Palm Springs Architecture and Design Center Opens in Former E. Stewart Williams Bank

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A calling card for Palm Springs is its trove of modern architecture. Now that passion for design has been enshrined in a new Architecture and Design Center, opening Sunday.

The Architecture and Design Center, short for Palm Springs Art Museum: Architecture and Design Center; Edwards Harris Pavilion, is a satellite of the Palm Springs Art Museum; it is housed in a former bank designed by the admired Palm Springs modernist architect E. Stewart Williams, and renovated by Los Angeles architects Marmol Radziner.

It is named in honor of Beth Edwards Harris, one of three major donors who enabled the purchase of the building four years ago (Harris is owner of the famed Kaufmann House, designed by Richard Neutra, also restored and adapted by Marmol Radziner).

The museum opens with an exhibition — An Eloquent Modernist: E. Stewart Williams devoted to E. Stewart Williams and his work, curated by Sidney Williams, curator at the museum. Sidney also happens to be the daughter-in-law of Williams, so she had more than usual access to the man she remembered as a charming, social person who was “very good at communicating his passion for architecture.”

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Williams studied architecture in the beaux-arts tradition, and exquisite drawings and watercolors that resulted from that education will be on display in the exhibition. But he became interested in Modernism when he made a trip to Europe in 1938, visiting and taking copious notes about the work of Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn, Alvar Aalto, J. J. P. Oud and other pioneering architects of the time.

He later joined his father in practice in Palm Springs and went on to design numerous buildings there — banks, colleges, one of the tramway stations, and houses. A trademark of his work was its warmth — he used rocks and stone and wood and other organic materials to soften the industrial aesthetic of steel and glass Modern buildings.

J.R. Roberts, Managing Director of The Palm Springs Art Museum, and owner of the Williams-designed Edris House, told DnA that the architect “liked to say a home should look as if it grew out of the ground rather than falling out of the sky.”

Williams became a central figure in the circle of architects who shaped midcentury Palm Springs. In the mid-1960s he teamed up with some of them — Albert Frey, William Cody, John Porter Clark — to develop a plan for downtown Palm Springs. That plan, never realized, will be in the exhibition, along with films, models, drawings and other memorabilia.

The opening this weekend is poignant, however. Williams’s granddaughter, Erin Williams Hyman, passed September 18, 2014, at age 42. She, like her mother Sidney, was a scholar of architecture and of Williams’ work. She wrote an essay for the catalogue — explaining Williams’s youthful journey to becoming a self-taught Modernist — and the library at the center is named for her.

The public is invited to attend the opening this Sunday, starting at 10:00AM. A highlight of the day will be a performance by String Theory, who will wrap the building in strings and briefly play it as a instrument. This would likely appeal to Williams, who is quoted by his granddaughter Erin as having said, “I wanted my buildings to have soul. . . not be an exercise in geometry.”

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All before and after images of the museum taken by Daniel Chavkin.