A Star is Born: Sidney Williams

Meet respected civic leader, educator, curator, humanitarian, and new Palm Springs Walk of Stars recipient Sidney Williams.


“Creative people inspire me.” 

For Sidney Williams, finding inspiration is as simple as that. The former curator of architecture and design for the Palm Springs Art Museum has been known for her visionary ideas, team-centric leadership, and graceful gravitas. Next month, she will be receiving a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars during a special dedication ceremony on October 20, 2017.

Even with a lifetime of notable achievements (serving as a Modernism Week board member for 8 years; launching the Architecture and Design Council in 2003; and championing the restoration of the former 1961 Santa Fe Federal Savings & Loan building into today’s Architecture & Design Center, to name a few), she humbly attributes her success to the work of those who have come before, and have walked alongside, her.

Some of the most significant influences of art and architecture in Williams’ life include her father (artist John Koerner) and father-in-law (architect E. Stewart Williams).

“My father was an artist. He spent his life painting and drawing, and I grew up in a community in Vancouver knowing other artists and being aware of good architecture,” Williams explains. “Then of course, I married into the Williams family and became even more connected to architecture. It’s been part of my life since I was a child.”

Today, Williams is widely recognized as a civic leader, educator, curator and humanitarian. Modernism Week had the privilege of sitting down with the newest Palm Springs Walk of Stars honoree to learn more about her past, the exciting endeavors of her present, and her thoughts on the architectural future of Palm Springs.

You were originally born and raised in Vancouver, B.C. How did you end up in Palm Springs?
My father-in-law [E. Stewart Williams] designed a house in Palm Springs for my great uncle, Leon Koerner – his house still exists in Deepwell. It was through the completion of that house and my parents vacationing in Palm Springs that they became friendly with my husband Erik’s parents. Quite a few years later, [Erik] and I met. Our parents were friends for many years before we made our acquaintance. It’s funny, because my parents would come from Vancouver to Palm Springs in the winter for vacation, and of course we didn’t accompany them because we were in school. It wasn’t until the summer of 1968, when my husband and his father went fishing in Alaska and stopped in Vancouver to visit our family, that I first met Erik, so that’s how that whole thing started. It almost seemed like an arranged marriage! We then moved to Palm Springs in 1973 after Erik [a retired ophthalmologist] finished his medical residency.

What was your reaction when you were told you would be receiving a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars?
My first reaction was shock! My second reaction was, I was very grateful for this kind of recognition, and really thrilled because I think Palm Springs has an amazing community and I’ve been very lucky to be a part of it.

What has been one of your most fulfilling career achievements to date?
Certainly, the purchase and restoration of the 1961 Santa Fe Federal Savings & Loan building, because of the Architecture and Design Museum. To see it thrive now has been a really remarkable experience. That’s a highlight. From the time the idea was generated until we opened the building in 2014, it was an eight-year process. It took a lot of persistence and a lot of people that worked together to make it happen. It was a huge team of enthusiastic supporters, generous donors, community activists and preservationists who all worked together to achieve it. I may have had the idea, but it caught fire.

It was one of the most challenging experiences as well. Initially there were some people who immediately grasped the vision, and others were skeptical about whether it was going to have enough support. When you have something that is going to be successful, there is also the other side of it, trying to educate and promote and excite others to see that vision.

Having a number of people immediately respond was very helpful, because they’re leaders; they’re also creative people, who can inspire others. It becomes a much broader circle as people share their excitement and knowledge, and that certainly makes it doable for the long term.

What are some of your favorite examples of midcentury architecture in the city?
We have so many wonderful examples by the architects have also been recognized on the Walk of Stars: Albert Frey, E. Stewart Williams, William F. Cody, Donald Wexler – they were all amazing in their work, and each one contributed a series of buildings that have become incorporated into the fabric of Palm Springs, making it the midcentury mecca that it is.

When I first moved to Palm Springs, a number of buildings stood out to me: Palm Springs City Hall; the Palm Springs airport; the bank buildings (Coachella Valley Savings & Loan, Santa Fe Federal Savings & Loan); Frey House II; the Cody structures around the city. It’s hard to imagine the city without these great resources to appreciate the midcentury. Now, we have excellent contemporary architects who are practicing, building, and designing structures. The legacy of the midcentury is that we have these creative minds to contribute to the fabric of Palm Springs design. That becomes a challenge for practicing architects now, to not just be influenced by, but to continue the legacy of great architecture in this city.

Where do you see the architectural future of Palm Springs headed?
Each generation has access to different technologies, and now sustainability, energy efficiency, landscaping…there are so many aspects to designing now that are very different than they were in the midcentury, when it was such a building boom. There wasn’t a concern about energy then, and different technology with aluminum, glass, hardware, and other materials. Today we have amazing, computer-designed structures that also have to take into account the ecological footprint. So architects today have different challenges, but many are coping with that within a beautiful aesthetic. This is new, as it relates to midcentury, but with a contemporary aesthetic.

Because we have this strong legacy and tradition, we’ll continue to see excellent architecture practiced in the desert, and hopefully attract more clients here. That’s what you need, insightful clients who are interested in great design – not just with building and construction, but really making a structure sing with new ideas and concepts.

What were some memorable highlights from your time as a Modernism Week board member?
I worked on a lot of programs and attended a lot of events! It was such an exciting time, to see the response (first of all, it was a small response, and now it’s a huge one!) in tourism, and how people became so excited about the home tours, bus tours, lectures, the exhibitions…there are so many aspects to it that it was a joy to be involved in it.

I worked more on the lecture series and bringing outstanding people to Palm Springs to talk about architecture, design, the landscape…I enjoyed engaging with these experts from around the country. It was really thrilling to bring them into Palm Springs. One person in particular was Jack Lenor Larsen, who came on several occasions to Palm Springs, and has now become a friend and an incredible giant of the 20th century design world. He’s certainly an example. There are many other curators, writers, and preservationists from around the country – I’ll have to go back and look at my lists, because there were so many!

With Fall Preview coming up next month, are there any Modernism Week events you’re looking forward to?
I always look forward to Gary Johns’ lecture, “Lost, Saved & Endangered: Modernist Architecture in Palm Springs.” He does such a wonderful job of documenting what’s happened year to year in the community.

I hope people continue to support and enjoy the variety of Modernism Week events, because I know how hard the board members and staff work on creating challenging and exciting new events, and it’s always fresh. I hope people continue to attend and support their efforts!