You’ve heard the expression “if walls could talk.” At the Monkey Tree Hotel in Palm Springs, Calif., I’d pay dearly to hear what they have to say. This property was built in 1960 – the work of celebrated architect Albert Frey who was well known for his mid-century modern designs.
That’s not the juicy part of its history. Through the years, it was a gay clothing-optional resort, a hangout for musicians, like Eric Clapton, and also one of the few confirmed hook-up spots for a Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy rendezvous. The couple spent some adult time together while the president’s secret service detail waited outside of the room.
Let’s crank up the name dropping by mentioning that Monkey Tree has hosted Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Gilder Radner and Gene Wilder, The Beatles (minus Paul McCartney), Bob Hope, Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn. In the heyday of Palm Springs, this was the place to be.
In 2016, it shed its nudist and star-studded past to emerge as a stylish boutique hotel with all the modern amenities you would want in a historic package. It appeals to a wide range of guests, especially those who want a more chill environment. It’s tucked away from the bustle of downtown in a residential area about three miles from the airport on East Racquet Road. It’s a great location, note that you will really need a car to hop around the area.
And though it has had numerous names through the decades, like the Legacy and Terra Cotta Inn, it now has its original name once again – The Monkey Tree Hotel.
The new owners, a couple from Brooklyn, have even brought back the original color scheme – cheery yellow and white. The rooms are a welcoming mix of retro and contemporary.
For a trippy return to the 1960s, bed down for the night in the Jungle Room, featuring original wallpaper – a garish yet charming pattern with hundreds of tiger faces. In the bathroom, tile, cabinetry and fixtures are the same as they’ve always been. This is the place where Eric Clapton reportedly stayed some time in the 1970s.
I’m someone who loves vintage so it’s fun to check out the various finds that owner Kathy Friedl has made in the area to stock the resort. In the breakfast room, there’s plenty of teak furniture, chrome and sleek silhouettes – all hallmarks of mid-century modern style. She is a regular presence at the resort. She does my check-in and is quick to greet guests when they return back from a hard day of shopping. She’s even kind enough to share some of her favorite haunts for vintage and antique items.
With only 16 rooms, there’s an intimacy within the walls of the Monkey Tree – a kind of privacy where you feel right at home. Guests stretch out under the shade of the property’s palm trees and patio umbrellas when the desert heat gets too intense, then hop into the heated saltwater pool to join the resident pink flamingo floaties. There’s also a Scandinavian spa – a dry sauna, plus small hot and cold hydrotherapy plunge pools. They are great for shaking off a hangover or the after effects of a day spent cycling, hiking or golfing nearby.
Albert Frey was a genius when it came to designing buildings that fit into nature environments. At The Monkey Tree, he used dramatic slanting rooflines to mirror the view of the San Jacinto Mountains. Frey even considered the movement of the sun in his work, positioning the hotel courtyard to get the best vistas and maximum sunshine.
The property’s remarkable history and celebrity-filled history definitely makes Monkey Tree stand out in the crowd, but it’s not enough. That’s where the hospitality and service comes into play. It completes the picture and puts a cherry on top of any stay.
There’s free – and reliable WiFi, an excellent homemade continental breakfast that goes well beyond the fare offered at big hotels, complimentary snacks and drinks upon check-in, complimentary parking and staff that truly care about your comfort during your stay, whether it’s a need for gluten-free breakfast options or advice on what restaurants to frequent in the area. And unlike some big hotel properties in Palm Springs, you wont’ be dinged with pesky resort fees at every turn.
And for vintage lovers like myself, the Monkey Tree is an elevated experience for its carefully curated décor, whether it’s a macramé planter in a corner of a room, 1950s art, retro bar ware and serving dishes, framed album covers and concert poster, or the use of bright festive colors that just make you smile.
After being in dozens of hotels every year, they often blend together for me. But not this time. The Monkey Tree is something unique and I’m keen to make a return visit soon.
Room rates start at $250 per night.
Michele stayed as a guest of The Monkey Tree Hotel and Visit Palm Springs. As always, her thoughts and opinions are her own. All photos courtesy of Michele Sponagle.