Palm Springs is known for its mid-century modern architecture, celebrities, golf tournaments and trendy venues, but one of its greatest assets is a historic hotel.
Walking the path behind The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn that leads up the hill to the historic landmark known as the O’Donnell House, I wondered if I was having some kind of spiritual experience. The path, only accessible to hotel guests, meanders between the two properties and is the same early morning walk that Albert Einstein enjoyed when he stayed at The Willows in the 1930s.
A golden glow illuminates the rocks, and the desert flowers appear to be lit from within. From the top, there’s a view of Palm Springs and the entire Coachella valley flooded in pinkish orange light and framed by the San Bernardino Mountains to the north, the Santa Rosa Mountains to the south, the San Jacinto Mountains to the west and the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the east. It’s no wonder that early Spanish explorers called this area La Palma de la Mano de Dios or “The Palm of God’s hand.” And trippy to think I was sharing the experience with Einstein – some 85 years later.
Both The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn and the O’Donnell House, once in danger of demolition, are now “Class One Historic Landmarks” and both are owned by Drs. Tracy Conrad and Paul Marut. The couple accidentally discovered The Willows back in the mid-’90s after coming to Palm Springs for a weekend getaway. They never imagined their lives were about to undergo a dramatic change when they took a walk after dinner and stumbled upon the abandoned property with a for-sale sign hanging on the locked gate.
On a whim, they called the number on the sign and “just for fun” toured the property the next day. The landscaping was overgrown, some of the original features were gone, and other architectural treasures were covered up with red carpeting, mirrored ceilings, green paint and circa 1970s décor. It was a sight that sent other buyers running, but Tracy and Paul saw beyond the misguided efforts to modernize.
Doing a bit of research, they discovered The Willows’ fascinating history. It was built in 1925 for a prominent Los Angeles banker, but some of its most fascinating years transpired with its next owner, New York attorney Samuel Untermyer. The world-famous lawyer, in ill-health, arrived in Palm Springs in 1929. When he heard The Willows was for sale, he purchased it, thinking it would be a sanctuary during his dying days. That didn’t happen for another 11 years. The Willows worked its magic. Untermyer regained his strength and opened his home to his many prominent friends, including Einstein, author Upton Sinclair, dashing New York mayor “Gentle Jimmy” Walker and a host of other colorful movie stars and celebrities of the day.
For Tracy and Paul, the die was cast. The Willows had to be saved. Friends and family questioned their sanity as they leveraged their credit, their stamina and their perseverance to bring The Willows back to its former glory. After two years of painstaking restoration, they opened their luxury boutique hotel to glowing reviews. Five years later, they purchased the adjacent O’Donnell House. Today, both are safe from real estate developers with big ideas that often start with a wrecking ball − a fate that befell the nearby Desert Inn, which was demolished to make way for a shopping mall.
Knowing you’re sharing a dream space with the likes of Albert Einstein or Upton Sinclair is an attraction, but The Willows, even without its legacy, is an ideal escape from L.A. city stress. Coming here is like arriving at your own private home, not a hotel. In fact, you can’t even get onto the grounds unless you’re a registered guest, as I discovered when I arrived and saw the gate was closed. But with a quick call, I was promptly greeted by two friendly staff members who showed me where to park (room for eight cars) and graciously showed me to my exquisite room, named after Marion Davies, the silent film star and longtime companion of William Randolph Hearst, who was another frequent guest.
The staff at this small Four Diamond Award hotel treats you like royalty, with just the right amount of attentiveness that never veers into hovering. The indoor/outdoor dining room sits next to a cascading waterfall, and you can enjoy your elegant, three-course breakfast there or ask to have it delivered to your room. In the evenings, wine and hors d’oeuvres are offered to guests as they stroll in from their daily activities: golf, tennis, shopping in Palm Springs’ tony uptown design district, a day at the spa, exploring mid-century modern architecture, or meandering through the Palm Springs Art Museum that’s around the corner from the hotel’s front gate.
Lovingly restored to its former glory, The Willows, in turn, is bestowing its restorative power upon its guests. The gentile environment surrounded by the desert’s unique beauty really does have a healing power. Happily, if you live in Los Angeles, your own restoration can be just 90 minutes away.
Copyright © Kim Calvert/2015 Singular Communications, LLC.
412 W. Tahquitz Way
Palm Springs, CA 92262
Pick Your Passion
The Willows is open September through May. There are eight unique guest rooms. Rates start $395 per night and includes a daily three-course chef-driven breakfast, evening wine and hors d’oeuvres, poolside snacks and in-room edibles upon arrival. No resort fees.
Library Room – For the literary inclined, this room is said to have inspired Upton Sinclair and later screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson, who completed the Academy Award-nominated There will Be Blood, based on Sinclair’s novel Oil!, in this room. It features a coffered ceiling, hand-carved cherry wood fireplace, vintage tiled bath and a secluded garden patio.
Marion Davies Room – Named for the woman who captured the heart of William Randolph Hearst and chose The Willows as her Palm Springs retreat. The creamy color palette, grand fireplace and a private balcony overlook the swimming pool and the desert mountains. The luxurious bathroom is made for a movie star.
Einstein’s Garden Room – Decorated in soft tones that complement the fine antique pieces, this room features a king-sized bed and elegant tiled bathroom with clawfoot tub and walk-in shower. A pair of French doors opens out to the room’s own private sun terrace.
The Rock Room – A huge boulder, part of the mountain, protrudes from the corner of the oversized shower and gives this room its name. There’s an elegantly furnished sitting area and private bedroom alcove, all within steps of The Willows swimming pool.
Waterfall Room – With a view of the 50-foot waterfall that frames the dining room, this room has a private staircase entrance and queen-size sleigh bed. Vaulted ceilings, a pair of cozy chairs positioned near the fireplace, and hand-made Spanish tiles adorn the bathroom.
Loft Room – A winding staircase leads to this hidden chamber with Italian burled walnut furniture, a vaulted ceiling, fireplace and views of the mountains. The bathroom features limestone wainscoting, a two-person clawfoot tub and the sound of the Inn’s waterfall just outside the window.
Palm Room – This secluded room has its own private, poolside entrance, a separate sitting room that leads to a bedroom alcove with an antique cast-iron bed and a clawfoot tub big enough for two.
Acanthus Room – This room features cream-colored walls and fabrics with wooden floors salvaged from an early 20th century church. Located on the pool level, the room is filled with sunlight and in the evening is illuminated with a 1925 alabaster chandelier.