Desert Daze

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The Thunderbird Country Club and the arrival of the first 18-hole golf course in the California desert in 1951 took the sleepy desert town of Rancho Mirage and turned it into a sexy, luxurious community for famous faces like Bing Crosby, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Frank Sinatra. At the same time, the mid-century modernist movement was gaining popularity, and architects like A. Quincy Jones, William F. Cody and Wallace Neff were designing homes for boldface names in the sunny enclave. Architect Jill Lewis had worked in Palm Springs, California, before, but was living outside of the United States when Ron Hixson and John Falcone called her with a project they had in mind. The couple had been splitting their time between Hawaii and Rancho Mirage and had recently purchased a 1952 home in the Thunderbird Country Club Estates section. “The Barry Estate, located near the eighth hole of the golf course, needed some major updates. The first owner of the home was New York congressman Robert R. Barry, who organized the Dwight D. Eisenhower presidential campaign for the West Coast, and hosted not only Eisenhower but guests such as Betty and Gerald Ford,” says Lewis.
“The first time I visited the property, I was immediately struck by the potential for a beautiful mountain view that was currently cut off by a low ceiling height in the main living area. We quickly agreed that if they were going to invest in this property, we had to get the proportions right, so raising the roof of the main living area became the largest gesture in our scope of work.” The Hollywood Regency-style home didn’t mesh well with the 1952 architecture, and thus the couple tasked Lewis with cleaning up the floor plan. “Over the years, there were multiple renovations that had compromised the function of several spaces, and the rear garden was nothing but a large expanse of sand with a quirky rhombus-shaped pool,” she explains. “In addition to the major structural gesture of removing and reframing the roof of the living space, we added a large sliding door for an effortless indoor-outdoor connection to the garden.” Bringing in natural light and adding lush greenery outdoors was paramount to the clients (and their two Norwich terriers). Citrus trees, a cactus garden with mature palm trees and a poured concrete fire pit added plant life and made the outside more appealing.

“If they were going to invest in this property, we had to get the proportions right.”
—Jill Lewis

Lewis brought in her frequent collaborator, Scott Cullens of Palm Pacific Construction, as general contractor to renovate the modern, elegant and comfortable home with masculine finishes. “They wanted to exploit the best features of the property, taking advantage of views, the dramatic light, the potential for an incredible indoor-outdoor experience and the mid-century bones of the house,” says Lewis. “They were drawn to clean lines, pared-down details and highly disciplined palettes of white, grey and matte black. We generally opted for deep, muted colors balanced with crisp white, adding texture to create patterns with the shifting daylight throughout the house.” A terrazzo-like large-format porcelain tile from Spain was used throughout, introducing some soft gray in contrast to the white walls and matte black metal wall accents.
Furnishing a house during a pandemic presented a few challenges. “With almost no ability to travel together to visit showrooms, we ordered some custom-made pieces from MJ Custom Furniture in Rancho Mirage (the dining banquette and the upholstered wall-mounted headboards in the two bedrooms) and sourced the remaining items online, using fabric swatches and photographs and assembling it all into digital mood boards to confirm choices,” says Lewis. “Our design decisions were driven by the mountain views that line the horizon, the beautiful surrounding landscape, plentiful sunlight and the incredible architectural history of the neighborhood.” Restoring and highlighting the best features of the mid-century bones of the house while adding durable, classic materials that will endure for years was the goal of this project. “Throughout the design process, we constantly edited our palette, believing a pared-down, soothing collection of finishes playing with the light and shadow would achieve a peaceful and elegant home that would stand the test of time and honor the landscape of the surrounding area,” says Lewis.
Click through the gallery above for an inside look at this Rancho Mirage home. 

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