Palm Springs is a Mecca for Cultural Tours

Palm Springs City Hall

Palm Springs is a mecca for cultural tours. Yes, poolside relaxation is a mainstay of a Palm Springs vacation. But, what about a mental getaway? What about the opportunity to learn about unique cultures and local history? Read along to learn a few ways to immerse yourself in stories of the people and locations that make Palm Springs so unique.

Cahuilla Indians: The Valley’s First Residents

The Cahuilla Indians were the first settlers of the Coachella Valley and remain a vital part of Palm Springs’ cultural fabric. This has been their home for over 5,000 years. They named the area Sec-he, which translates to boiling water in English. Access to the hot springs in the area provided a source of clean water for domestic, medicinal and spiritual use.

The Cahuilla developed the first communities in Palm, Murray, Andreas, Tahquitz and Chino Canyons. Remnants of their domestic life can still be seen in the mountains around Palm Springs including house pits, rock art, reservoirs, and food processing areas.

The legacy of the Cahuilla Indians is intertwined with the city today. Over 20,000 people live on land that is owned by the Cahuilla. And many streets and other landmarks are named after notable Cahuilla figures including Amado, Andreas, Arenas, Baristo and Belardo Roads among others.  

There are many ways to learn more about the area’s native people. The tribe hosts several festivals each year. Each January, you can attend Wikitmallem Tahxmuweh, the Bird Song Festival at Palm Springs High School. The bird songs are sung in the Cahuilla language and are often told from the perspective of birds. There is joy and power in the music you will experience at the festival. Singers keep rhythm with gourd shakers or foot stomps. The booming voices of the mostly male singers fill the auditorium with sound. You will feel each song as much as you will hear it. It is an experience you’ll cherish and remember. The Kewet, or fiesta, is another festival day held each November. This “learning day” provides a taste of the breadth of Cahuilla culture. The festival includes singing and dancing, folk art demonstrations, games, food and a market.

If you’re craving a bit of the outdoors, the Indian Canyons is a wilderness preserve where you can hike, or ride horses through untouched desert landscape, much like the Cahuilla would have experienced hundreds of years ago. See our article on Murray Canyon Trail for a few highlights of this area.

You can also take tours with guides through the Canyons. As you follow your guide through any of these canyons, you will revel in the beauty of the desert landscape that surrounds you. Imagine what it must have been like to live amongst these richly colored and textured rock formations. Some rocks seem to change color when you view them in the shade versus in the bright sunlight. Others retain their color but exhibit raucous patterns that must have inspired early desert modern architects. Believe it or not, there are streams and waterfalls that run all year here. Thick stands of California Fan Palms line the sides of the streams and shade them.

If hiking is not your thing, there are also many books about the Cahuilla people. Palm Springs Public Library’s local interest section has a good selection. If you’re visiting, you can check out books from the library with a fee card. It’s quite inexpensive and you can check out up to 30 items for two-week stints. That should be enough poolside reading to last your vacation.

Books by Lowell John Bean are great choices and are available at the library. Bean lived with the Cahuilla in the 1950’s and helped spawn a renaissance in California Indian studies. His book Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants describes how this area’s first people used over 250 kinds of plants. For example, you will find many Honey Mesquite trees in the valley. The bright green, feather-like leaves of this tree make for great shade. The tree also produces long brown seed pods that can be eaten. The Cahuilla ground the seeds into a flour to make cakes.

A great place to see the plants listed in Bean’s book is at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert. The Cahuilla Ethno-botanical Garden includes plants that were used for food, fiber, medicine and building materials. There are interpretive signs that describe the plants and their uses. There are over 80 species of plants to view here.

The ancient traditions of the Cahuilla are alive and well and very accessible to visitors. We encourage you to explore this intriguing culture and its impact on modern day Palm Springs.

Desert Modernism

A visiting friend told me that the desert calms him. I agree, and I think the amount of space here is the reason. It’s calming to take in the vastness of the mountains, the sky, the Valley floor. Desert Modernism has a very similar feeling. There is an openness to the rooms in modernist buildings. Only what’s necessary is put inside, no extra furniture or unneeded adornment. This quality makes for calming buildings. That’s why we recommend visiting a few notable examples while here.

Palm Springs boasts a large array of mid-century modern buildings of all types: residential, civic, commercial, religious, hotels, schools, and cultural centers, just to name a few. In fact, there is more Midcentury Modern architecture here than anywhere else in the country. Guided tours are available all year long at many of these sites.

Perhaps one of the most popular modernists buildings is the 25,000 square foot house at Sunnylands. One bedroom in this sprawling home covers over a half an acre. Yet, this complex in Rancho Mirage is so calming that world leaders go there to hash out big problems such as food security and international trade. The serenity of the architecture and gardens puts everyone that visits at ease. Check out our article on Sunnylands to learn what to expect.

Palm Springs City Hall is another midcentury icon. Swiss architect Albert Frey designed the building in the early 1950’s. One of its noteworthy features is the screening on the front portico. The angular cut metal tubes point towards the ground. This blocks direct morning sunshine while still allowing in some light. City Hall also features a covered porch with a hole in the center, space for three Mexican Fan Palms to grow. If you fly into Palm Springs International Airport, you can walk to City Hall. It’s literally across the street and makes for a great entrée into the city.  

The Architecture and Design Museum in downtown Palm Springs is worth a visit if you love modernism. The building itself is noteworthy as is the collection inside. The building features floor to ceiling windows that make a lovely frame for the San Jacinto mountains just outside. Inside, you can view drawings, photos, models and other objects that chronicle the development of Palm Springs. The museum is free after 4PM on Thursday.

If you find that you’re vibing with the midcentury buildings in town, then Modernism Week might be for you. This two-week festival on all things mod takes place in mid-February each year. There are hundreds of events to attend from galas to home tours to lectures. If however, the middle of February is an inconvenient time to travel for you, try the Modernism Week Fall Preview in mid-October. It’s the lite version of the full-blown February event.

The Cornelia White House: A Piece of Palm Springs’ Pioneer History

Tucked among shops, restaurants and hotels in the downtown corridor of Palm Springs, an unassuming 19th-century pioneer home is the embodiment of local historical significance, filled with a trove of antique furniture, photographs and other memorabilia.

The Cornelia White House – also known affectionately as Miss Cornelia’s “Little House” – along with the McCallum Adobe, comprises the Village Green Heritage Center Museum. Both are nestled within an inviting park-like setting at 221 South Palm Canyon Drive and are the two oldest buildings in Palm Springs.

The Cornelia White House was built in 1893 by Dr. Welwood Murray, Palm Springs’ first hotel proprietor. In constructing the building, Dr. Murray relied on the use of recycled railroad ties taken from the tracks of the abandoned Palmdale Railway, a narrow horse-drawn, short-line railroad that ran along present-day Farrell Drive. Because of a lack of water, the rail-line became defunct in the early 1890s. Initially, the house was part of The Palm Springs Hotel, the first hotel built in the city. Twenty years later, early Palm Springs pioneer Cornelia B. White and her sister, Dr. Florilla White, purchased the building, becoming its first residents and dubbing it the “Little House.”

The Palm Springs Historical Society acquired the Cornelia White House in 1961. The organization has operated it ever since. Using antiques donated by community residents, the society furnished the house with the goal of portraying an accurate representation of the pioneer era in Palm Springs. Inside, visitors are delighted to walk among and explore the various rooms of the house, perusing old photographs and well-preserved antique furniture, clothing and household items. Part of the experience is facilitated by personable and knowledgeable docents, who always are on hand when the house is open to answer questions and even share a story or two with visitors.

Come get a taste of homelife in Palm Springs as of the late 19th century, when early settlers were laying a foundation for the city to become what it is today.

Culture Vultures unite!  We truly hope we have presented you with enough information to make you want to come to Palm Springs to engage in some amazing cultural tours.

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