In Palm Springs, where new hotels are being built downtown and re-purposed small inns pop up with the regularity of triple-digit summer temperatures, The Monkey Tree Hotel—a picturesque hideaway set in backdrop of the startling, often snow-peaked, San Jacinto mountains—opened quietly in February of this year. Lovingly re-fitted with 16 rooms that border a large swimming pool highlighted by yellow umbrellas and whimsical touches, in a mid-century reboot, the boutique property stows away in the eastern part of town on a busy avenue far from the action and under the flight path of the nearby airport. Why, you might ask, is the Monkey Tree a big deal in a town where buildings, houses, furniture and fixtures are labeled with the mid-century tags as regularly as “clear and dry” is in the weather forecast? There are two reasons. One is the careful, caring and devoted renovation orchestrated by first-time hoteliers Gary and Kathleen Friedle; the other is because it is an iconic mid-century landmark.
But wait, yet another mid-century claim in a place with a giddy municipal obsession with all things mid-century? With a Modernism Week every year, tours of modernist homes, a downtown museum devoted to local art and design, and mid-century gurus who decree what is authentic and what is pretender. A big reason for the Monkey Tree’s mark on Palm Springs is that the property designed by Albert Frey, a Swiss architect who moved to Palm Springs in the 1930s and is widely considered the father of desert modernism. Frey (pronounced “Fray”) was one of a handful of young, ambitious architects who descended on what was a little desert village and with a vocabulary of swoops and exposed beams, glass and concrete earned the sunbaked town a place in design history. Principle among them was Frey, who designed numerous Palm Springs buildings and houses, including City Hall and the futuristic Tramway Gas Station with its famous 95-foot flying wing canopy. His Monkey Tree came in 1960, its sloping roof lines following the soaring contours of the San Jacinto Mountains in the near background.
Gary and Kathleen relocated to Palm Springs from Brooklyn where he was a wealth-management executive and she was an architect and manager for a high-powered firm. They fled the east part for a career change, part for the weather, and part for a place to raise their two teenage boys. They arrived in the Springs last year to find a small hotel to buy and operate. And when they found the neglected Monkey Tree, learned of its provenance and the many celebrities in its past, including Eric Clapton, and a spicy story of John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe monkeying around in what’s now called the Presidential Suite while his body guards stood outside a private entrance.
They have preserved Frey’s vision while upgrading all the rooms with modern baths, flat-screen televisions, power plugs for devices, quality bed linens and authentic furnishings and objects. Rates include a complimentary continental breakfast prepared by Gary that includes freshly-baked scones, granola, yogurt, orange juice that’s not fresh squeezed, coffee a little too weak to produce that big buzz the Diva and Richard are used to, fresh berries and tea. There is also a water-filter machine that counts how many plastic bottles have been spared, a brand new Scandinavia spa with a whirlpool, sauna and cold plunge pool, an exercise pool with a tether for swimming laps in place, and that big swimming pool with its view of the mountains. A proper restaurant will be ready soon, but just for Gary’s breakfasts and only for guests.
We checked all the rooms and aside from the Presidential suite found Erik (as discussed) Clapton’s room the best and it is fittingly numbered as room #1 and named the Jungle Room for its jaguar wallpaper. The suite was perfect for an anniversary celebrating couple who spent two nights there and two nights on the other side of the Desert at the Chateau at Lake La Quinta (both filled the bill perfectly). The Clapton comes with a large outdoor patio, big bath with twin vanities, rain shower and window that looks out onto said patio. You get robes, hair dryer, the usual hair and body products and if you’re lucky Cathy will give you a Monkey Tree Hotel tote but you must have a photo taken with it someplace else to send her for a montage they are creating. Rooms are quite comfy and stylishly-decorated by Kathleen who Gary told us bought most of the furnishings at local Palm Springs consignment shops. The smallest room on the property measures 300 square-feet (twice the size of other hotels in town), with the largest suite spans 725 square-feet and sport 500 square-foot private patios, for ultimate seclusion and privacy.
We arrived at the Monkey Tree Hotel in mid-week and there was still room at the inn. But come Friday all 16 rooms were filled which we think will probably always be especially on the weekend. This is one couple that knows what they’re doing. Further more boutique hotels are the trend especially for millennials and those of us who eschew elevators, crowds, resort fees, and being nickel and dimed by mini bar charges and hidden fees—you won’t find that at Cathy’s and Gary’s cozy little hideaway. By-the-way it’s a very short drive from the Monkey Tree Hotel to our favorite spots in town such as Lulu’s, Tropicale, Kaiser Grille, Zin and doing retail therapy at the boutiques and shops that line the boulevard.
The Monkey Tree Hotel is located at 2388 E. Racquet Club Road, Palm Springs, 760-322-6059.