By Denise Ortuno Neil
With the multitude of shops, restaurants and nightspots that now line the area of Palm Canyon in downtown Palm Springs, it might be hard to imagine what it was like without them. But there was a time when the village of Palm Springs was more like something out of an old school western then the tourist destination that it is today. One woman who saw the need and the potential to bring more to downtown was Julia Carnell and her vision for La Plaza.
There is a running theme in the history of Palm Springs, which is the prominence of women who pioneered our beautiful desert into the thriving world class vacation spot that people have enjoyed over the years. And one of those women was Julia Carnell. Carnell came to the desert in the early 1900’s as most did back then, a cold winter refugee, looking to warm her body, mind and spirit with the warmth of the desert air. She traveled all the way from Ohio, which back then was no small feat. She had married into the NCR (cash registers) and lived a life of wealth.
But Carnell had a bone to pick with the desert oasis that she had come to love…there wasn’t much to do in the quaint village. Carnell enjoyed shopping and dining and was used to a bit more action, so she decided to remedy the problem by building what would become La Plaza. She wanted a place where people could go and get everything they needed from entertainment to accommodations. And in the 1930’s, she did just that.
She employed the assistance of architect Harry Williams, who had actually designed the headquarters of NCR back in Dayton, Ohio. Carnell brought Williams to Palm Springs and together they created the shopping center. Carnell funded the project with a million dollars of her own money and truly was ahead of her time with her vision. La Plaza became one of the first shopping centers of its kind to be built in Southern California.
La Plaza was completed in 1936 and had it all. It was built on 3 ½ acres with restaurants, a nightclub, a market, bakery, drugstore, gas station, La Plaza theatre, 38 retail shops and accommodations which included 21studios and 8 penthouses that could be rented by the day, month or season (season would cost only $1,000.00 back then). Couples could even get married in the onsite chapel, as they actually can do today. The style of La Plaza had a Spanish feel to it, with archways throughout and charming balcony’s, and looks the same today as it did back then.
Although La Plaza became the hit that Carnell hoped it would be, over time the shopping center was in danger of foreclosure. In the early 1950’s, long after Carnell had passed away, financial hardship came to La Plaza. But it was rescued by Zachary Pitts, who along with partners saved La Plaza from certain doom and possible demolition.
Today La Plaza is a Class 1 Historical site and is still owned and operated by the Pitts family, who has maintained its aesthetic glory. Although they do not rent out the studios and penthouses as accommodations, they do lease them out to businesses. La Plaza thrives with popular spots such as Tyler’s Burgers and Bill’s Pizza, as well as retail shops such as Bobby G’s, the former home of Desmonds, which was housed at La Plaza for over 60 years.
There are many more shops and restaurants on Palm Canyon these days, but it is important to look back on the woman who had the vision to bring Palm Springs into the shopping center future. I’m sure Carnell would be more than pleased on her project that she brought to life so many years ago, thank you Julia for La Plaza.
To take a walking tour of La Plaza contact the Palm Springs Historical Society at 760-323-8297 or www.pshistoricalsociety.org .