The GM of the Colony Palms Hotel Will Drive You to Blockbuster: A Q&A with David Dittmer

Constructed in 1936 by Purple Gang mobster Al Wertheimer (best known for co-orchestrating the Valentine’s Day Massacre with Al Capone), the hotel known as The Colonial House quickly became the town’s hot destination, known primarily as a speakeasy, brothel and gambling house. In 1951, during the heyday of Palm Springs, the property was sold to Robert Howard and renamed the Howard Manor, where it welcomed guests like Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin and boxing great Jack Dempsey over the next 25 years. After an extensive $17-million renovation with designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard, the Colony Palms Hotel is back to reassert its place in the new vibrant-again Palm Springs. We spoke with David Dittmer, the General Manager of the Colony Palms Hotel, to get an insider’s look at his hotel:

Where is your hotel located within your city? It’s in Palm Springs, and we’re located more towards Uptown, which is the newer and more up-and-coming area, called the Design District. All the trendier places are located here, and we’re in Palm Springs proper, so you can take advantage of both neighborhoods.

How long have you been with the property? I’ve been on since the opening of the hotel in 2007.

How would you characterize the overall feel of your property? If you’ve ever been to the Chateau Marmont, it’s a very historical feel, like that, but with a lushness to the landscape and the design, done by Martin Lawrence Bullard. Rather than feeling like you’re in the desert, which a lot of hotels here play up, it actually feels more like the South of France, or somewhere more tropical. It lends itself to that sophisticated glamour. I think one of the things that really defines the Colony Palms hotel from more design-centric hotels is that is really has soul. The physical part of the property has a lot of character and history. Everywhere you walk around, there’s a real heartbeat, which I think is why we’ve been popular with a very creative clientele.

What are some of its unique design features? We pull a lot from other parts of the world—two of our signature features, which you’ll find in every room are the custom Suzani tapestries on the headboards, which have become kind of the de facto signature of the hotel, and these French tiles which are handpainted cement. They’re sort of a pain to work with, they were all handmade in the South of France and shipped over, but they line our restaurant, the Purple Palm, and there’s a tile carpet in every room in front of the vanity. In general, the hotel is very colorful. I think modern, luxury hotels are scared of bright, vivid colors because when it goes bad, it’s very bad, but Martin Bullard is an expert—the restaurant is an amazing example of that.

What’s the best dish on the menu? As of right now, I think the handmade pastas which we do daily are pretty amazing. If I had to pick a signature dish, which is hard since the menu changes four times a year, the short ribs are really amazing on the fall menu. The chef is really into the farm-to-table thing; originally it was a very traditional fine-dining restaurant, but there’s an earthiness now too it, in the ingredients and the plating, that feels a bit more fresh.

Which room or suite is your favorite, and why? The casita is by far our most popular room type, and I love them—the interior is very basic, but it has these sliding glass doors that go out onto a private patio with an oversize sofabed, and a bathtub—it’s outside living that feels very luxurious and private. Even the TV is positioned so you can watch it from the patio and stay outside.

What’s a special amenity or service guests should be aware of? Our spa is small but the treatments are really amazing—we use this body product that’s very fresh and we’ve been known for these very unique treatments; our signature treatment is a facial detox.

Where do you send guests for a great night out? For a drink we’d send you to Birba, a really cool bar uptown with great cocktails and small plates, it’s got a lot of outdoor space. And Melvyn’s we love because it’s like a time warp of Palm Springs. It’s a remnant of the old resort culture from 50 years ago, with an old-school lounge and piano bar.

What’s the best place to shop in your city? The number one store in terms of furniture is BLVD, by far the best source of that midcentury modern furniture that everyone comes here for. Uptown is full of great little shops for all kinds of things, including Trina Turk for clothing, which was here right at the beginning of the resurgence of Palm Springs—she’s a big supporter of the place.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen happen at the hotel during your time there?

Robert Downey Jr. stayed here, and one day he was kind of hanging around, and he asked me where he could go rent a movie. I told him I’d run and get it for him, but rather than giving me a title he wanted, he jumped in the car with me and was like, “Why don’t we just go together?” So for a couple hours, it was just me and Robert Downey Jr. going to get some DVDs. He’s an incredibly smart and brilliant artist, and a really nice guy, but I think it also speaks to how comfortable our guests get with the staff, and how much they feel like a part of the family here.