Luke Leuschner    


Photo credits (top to bottom, L to R): Historical Society of Palm Desert. 
THERE ARE TWO DESERTS. One is a grim desolate wasteland... This is the desert seen by the stranger speeding along the highway, impatient to be out of “this damnable country.” The other Desert—the real Desert—is not for the eyes of the superficial observer, or the fearful soul or the cynic.

-Randall Henderson and J. Wilson McKenney, 1937

Founded and master planned by a syndicate of investors, Palm Desert was a city born in the heat of California’s post-war urban development and speculation. By the time the Palm Desert Corporation began selling lots out of temporary shack in 1946, a swath of raw desert land had been reimagined into an exclusive resort city for the Los Angeles elite, paved over with an elegant subdivision, and centered by the exclusive Shadow Mountain Club.

Advertisements by the Corporation touted this “wasteland turned wonderland,” yet very little had changed about the desert itself. To add another dimension of interest, the resultant community was representative of the fight between its two founders: Cliff Henderson, an aviation pioneer and unrelenting California businessman, and Randall Henderson, a virtuous desert writer and founder of the Desert Magazine

Over the past few years, I have engaged with a number of projects which explore the Palm Desert Corporation’s intervention into this landscape and the ways in which they reimagined it, from modernist buildings to racial covenants. 

From 2020-2021, I worked alongside the Historical Society of Palm Desert’s archivist Rochelle McCune on an overhaul of the organization’s archives, consisting of Cliff Henderson’s complete archive of the Palm Desert Corporation and beyond. I was able to parallel this archive project with my own personal research, as we pulled endless amounts of archival artifacts out of old banker’s boxes. 

In 2020, I completed the first and only survey of Palm Desert’s historic architecture (now accessible via a public map), and have since dedicated myself to further explorings its architects and built environment. My current project on architect Rudolph Schindler began as an extension of this research. 

In 2024, I presented my research at Modernism Week in the lecture “Wasteland to Wonderland: Palm Desert Corporation and the Making of a ‘Modern’ Desert City.”

Palm Desert, to me, is much more than the place I grew up. It is a case study in the ways in which California has continuously reimagined landscapes and our perceptions of them through architecture, land use, and branding. 

The film featured on my home page hails from HSPD’s collections and was recently digitized as part of these efforts.