Meet Michael Stern, Owner of The Modern Tour

Learn about Palm Springs architecture and architects from one of the foremost experts

Posted By: Friday, March 22, 2019

By Kevin Perry

Conventionally, buildings are constructed to protect us from the elements. Roofs keep out the rain, walls battle back the cold, and our respective abodes create a shelter from the dreaded world outside. But in Palm Springs, the architecture is designed to amplify our wondrous surroundings.

“Weather has such an impact on human behavior,” muses Michael Stern, founder and owner of The Modern Tour. “Because we have 340 sunny days a year, it puts everyone in a good state of mind. In Palm Springs, people are here because they want to be here, not because they have to be here. So everyone’s in Palm Springs for basically the same reason, which is to have a good time. Y’know, it’s a party town. The locals indulge as well as the tourists!”

Michael Stern
Michael Stern

 

Putting a rosy flourish on his heartfelt sentiments, Stern asserts, “It’s a happy place because everyone’s in a good mood.” And we have reason to be joyous: Michael has been ushering visitors through the luxe landscape of our hometown for eight glorious years. Hailing from New York (but resenting the hail), he quips, “We moved here from Tribeca in lower Manhattan, and I hate cold weather. So that really predicated the move.”

Upon arriving in the gleaming Shangri-La of SoCal, Stern discovered a newfound perspective on his own classic training. “I’d done a lot of architectural tours, being an architectural historian, as you can imagine. Very often it’s exteriors only. And I thought, for the tours we do, we’re going to go inside the houses. Inside private residences. So people can have an idea of what it’s like to live in Palm Springs as opposed to just visiting here.”

Summoning up his boundless enthusiasm for the access he is thrilled to give his tour guests, Michael concludes, “I can’t think of another place in the world where you can go inside private, fabulous architectural houses on a routine and daily basis. I literally don’t know of anyplace else in the world.”

While he is gleefully verbose on most matters, Stern answers the next question with one word. When asked how he would characterize Palm Springs architecture, he quickly responds, “Understated.”

Cody Glass House
Cody Glass House

 

After a savory pause, Michael is happy to elaborate. “There are some buildings that have a lot of oomp on the outside, but typically, I call Palm Springs architecture ‘discreet to the street.’”

When that clever turn of phrase elicits a reaction, Stern proudly requests, “Put a little TM with a circle around it!”

 While creativity is indeed Michael’s trademark, he tempers it with a healthy dose of expertise for the architectural flair of Palm Springs. “Street presence is understated. Very often these houses are very unassuming from the outside. Once you go through the gate, however, everything changes and it completely opens up.”

Franz Alexander House
Franz Alexander House

 

Craving the embrace of the homes he loves so much, Stern explains, “So that was another reason why I wanted to show interiors because in Palm Springs particularly, everyone has a pool. Everyone wants privacy in their backyard, so people often hedge out the house. Palm Springs houses are typically fairly opaque to the street. They open up to the poolside or the view side.”

Pivoting deftly from analytical to amiable, Michael asserts, “It’s not a hardcore architectural tour. We talk about the Hollywood history of Palm Springs, we talk about the geology of Palm Springs; we give context to provide for the architecture. Like why did this architecture occur at this place at this time? It’s something we answer by coming at it from a variety of perspectives.”

Drawing from his passion and his past, Stern continues, “My background is in studio art, so I can see things in some of these buildings that many of my tour guests don’t see. I’m able to point out little details that are significant that they would never have noticed if they weren’t on our tour. There are a lot of observations that I make coming from an art background. So you get to look at architecture through the eye of an artist.”

Some artists paint with watercolors, other with oils, but Michael’s medium is smiles.

“The tours are really fun! They’re fun for me, they’re fun for our tour guests, and we do a TON of corporate tours. We do a lot of big group tours. We have tours with 150 people on them, and it’s become a substantial part of our business.”

Frey House II
Frey House II

 

Business equals pleasure for Michael Stern, who takes capital-p Pride in his role in the architectural Renaissance of our desert community. “We like to discuss preservation and how important it is to a city like Palm Springs. I always say, ‘What art deco had done for Miami, midcentury modern has done for Palm Springs.’ It’s put it back on the cultural map after it had been forgotten for decades.”

It’s a map he is proud to illuminate, every day with every tour. Stern’s romance with Palm Springs deepens as his words reach a crescendo. “The desert is seductive, and it improves with time. The longer I live here, the more beauty I see.”

We’re running out of TM’s, Michael – you’re brimming with originality! To experience his wit, wisdom, and whimsy for yourself, book a tour today…

The Modern Tour | Official Tour of the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture + Design Center

Note: All photos are credited to Michael Stern