By Denise Ortuno Neil
I heard about a long time ago. That there was actually an airport in Rancho Mirage at one point. Now, I knew about our major airport in Palm Springs (obviously), the more intimate private jet airport in Bermuda Dunes, and even the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport in Thermal. But Rancho Mirage? Well, it is true. There once was an airport in what we now know as Rancho Mirage, but back then it was part of Palm Desert, it was the Palm Desert Airpark and Desert Air Hotel.
It’s strange to look at maps of the Palm Desert area back in the 1940’s. It was so very expansive…plenty of room for an airport. I’m sure that’s what well known Los Angeles architect Hank Gogerty thought when he developed the property in 1945.
He bought 320 acres to put an airstrip close to his ranch so he could fly his plane in and out of the area as he lived in Glendale…makes sense. It’s kind of like needing a driveway for your car, just way more expensive.
The airpark gained popularity, as those of wealth who owned planes would utilize it frequently. Gogerty went one step further with his vision of the airpark. He purchased surplus Army barracks, fancied them up, and turned them into accommodations for those who flew into the airpark. And so the Desert Air Hotel opened in 1951.
The tag line for the hotel was “Fly In! Drive In!! The Desert Air Hotel”. The hotel was complete with a restaurant and bar, and even a swimming pool.
The Desert Air Hotel was a hot spot, catering to the affluent who would visit the desert area. Celebrities which included Jimmy Stewart, Sophia Loren, Gene Autry and Howard Hughes often flew into the Desert Air Hotel. Even Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon traveled through the airport.
Although the hotel would close during the sweltering summer months, the airpark would remain open. Part of the runway, which had been expanded when the hotel opened, was used as a polo field when the occasion would arise.
The Desert Air Hotel had a lengthy run…closing in 1968. Gogerty sold the property to a group of investors who intended to expand the property into the Desert Air Country Club. The group built a series of condominiums and even a club house, but the project never really took off, and the plans were grounded (couldn’t resist the airport puns).
The property was then sold, torn down, and part of it is said to be Eisenhower Medical Center. But most of it, where the hotel actually stood, is now the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa.
It is amazing how the desert has grown, but has also subtracted in a way. There is no longer a mid-valley airport for those with a plane to fly in and out of. I guess they have to just settle for the airports that still exist on the edges of our valley. At least Gogerty would still be happy that the land that he originally developed for his hotel is still being enjoyed by visitors to our gorgeous desert.
Thanks for your vision Hank, let’s hope the Coachella Valley keeps flying high!
For more information visit the Palm Desert Historical Society www.hspd.org