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Palm Springs Architect – E. Stewart Williams

Series: Architects Who Built Palm Springs

By Randy Garner

Emerson Stewart Williams, which most now refer to as E. Stewart Williams, was born in 1909 in Dayton, Ohio, the son of Harry Williams, a prominent local architect who designed the headquarters for National Cash Register. Stewart’s father decided to move to Palm Springs in an attempt to ease the distress of his wife, Una, who suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis.

Mrs. Julia Carnell hired Harry to work on a project in Palm Springs combining residences, offices, a theater and retail stores.  Harry knew Mrs. Carnell from Ohio as she was heiress to the National Cash Register fortune. La Plaza Shopping Center, built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, opened in the heart of the growing desert city in 1936.

E. Stewart Williams arrived in Palm Springs in 1946 at the age of 38 to join his architect father, Harry, and brother, Roger. Stewart studied architecture at Cornell and went on to receive his Masters from University of Pennsylvania in 1933. He then began his professional career in New York in the office of Raymond Loewy, where he worked on projects for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Raymond Loewy would own a home in Palm Springs designed by architect Albert Frey between 1946 and 1947.

stewart williams cover photo

After settling in Palm Springs following America’s entry into WWII, his father opened an architectural firm that would be located in La Plaza. He obtained commissions almost immediately. During the war the firm was responsible for numerous single and multi-family dwellings, several medical clinics, a local hospital, a handful of retail stores, a hotel, high school classrooms, restaurants, a Masonic Temple, and a service station, among other projects.

Almost immediately, he took on the role of lead designer with the construction of two modest commercial buildings and his first important residential commission, the residence of Frank Sinatra. In the ensuing five decades of his career, Williams successfully united the warmth of natural materials with the precision of International Style Modernism in designing buildings devoted to client needs while tailored to the local setting. The business name was Harry J. Williams until 1948, when it became the firm of Williams, Williams and Williams.

He was extremely meticulous and had his hand in all aspects of design, including built-ins, light fixtures, mailboxes, and eve light switches.

E. Stewart Williams passed away in his home in Palm Springs on Sept. 10, 2005, at the age of 95

Stewart, father Harry and brother Roger Williams
Stewart, father Harry and brother Roger Williams. Credit: Palm Springs Historical Society

The Frank Sinatra House (1947) 1148 East Alejo Road

In the summer of 1946, a young Sinatra wandered into the firm’s Palm Springs office requesting a new house be designed and completed by Christmas. However, the style of house Sinatra had in mind was, according to Stewart’s brother Roger, a great big Georgian mansion with columns and stone balustrades. Stewart hated the idea, but he said “Frank, what we’ll do, we’re gonna design this thing you’re talking about but I’m going to lay out what I think fits the desert a little better and let you decide.” A few days later, Stewart presented Sinatra with both designs and the singer chose the modern ranch style house Williams had prepared versus the Georgian Revival option.

frank sinatra palm springs home

Palm Springs High School333 South Farrell Drive

In the 1940’s the firm was responsible for the auditorium, gymnasium, and library. The most impressive and important building of the three was the auditorium, which was not completed until the mid-1950s. It served as a key performance venue for the entire Coachella Valley for many years. Stewart was quite proud of the building, particularly because of its fine acoustical qualities specified by renowned UCLA acoustical physicist Dr. Vern Oliver Knudsen. All surface designs focused sound on the seats.

Palm-Springs-High-School-Auditorium stewart williams

Temple Isaiah (1949-1951, substantially altered)332 W Alejo Rd

For its construction, Stewart chose unpainted concrete block, a humble building material often utilized for basements and garages back east. The initial composition consisted of a one-room synagogue. Of the synagogue, Stewart later commented, “It was just as simple and beautiful as a finished church, or anything else, in its lines. No pretense – just exposed concrete block, both on the interior as well as the exterior walls.”

 Oasis Hotel (demolished) and Oasis Commercial Building (1953 – 1955)

At the southwest corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Avenue once sat the Oasis Hotel designed by Lloyd Wright in 1923 for Palm Springs pioneer Pearl McManus. Its minimalist appearance and slip-form concrete construction made it perhaps the earliest truly modern hotel in Southern California. Following its purchase by the Western Hotels chain in 1952, the Oasis Hotel was demolished with the exception of its distinctive tower and commercial wing, which survives.

Williams was hired to design the hotel’s replacement (also called the Oasis Hotel) that would consist of 50 guest rooms, a restaurant, cocktail bar, card room, and outdoor patio. Another key part of the program would be an expansive 27,000 square foot, two-story commercial structure of ground floor shops with second story offices (the Oasis Commercial Building, also known as the Oasis Office Building). Design began in 1953 with the entire complex completed in 1955. This was an important commission with a large $1.35 million budget and its prominence in the downtown.

The Oasis Commercial Building was inspired by modernist architect Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in France. It was painted white on a smooth exterior surface which gave it a striking example of the International Style on such a busy corner. Angled, floor-to-ceiling windows facing Palm Canyon Drive enclose the ground floor shops that are deeply recessed beneath the second story to provide welcoming shade. Centering the building was an interior courtyard open to the sky that offered a pleasant setting for al fresco dining. Natural rock cladding on the walls surrounds the courtyard softening the straight lines of the composition. A passageway provided access between the south end of the building and the original Oasis Hotel tower. Above the passageway was a bridge connecting the newer building to an elevator shaft abutting the older tower.

oasis commercial building stewart williams 1955

Part of the arrangement with Western Hotels on the Oasis Hotel project involved leasing half of the second story of the Oasis Commercial Building to Williams, Williams and Williams upon completion. The new space offered many advantages including a contemporary modern reception room, conference room, and a large drafting room all bathed in light from the north-facing windows.

A three story 44 room wing was added in 1964 by William’s. Henry Dally purchased the hotel in 1968. Today, the location of the William’s 44 room addition is home to the Palm Mountain Resort & Spa.

oasis hotel stewart williams 1964
Credit: Palm Springs Historical Society

The Edris Residence (1954)1030 West Cielo Drive

William and Marjorie Edris had lived in one of the Potter Clinic’s upstairs apartments at the same time as the Williams family in the late 1940s. Edris was an attorney, but also developed real estate. He had accumulated significant hotel properties including the Olympic and Roosevelt Hotels in Seattle and the Davenport Hotel in Spokane.  The two couples became friends and in 1953 hired E. Steward Williams to build them a winter residence.

The parcel chosen was located in the undeveloped upper reaches of the Tuscany Heights neighborhood in a boulder-strewn area. Taking full advantage of the unique location, E. Stewart Williams moved only those boulders necessary to place the house on a flat surface with the goal of integrating as much of the natural environment into the design as possible. Although of steel frame construction, the exterior of the house was clad in native rock and board-and-batten douglas fir siding. Native rock was used for the prominent chimney, with the east end penetrating the floor-to-ceiling plate glass wall of the living room with breathtaking views of the Coachella Valley. Boulders, several of which are just a foot away from the pool’s edge, surround almost the entire pool.

edris house in palm springs

edris house living room stewart williams

Harold Hicks Real Estate and Insurance Building (1955)345 North Palm Canyon Drive

Harold Hicks, real estate developer, commissioned E. Stewart Williams to design the Harold Hicks Real Estate and Insurance building. Harold Hicks leases the building to his brother, Milton, and it becomes the Palm Springs Water Company Building in 1961. The building stayed much the same until it was sold in 1978 and with a few alterations, used as real estate offices and eventually an art gallery. The building currently houses a design collective called “The Shops at Thirteen Forty Five” and the owners are working to keep the architectural integrity intact.

The Shops At Thirteen Forty Five

Stewart Williams Residence (1955)1314 E. Culver Place

For his own residence, Williams chose a large parcel on the former grounds of the El Mirador Hotel golf course. His immediate neighbors were Albert Frey and John Porter Clark. Although the Frey House (known as Frey House I) has been razed, the John Porter Clark and Williams residences remain hidden behind the gates of a recent housing development.

With his own dwelling, E. Stewart Williams was able to fully implement his design philosophy of bringing the features of the environment and landscape into the living space of the buildings and home. The house is essentially a roof over the garden so the desert can flow through. It was designed to be a shelter in a very harsh climate. At the north end of the house, the outside garden continued into the living room where numerous boulders surrounded an open fire pit. Unpainted wood surfaces defined interior walls as well as the built-in furniture Williams integrated into all of the rooms. Because the property was situated in the north end of town, Stewart erected a long pebble encrusted tilt-up concrete wall to block the winds. Artist Dale Chihuly was one of the homes owners.

ARCHITECTS-E.STEWART-WILLIAMs Mari Stewart Williams House 1955

Koerner Residence (1955)1275 South Calle de Maria

The Koerner Residence was designed in 1955 by Williams for the Vancouver-based couple of Leon and Thea Koerner in the Deepwell neighborhood. Each room featured Williams’ characteristic natural wood built-in cabinets, credenzas, vanities, and dressers. A rock garden and interior pond with three-tiered metal fountain and contemplative seating area is located on the south side of the master bedroom separated by glass.

Koerner-House-E-Stewart-Williams-palm-springs-property

Coachella Valley Savings #1 (1956)383 South Palm Canyon Drive

This was William’s first bank commission. The lot was located on the west side of South Palm Canyon Drive and was relatively small for the program of a reception area, teller stations, offices, conference rooms, lunch room, two vaults, and automobile parking. Stewart’s solution was to raise the building on columns, creating a covered driveway with parking spaces beneath the upper floor and around the west and south sides of the building. Vertical metal louvers designed by Williams that cover the east-facing windows were later installed. The entry lobby has a floating staircase to the second floor. Behind the lobby reception desk is a large steel vault with a twin vault above it on the second floor. Enclosing the vault stack on both floors is native rock cladding; a typical Williams’s feature designed to soften the straight lines and fabricated materials.

coachella-valley-savings-and-loan stewart williams

Coachella Valley Savings & Loan, 1961, E. Stewart Williams Architect
Julius Shulman photography archive, 1936-1997.

Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan Association (1960)300 South Palm Canyon Drive

The Santa Fe Federal Savings building appears to float above the surface due to its recessed foundation and cantilevered floor slab. John Wessman later owned the property and used it for his offices. In an arrangement, it became under the ownership of the Palm Springs Art Museum in 2014 and underwent a full restoration. It is now called the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center Edwards Harris Pavilion. Marmol Radziner was the architectural firm responsible for the restoration.  They had also been involved in the 1990s restoration of the Richard Neutra designed Kaufmann House.

stewart williams santa fe federal savings and loan entry 1960
Credit: Julius Shulman. Stewart Williams seated.

Coachella Valley Savings #2 (1961)499 South Palm Canyon Drive

A site a few blocks south of CVS #1 at the northwest corner of South Palm Canyon and Ramon Road was selected for the CVS #2 location. By this time E. Stewart Williams was interested in exploring the possibilities of more advanced structural forms, especially using concrete.

At the site, a 10-foot grade variance presented a challenge. Williams’ solution was a split-level parking structure at the rear of the building with entrances on both levels. These led to either the main lobby below or the mezzanine above. The mezzanine floor was hung from the ceiling structure allowing the banking floor below to be completely column free. The final element was a reflecting pool and fountains that Stewart placed along the full width of the building at street level. The pool continues under the cantilevered floor slab where the arches touch the ground. At night, with the row of up-lit fountains and recessed lighting behind the arches, it appeared the massive structure is floating above the water. It is now the home of Chase Bank.

stewart williams coachella valley savings #2 1961
Credit: Julius Shulman

Sutter Residence (1960) – 1207 Calle de Maria

Theodore and Marguerite Sutter commissioned their residence in Deep Well Ranch Estates in 1958 (now Deepwell neighborhood). He was associated with Baker Oil Tools,  a pioneer in oil drilling equipment.  They wanted a modern design for a weekend retreat that could be managed with no live-in staff.  Next door was the more lavish Koerner residence he had done in 1955. While continuing to design large commercial and institutional buildings, E. Stewart Williams designed several custom homes, including the Sutter House. The front of the home included concrete blocks and milk glass to create a privacy screen to the entry. Extensive built-ins and cabinetry designed by Williams meant that interior designer Arthur Elrod only had to provide the basics. It has a Class 2 Historic Resource designation.

Sutter home stewart williams photo by Julius Shulman © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)
Photo by Julius Shulman © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Mountain Station (1961)

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was a joint venture of the architectural firms of Frey and Chambers, and Williams, Williams & Williams. John Porter Clark served as coordinating architect. The Williams team, with E. Stewart Williams as lead designer, was responsible for the mountain station. The mountain station design is based on a Swiss chalet style, with angled wings and sloping roofs with large windows to take in views. The building with its wings and outdoor terraces is fitted to the topography. The lower base of the building is constructed of reinforced concrete, including the tower that contains the tram’s mechanical equipment and receives the tramway cars. However, the portion of the building above the concrete base is made primarily of wood and glass. Natural rock cladding flanks a monumental metal chimney connecting the two wings.

tram mountain station

The Palm Springs Desert Museum (1976)

The Desert Museum was located in a small downtown building erected in 1958. In conceiving a replacement, the museum’s director and board of trustees organized a fund-raising campaign that would allow for a robust program consisting of an art gallery, natural history museum, and performing arts center. Due to a two-story height limit in Palm Springs at the time, a subterranean level was necessary to accommodate the 75,000 square foot building planned for the site.

As more space was needed by the early 1980’s, the museum’s administrative functions were relocated to a new, separate building just north of the original building. Named the Marks Administration Building, it was designed by E. Stewart Williams and completed in 1981. Then, in 1993, a generous donation from interior designer Steven Chase helped fund a 15,000 square foot addition to house new galleries, a lecture hall, art storage and other utilitarian spaces. Williams came out of retirement to design the addition, which opened in 1996.

The Palm Springs Desert Museum became the Palm Springs Art Museum in 2005.

Palm Springs Art Museum

 Erik and Sidney Williams House (1986)800 West Stevens Road

Home of his son and daughter in-law.

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