Archives for category: Palm Springs

When most East Coasters think of California, we think of Hollywood, the beaches of LA or perhaps foggy San Francisco, that city by the bay. The high desert area of Southern California does not spring to mind. On a recent trip to visit some friends who have moved to Joshua Tree, California, we got to experience the “other” California. It is far, far away from Disneyland, though it does bear some resemblance to Roadrunner of Looney Tunes fame (beep beep).

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree

Our friends Gail and Doug have long been enamored with the wild and raw and most assuredly untamed beauty of the area. They purchased a real fixer upper and dug in, literally. As summer approaches in the high desert, the daytime temperatures can soar into the 100s and the rattlesnakes search out cool spots, like the concrete slab floor on which the house is built.

Let me in!

The first plan of action was to seal up the points of entry for the rattlers and scorpions, also abundant in the area and wanting in. As Gail climbed out of a huge rented pickup trip full of building supplies, she wryly noted, “I am so far out of my comfort zone.” Our work party of four pitched in and began to bring a sense of civilization to the desert.

The house they purchased was originally part of the last of the Homestead Acts passed by Congress in 1938. The Act was designed as a non-agricultural way to entice settlers to the area, which sits on the edge of the Mojave desert. The five acre plots were cheap and buyers were required to build a house on the land. WWII intervened and, with gas rationing and the difficulty in getting to the far flung desert area, few houses were built. That all began to change by the end of the war. By the mid-1940s, houses began to spring up on the five acre plots. Most of them were quite small, some in the 400 square foot range.

Full tilt renovation

Gail and Doug’s house has been added onto over the intervening years and is now a three-bedroom, two-bath house. Some of the additions are unsympathetic to the whole and their goal is to unify them into a cohesive unit while retaining the enticingly quirky aspects of the home. They have begun to work toward that goal and have already sheet rocked walls and ceilings, removed nasty wall-to-wall carpeting, gutted the kitchen, and color stained and sealed the now exposed concrete floors.

Crowbar city

The dark pressed-wood Georgia Pacific paneling in one room has still yet to come down. I am itching to take a pry bar to it. Having removed this type of paneling before on another project, I can attest that peeling off the sheets gives instant and enormous gratification. Gail and Doug have promised me that they will leave that pleasure to me for our next visit.

The roof has recently been snow coated (no, not that kind of snow but rather a coating of white material that is waterproof and reflects the light to keep the house cooler). Snow Coat is an acrylic polymer elastometric roof emulsion which is applied with a roller or push broom. Gail has a sea of blisters on her hands after the roof coating DIY project. A ‘swamp cooler’ has also been installed. This term always makes me smile as there is no swamp anywhere near the Mojave Desert. Swamp coolers are often used in the desert as a less costly alternative to air conditioning. Swamp coolers are in effect water towers that blow air across water saturated cellulose pads that in turn cool the air and add moisture, much needed to keep that dewy, youthful complexion upon which the desert can wreak havoc.

The glamour of renovation

A trip up to the high desert feels very much like a trek to a wild and woolly place, full of harsh realities paired with sublime beauty. It quickly becomes obvious why Gail and Doug have chosen to become pioneers, carving out and creating a place to call home that they hopefully will not have to share with the creatures of the desert.

Doug and Gail

Our friend Doug is a professional photographer.  Check out his amazing work at his website


Dine with a view

Those of you who took a child to Disney Land in its heyday and went on the Small World ride will remember that cloying annoying song that you could not get out of your head for days. That melody kept popping into my mind as I recently readied a 500 square foot living space for rental.

Wee space

The challenge in furnishing small spaces is creating a feeling of openness and yet providing areas where daily living activities can be performed easily and with comfort. No small order in 500 square feet. In most spaces this tiny, the common solution to the sleeping/living area dilemma is a daybed or a fold out sofa. The daybed solution requires a made bed with tons of pillows to support the back in order to sit during the day. The height of most daybeds are not conducive to comfortable sitting; the feet tend to dangle, not touching the floor. Fold out sofas have come a long way in recent years with inflatable mattresses — a vast improvement on the sofa beds of old. But removing the sofa cushions and placing sleeping pillows on the bed each night is still a bit of an ordeal. Reversing the process in the morning just makes you want to stay in bed to avoid your chambermaid tasks.

Disappearing act

Sometimes old solutions are the best solutions. We installed a Murphy bed in a sleek frosted glass fronted cabinet with huge sliding doors that conceal the bed by day. This frees up the limited floor space for a real sofa, end tables that have large drawers which double as bureaus, a coffee table, a dining table and chairs, and a Hans Olsen “fried egg” chair which looks like a piece of sculpture. All of the furniture you can see under; this expands the space visually, making it feel larger. The Murphy bed is counter weighted so that it comes down with a light pull. The other half of the cabinet is an ample closet with bars for hanging items and built in shelves and pull out drawers for clothes storage.

With large living spaces, furniture selection can be fluid as there are many choices as to placement of the pieces. If a piece does not work in one room, moving it to another is always an option. In a one room small space, each piece must be chosen to fit in its designated space and perform with aplomb. Form and function at its best. One painting graces this room and a modicum of “dust catchers” sit on surfaces. A music system, flat TV, and speakers all hang on a wall, freeing up floor space. The project’s end result is, although the space is compact, it has the comfort and feel of a much larger one.

Kitchen a la Jetsons

There were several “tricks” we used to accomplish this feeling. When sitting in the living room and looking into the kitchen, no appliances or sinks piled with dirty dished are visible. In the kitchen, most of the storage is below the counter with upper cabinet frosted glass garage door cabinets to house the dishes and glasses. The cabinets are lit from within and throw a soft glow of light through the frosted glass fronts. They seemingly float on the wall. All of the lower cabinets are on slender stainless steel legs and are lit from below, giving an airy open feeling to the room.

If the small world theme song would stop internally rewinding ad nauseam, we could appreciate our efforts.

A bit of extra space

After several recent encounters with houses with names, I have been pondering the phenomenon. Grand estates lend themselves to names. Do lesser abodes deserve to be named as well? What does the name of the house say about the namer? Just how famous do you need to be to name the house after yourself?

Up The Mount

The Mount in the Berkshires announced the social stature of its owner, Edith Wharton. It sits on a small rise, not a mountain, but then the name alludes to the lofty social position of the great writer.

The Vanderbilts’ Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, describes the mansion perfectly. But ironically the Vanderbilts referred to it as a cottage. I suspect that the Vanderbilts knew that the words marble and cottage are not normally used in the same sentence when describing a house.

Faded glory of Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens in East Hampton, New York, owned at one time by an aunt and cousin of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, was named after an estate in England. The intent behind the name was probably to convey cachet. It’s ironic then that, after the 1972 film documentary and more recent Broadway musical about the squalor that Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale lived in, Grey Gardens now conjures images of rotting food, broken windows, and raccoon squatters.

Often on this blog, I have written about Howlets, a stone house in Folly Cove, Massachusetts built by the Hale family. Despite a family history encompassing Nathan Hale, Edward Everett Hale, Harriet Beacher Stowe, the painters Ellen Day Hale, Philip Leslie Hale, and Lilian Westcott Hale, and oddly enough, Helen Keller, the Hales nevertheless chose to name their summer home Howlets, meaning baby owls. The name suggests a certain humility.

Naming a house after your self is the ultimate act of ego. Sometimes it seems earned. One thousand-acre Appleton Farms, a land grant to Samuel Appleton in 1638, is the oldest continuous working farm in Massachusetts. This Ipswich, Massachusetts farm hosted many luminaries in its day, including the Duke of Windsor who hunted foxes on horseback there. As recently as a few years ago an Appleton still lived on the farm. It is currently owned by The Trustees of the Reservation and is very much an active farm. After nearly four centuries, the Appleton name has proved its staying power.

And sometimes naming a place after your self is just an indicator of a healthy self-regard. I recently stumbled over two such homes in Palm Springs, California. Villa Fontaine is named after the film and stage actress Joan Fontaine and Casa Liberace named after the pianist and vocalist. (Somehow the descriptor “pianist and vocalist” seems so inadequate to describe him, doesn’t it)? A good sense of self is important in life and absolutely vital in the entertainment business. The ownership of these homes has long passed to others, but the original plaques proudly remain. Staying power of a different sort.

LeFrak City is a sprawling 5,000-apartment complex in Queens, New York built in the 1960s. In his day, the developer Samuel LeFrak was the Donald Trump of his time. Years later, when LeFrak was asked about Donald Trump and his building of Trump Tower, LeFrak sagely responded, “a peacock today, a feather duster tomorrow.”

Icons take many forms. The word itself conjures up religiosity. Recently, I made a pilgrimage to an architectural icon named the “ship of the desert.” It is a house in Palm Springs, California, built in 1936. It is decidedly art deco in style and very unusual for the area. Most of the architecture in Palm Springs is either Spanish style with adobe walls and terra cotta tile roofs or mid-century modern flat roofs with enormous walls of glass. Curvy art deco did not make its mark in a big way here, so this house is one of a very few of its style in the area. The ship of the desert is tucked with its back just a few feet from the steep hillside rise of the San Jacinto mountain range and has a bowed front like a proud prow jutting over the desert floor. There is one small round window in the facade to root the house in Art Deco nautica.

The house is currently privately owned by fashion designer Trina Turk and her photographer husband Jonathan Skow. Check out Trina’s fashion sense at and Jonathan’s photos at She has her own retail shops in New York City, Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Tina and Jonathan recently had a holiday party at the ship of the desert, and I was lucky enough to be able to attend on the coat tails of an invited guest.  A true hanger on.

The house was built close to the peak of the Great Depression by the Davidsons, a department store family, for their winter retreat. The house has a doubly tragic past. Mrs. Davidson took her life after discovering her husband’s infidelity. The house passed through several owners and in 1998 it was a down-at-the-heels dowager in need of more than a fresh coat of lipstick. Tina and Jonathan were looking for a mid-century modern house in Palm Springs. Palm Springs is rotten with mid-century modern archtecture. Art Deco, not so much. They fell for the house despite its non-mid-century style and began a loving restoration. Midway through the process, tragedy struck again as an arsonist’s fire destroyed much of the structure. Crushed but undaunted, Trina and Jonathan hired Marmol-Radziner, an LA-based design firm to recreate the house as near to precisely as possible to the original. A kitchen stove miraculously lived through the fire and was incorporated into the kitchen design.

The subtle features of this house are discovered, not announced. The window shades, a neecessity to soften the harsh desert sun, disappear up into the ceiling when retracted. Indirect lighting is tucked up and recessed in the curve of the ceiling to softly light the living and dining rooms. An original main floor window that lowers fully into the basement but was destroyed by the fire, was religiously duplicated. “God is in the details,” as Mies Van de Rohe, an architect of other iconic buildings, once said. The end result of this restoration is breathtaking. This architectural icon perches proudly overlooking Palm Springs and the valley beyond. The chance to experience this house and, just for a while, fool myself into being someone other than me, was almost better than a trip to the Vatican. Viva coat tail pilgrimages.

A photo phantasmagoria from Rockport, Massachusetts and Palm Springs, California.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

Happy Holidays,