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The California Mid-Century Modern Buildings You Have to See

The California Mid-Century Modern Buildings You Have to See

With the intention of opening up living spaces and bringing the outdoors in, California's mid-century modern buildings are a must-see.

Roubina Al Abashian


4 min read

June 04, 2024

Clear lines, muted curves, floor-to-ceiling windows—no, we’re not describing Spanish-style architecture at all. Think Frank Sinatra, Palm Springs, Eichler homes. Does it ring a bell? That’s right, we’re talking about California’s mid-century modern architecture. Symbolizing the Golden State lifestyle with minimalism and efficiency, these architectural masterpieces are ones that make you stop and stare for a while. You’ll find examples of this iconic California architecture all over the state, from the Bay Area all the way to Palm Springs. 

California Mid-Century Modern Architecture to Admire

1. Marin County Civic Center

An aerial view of San Rafael will expose you to the stunning blue buildings of the Marin County Civic Center. To say that the center is an architectural masterpiece is an understatement—the building has been turning heads since it was built in 1960. The Marin County Civic Center was architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s largest, most famous, and final public project.

The buildings have curved blue roofs covering the tops of three hills—they’re connected by circular blue domes. Anyone visiting the center agrees that the mid-century modern building in California is as confusing as it is beautiful—it conjures images of the Middle East, perhaps even the galaxy far, far away?

University of Southern California professor A. Quincy Jones designed the 25,000-square-foot mid-century modern house known for its pink roof.

2. Sunnylands

Constructed in the mid-60s, Sunnylands is essentially an English country estate reimagined for the California desert. Famous mid-century modern architect A. Quincy Jones designed the building with floor-to-ceiling windows, letting the outdoors inside. Over the years, several presidents and movie stars have visited the iconic estate—some people have even exchanged vows here. Today, the building is known as the only pure modernist estate in the United States; it’s open to the public for touring.

3. Stahl House

A glass structure floating over the Hollywood Hills offering magnificent views of the Greater Los Angeles area—is this a dream or is it an architectural sensation? This mid-century modern building in California is one everyone should visit. Stahl House, aka Case Study House #22, is the brilliant work of architect Pierre Koenig who designed this in 1960. The architect is famous for using glass, steel, and concrete in his iconic architectural masterpiece in Los Angeles. Koenig created a space brimming with tranquility, solitude, and breathtaking views. 

Twin Palms was designed by E. Stewart Williams to a commission from the American singer and actor Frank Sinatra.

4. Twin Palms

Also known as the Frank Sinatra House, the Twin Palms is an iconic example of mid-century modern excellence. Designed by prolific Palm Springs architect E. Stewart Williams, the Twin Palms feature four bedrooms, seven bathrooms, and floor-to-ceiling windows, all in a single story. As archetypical as the building is, Sinatra had originally asked for a Georgian-style property. Williams, on the other hand, had different plans.

Choosing to go against Sinatra’s wishes, the architect designed a home with low rectangular wings built from unconventional materials. Most rooms in the estate have long perpendicular volumes with sliding glass doors that connect to the outdoor patio, where the piano-shaped pool is located. The good news is that you can trace the footsteps of Sinatra by staying the night at the Twin Palms—perhaps you’d host spectacular parties just like he did. 

The Palm Springs City Hall showcases mid-1950s design elements with palm trees and a wall of metal tubing.

5. Palm Springs City Hall

The Palm Springs City Hall is a masterpiece of mid-century modern design, conceived by notable architects Albert Frey, E. Stewart Williams, Robson Chambers, and John Porter Clark. This iconic building is a highlight of Modernism Week. Its most distinctive element is the front screen wall, crafted from angled metal tubing arranged in layered rows, which protects the interior from the intense desert sun. Additionally, the building features a prominent central opening in the portico overhang, framed by towering palm trees that seem to touch the sky.

6. Altadena Public Library

The Altadena Public Library was designed by local architect Boyd Georgi. Completed in 1967, the mid-century modern building in California is composed of concrete flat surfaces and dark glass walls. The landscape on which the library was built is filled with trees planted in the 1880s—it only made sense for Georgi to bring the outdoors inside. The architect covered the full perimeter of the building with clerestory windows to let the sunshine in. Sitting in the central reading area feels like being in the middle of a forest. 

Famous Mid-Century Modern Architects from California

In 1974, legendary architect E. Stewart Williams was commissioned to design the current building for the Palm Springs Art Museum.

E. Stewart Williams

The Coachella Valley owes its distinct architectural style to architect E. Stewart Williams. The Palm Springs-based architect was the person behind most of the mid-century modern buildings in the area. You’ll notice his works spread all over Palm Springs. The Twin Palms, Palm Springs City Hall, and Palm Springs Art Museum are just a few of his brilliant designs—some would even go so far as saying Williams was the person who brought the city to prominence. 

Glass walls, post-and-beam construction, and open floor plans are telltale signs of an Eichler home.

Joseph Eichler

After Joseph Eichler moved to Northern California, he got inspired to design mid-century modern buildings. In less than 20 years, Eichler developed distinctive residential subdivisions of mid-century modern-style tract housing. As a result, more than 10,000 homes in the Bay Area and around 900 in Southern California were built. Eichler homes typically feature glass walls, post-and-beam construction, open floor plans, and an atrium. Long after his passing, Eichler’s designs continue to inspire up-and-coming architects—you can see his style all across the Golden State.

Donald Wexler

Donald Wexler was one of the most influential and famous mid-century modern architects who predominantly worked in Palm Springs—he helped shape the architectural facade of the city. Wexler was the pioneer of using steel in residential designs. After his move to Palm Springs in 1951, he continued to erect mid-century modern buildings for six more decades. Some of his works include the Royal Hawaiian Estates and Palm Springs International Airport.

The Stahl House is an architectural gem and a modernist icon. mbtrama from Upland, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pierre Koenig

Pierre Koenig is one of the most renowned names in California modernism. The architect rose to prominence in the mid-1900s thanks to his popular use of steel frame structures and industrial technology. Proud and bold with his designs, Koenig always chose the natural expression of materials over ornamentation. The Bailey and Stahl Houses are two of his most popular works.

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