College of the Desert

Desert modernist buildings

Located in the Coachella Valley‘s central community of Palm Desert, the College of the Desert is well worth the 30 minute (or less) drive from Palm Springs for a chance to see desert modernism at its best.

Designed in the late 1950s by noted architect John Carl Warnecke (the Hawaii State Capital building) in a unique collaboration with the area’s foremost modernists including Albert Frey, Robson C. Chambers, E. Stewart Williams, Donald Wexler, Richard Harrison and John Porter Clark, the College of the Desert was built on ranch land at the corner of Monterey Ave. & Fred Waring Drive and opened its doors to classes in 1962.

Of note, the campus’s many low-lying buildings boast colonnades throughout, of which their gently curved columns are said to have been inspired by the date palm trees which were abundant in the area at the time.

The centrally located Hilb Student Center is also a standout. Situated at the end of a water feature near the campus’s Monterey Ave. entrance, and made of precast reinforced concrete, this striking 2-story building was once the campus library. Interestingly, plans are now in place to convert The Hilb back into a library.

Other buildings have been added to the campus over the years including the McCallum Theatre (1988, Anthony and Langford), the Barker Nursing Complex (2009, HMC Architects) and the Communication building (2013, tBP Architecture) among others, which all adhere to the desert modernist aesthetic in their own way.

Our favorite structure though is the Velma Dawson  house (formerly known as the Odell Ranch House) which actually predates the campus. Designed in the International Style by Albert Frey in 1948, it now houses the Alumni Association and was named for Dawson (who, by the way, was the creator of the famous Howdy Doodymarionette!) for her support of the college over the years.

For one-stop shopping, so to speak, the College of the Desert’s Palm Desert campus is the only place in the Coachella Valley where you can see the work of these renowned desert modernists all in one place. It’s an easy hour’s stroll around the campus, so why not?

For a campus map, click here, and below is a list of the early 1960s buildings with their attributed architects.

Lecture Hall, Liberal Arts, Library, Science, Technology ‘T’, Maintenance ‘M’ by John Carl Warnecke

Gymnasium, Nursing, Business, Technology 2 ‘E’ by E. Stewart Williams

Administration Building, Student Center ‘C’ Building, Dining Hall by Albert Frey & Robson C. Chambers

North, South, East Entrances, Technology 2 ‘E’, Path & walkway landscaping by John Porter Clark:

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