Julia Shaw Carnell, real estate developer, introduced architectural talent to Palm Springs

During the Palm Springs winter season of 1940, when she was 76 years old, Julia Shaw Patterson Carnell sat for a portrait by John Christen Johansen, who had painted President Herbert Hoover’s likeness and was known for his Signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which hangs at the National Portrait Gallery. In this picture Johansen has apparently interrupted Carnell at her reading in order to emphasize her excellent taste and considerable power.

The Desert Sun reported: “Mrs. Julia Carnell of Dayton. O., one of Palm Springs’ most distinguished and beloved winter visitors, has arrived at the Desert Inn for her annual sojourn in the resort village. One of the world’s finest portrait painters, John Johansen, is also at the Desert Inn, painting Mrs. Carnell’s portrait. The city of Dayton has commissioned the famous artist to paint her portrait, which will be hung in Dayton’s Institute of Art (sic). Mrs. Carnell is one of the Eastern city’s most prominent civic leaders, a generous patron of the arts, and a great philanthropist.”

Carnell was from Dayton’s Patterson family that developed National Cash Register Co. into a progressive and influential industrial power. She married H.G. Carnell, an executive with the company. In 1925, three years after John Patterson’s death, NCR went public on the New York Stock Exchange in the largest offering ever to date: $55 million.

She was a patron of the museum but by the early 1930s also discovered the nascent town of Palm Springs. Her first commercial undertaking, reported by the Desert Sun on May 10, 1935, was the Carnell Building, located on North Palm Canyon Drive at Andreas Road. The newspaper said, “Mrs. Carnell is well known in Palm Springs, having been a winter guest at the Desert Inn for the past two seasons. She has watched the growth of the village with a great deal of interest, and the heavy investment she proposes to make here shows her confidence in the progress of this community.” The article said she was a widow.

She acquired the site for $40,000 and recruited architect Harry Williams, of the Dayton firm Schenck & Williams, to design the building. Williams was more accustomed to designing factories in the “daylight” style pioneered by NCR itself: his clients had been Frigidaire, GM, Delco, and Ohio’s tire manufacturers. The sum of $73,000 was reported for construction with another $5,000 allocated for furnishings.

“Every room in the building will contain the latest and most approved lighting fixtures, and the entire building will be wired for electric heating and air-conditioning,” a news report said. It also boasted the only electric elevator in Palm Springs.

The office building was a success. The next project was the Plaza, known today as La Plaza, a mixed-use complex of retail, office, and residential spaces with head-in parking. There was also the atmospheric theater, the interior rendered in the style of an Italian village, which Williams designed after studying the Arlington in Santa Barbara.

“Not everyone thought it would work,” writes Alan Hess in Palm Springs Weekend: The Architecture and Design of a Midcentury Oasis. Williams’s son, Stewart–who became a leading exponent of Desert Modern style–recalled Desert Inn owner Nellie Coffman’s wonderment at “Julia Carnell putting so much money in a building so far out of town.”

Among its many other attributes, the scheme for the Plaza showed an advanced understanding of the importance of automobiles.

Carnell kept returning to Palm Springs as she aged. In January of 1937 she was at the Desert Inn with her son, Jefferson Patterson, the United States’ ambassador to Norway. “Since her arrival, Mrs. Carnell has been ill and not able to make a complete tour of the Plaza, although she has driven through the grounds,” said the Desert Sun. “A formal dedication of the huge project is to be made soon after she recovers.”

A few weeks later she threw a party for “a large group of friends” at the Racquet Club.

In the fall of 1938, shops in the Carnell Building celebrated their third anniversary. Reviewing the building’s brief history, the news report said Carnell paid $10,000 for the property, contradicting the earlier announcement’s $40,000 tally.

On Wednesday, February 22, 1939, Carnell hosted four ladies at her Desert Inn bungalow for bridge with a “delightful” George Washington theme. An announcement of January 24, 1941 said she suffered a bad fall in Dayton but was “recuperating nicely” and had reserved a long stay at the Desert Inn. The following summer, she received a permit to make “alterations amounting to $1,000 to the upstairs restaurant in the Plaza, where formerly was located Carl’s Rendezvous.”

Carnell passed away at the age of 80 years in February of 1944. She had first come to Palm Springs “about 15 years ago,” according to the Desert Sun. “She had not missed a winter season here since her first visit and was listed among the ‘regular’ winter guests at the Desert Inn. In ill health for the past few months, she arrived in Palm Springs about a month ago, hoping that the invigorating desert climate would work its usual healthful wonders. Up to almost the time of her death, she seemed steadily improving.”

Son Jefferson, now ambassador to Peru, flew to be with her. Daughter Mary was in India, where her husband, Howard, commanded the 10th Army Air Force.

A memorial service was held at Community Church on Saturday, Nov. 12. Wiefels and Sons, of Banning, prepared the body to be returned to Dayton for burial.


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