was one big family and one big party.”

Life in the Royal Hawaiian Estates today is a lot different than it was back in the 1960s. It’s no longer a complex for those just 55 and up, and condominiums currently for sale are listed in the $300,000 range.

“It’s quiet. ... But nobody is really here,” Lewallen said. “Even right now, people come during the weekends. People come for a couple of months during the winter. My neighbor next door hasn’t been here in 17 years, and his unit just sits there. To walk into the unit next door, it’s like to walk back in time: It’s the original floor, original counters, cabinets and appliances. Everything is intact. My cleaning lady goes over there and cleans it just to keep the dust out. It’s a Danish couple. … We do have a lady who lives here who’s currently in hospice, and she’s been here since Day 1. When she passes, my neighbors will be the oldest residents. We’ve been through 10 deaths since I’ve been here of the older residents.”

In the ’90s, the property fell into disrepair due to a lack of occupants and funds. Fortunately, times today are better for the Royal Hawaiian Estates. The “tiki apexes” on the buildings were restored in 2013. The “flying sevens” on the patios were restored, too, as were the Polynesian architectural elements known as “fascia of the gables.” So how do they do all this restoration? Not usually through the traditional method of HOA “special assessments”; instead, they use fundraising and grants from the Palm Springs Historic Site Preservation Board.

“That’s one reason why we have fundraisers. The cocktail parties we have once a year are the biggest fundraisers,” Lewallen said. “We use the funds generated from the party to put back into the restoration effort. They try not to comingle the operation funds with the restoration funds. The beams that you see everywhere, they were milled at a special size back in the ’60s, and they don’t make wood that size anymore. The wood has to be cut less than inch shorter. Everything has to be factory-built and cured. Each one of these beams, like the flying sevens, to redo are $15,000 just for one. My unit has three. We had one special assessment of $5,000 because they just can’t keep up with the restoration.”

Tiki culture is enjoying a resurgence, a sorts, and a lot of it has been incorporated into Palm Springs’ Modernism Week. Lewallen said he’s received a lot of feedback regarding old images he’s put online.

“I got an email from Google a couple of weeks ago, and it was a robot thanking me,” Lewallen said. “It commented on how the graphics I’ve put up from the late ’50s and early ’60s on Google Maps have increased the traffic—and it was way out there. … Tiki is coming back. Don the Beachcomber used to be where Ernest Coffee is … on the north side. The guy who owns the coffee shop said that when they were knocking out walls and putting up reinforcements, they took a full wall down—and (the area) behind that was full of artifacts and wallpaper that was intact. There’s also the Tonga Hut, and the Purple Room went back to tiki when it opened.”

While the Tiki-A-Go-Go party costs $125, the Royal Hawaiian Estates complex is worth experiencing—and preserving. Lewallen said attendees can expect to have a lot of fun.

“The beautiful thing about our parties is because we have five acres, you can spread out, and you don’t feel cramped,” he said. “There’s so much space. There’s parking; there are places to walk around and smoke a cigarette, and some people open their homes for viewing.”

Tiki-A-Go-Go takes place at 6 to 9 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 18, at 283 E. Twin Palms Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $125. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.royalhawaiianscoop.com. For more information on Modernism Week, which takes place Feb. 16-26, visit www.modernismweek.com.

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