August 18, 2012

Photo Essay: The Other Elvis of Palm Springs, The Elvis of My Childhood

[Last Updated 2/20/19 9:39 PM PT—photos added]

I don't have much fondness for many aspects of my childhood, but Elvis is one of them.

I was not even two years old yet when Elvis died. I don't really remember his death because he—and his music—was always alive in our house. I knew all the words to his later singles—"Moody Blue," "Way Down," "Suspicious Minds," "Kentucky Rain"—without knowing what they meant, or that Elvis was even gone. My parents had a patch of one of his costumes that had come inside one of their LPs, and they told stories of seeing him in concert. My sister and I gazed lovingly at the lights of our family stereo through the translucent blue vinyl record that we held gingerly in our hands, careful not to scratch, fingerprint, or drop it.

I knew and loved the karate-chopping, mutton-chopped Fat Elvis before I ever saw Jailhouse Rock or the '68 Comeback Special or even thought about stepping on his blue suede shoes. I think in my young mind, they weren't even the same person. Later in life, I now (for better or worse) see a more complete portrait of Elvis the star, the artist, and the man - and not just Vegas Elvis that greeted me when my parents brought me home from the hospital as a baby, but Memphis Elvis, and Palm Springs Elvis.

Elvis Presley famously partied in Palm Springs, and spent a year leasing a modernist home which he turned into his "Honeymoon Hideaway" with his new bride, Priscilla. But there is only one house in Palm Springs that he actually owned: the estate on Chino Canyon Road which the Jergens family (of the lotion empire) commissioned Albert Frey to design in 1946.

Elvis actually recorded nine songs in the living room of this house, with soundproofing ceiling panels that were installed (and still remain) by RCA upon his request. None of them were the big hits (or any I'd ever heard played by my parents), though "Promised Land" hit #14 in 1974, and "Are You Sincere" was a Top 10 country hit two years after his death.

They call this house "Graceland West," but from what I saw, I can only imagine it pales in comparison to his Memphis home. With its Spanish tile roof and enclosed spaces, the estate also doesn't reflect the typical desert modernism that Frey became notorious for with the Palm Springs Tramway gas station, City Hall, or the North Shore Yacht Club at the Salton Sea.

Then again, it has been preserved in (or, in some cases, restored to) the state in which Elvis left it - which isn't so much mid-century modern as it is 1970s bachelor pad. After all, the house was his for the last seven years of his life, much of which followed his split with Priscilla, leaving him single and ready to mingle.

Hence the addition of a new wing, with a game room (outfitted with wet and dry saunas) and an additional bedroom for frolics with new girlfriends.

He also added a wall to the kitchen (at least with a geometric pattern wallpaper, which still remains), closing off the open floor plan normally characteristic of modernist design.

From the pool (which is charmingly and probably unintentionally guitar-shaped), you can see the original footprint on the left, and the new wing on the right.

But where Frey's original genius really does shine through—and remains untouched—is the wide open space behind the house, with an incredible view of the canyons and the mountains...

...and a healthy dose of desert seclusion, which is why Elvis chose the relatively modest dwelling for relatively immodest antics in the hot tub.

It's a totally different spirit of Elvis that lingers at this estate compared to the Honeymoon Hideaway, but then again, even though he bought it only three years after his honeymoon, it was a different man—both physically and emotionally—who lived there.

Long live the King.

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