Rancho Mirage, Calif. – This was Republican country — there’s no mistaking the fact. You can hardly get from Point A to Point B in the golf belt of the California desert without paying homage to a particular kind of Republican: You motor down Gerald Ford Drive, and if you make a right turn on Frank Sinatra, you might recall that he made one, too, beginning his political days as a JFK man but ending them raising money for Ronald Reagan. Just down the road, President Barack Obama is meeting with his Chinese counterpart at Sunnylands, the former home of Republican moneyman Walter Annenberg, publisher of TV Guide and ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. (To get there, exit the Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway on Bob Hope Drive and go just past Gerald Ford — if you hit Country Club Drive, you’ve gone too far.)
Sunnylands is a masterpiece of midcentury modernism, and Palm Springs and its environs are famous for their Jetsons-flavored houses. The architecture is such a draw that Modernism Week is an important buttress for the area’s tourism-driven economy, and design aficionados come from around the world to tour the famous residential works of Richard Neutra, William Cody, and others. The architecture is not incidental: Whereas Washington’s monumental, fascist-flavored buildings (especially the works of Paul Cret and other practitioners of “stripped classicism”) take their inspiration from Greek and Roman public buildings, the most notable architecture of the California desert is uniquely American and private — sometimes aggressively private: Other places in the country have gated communities, but Canyon Lake, just down the road, is a gated city, one of five in the region.