Country Club Era: 1951 – 1973
The destiny of Rancho Mirage changed forever when Thunderbird Ranch and the adjacent Red Roof Ranch were spotted by golf promoter Johnny Dawson as the potential site for an 18-hole golf course and country club. With a group of investors that included businessmen, politicians and Hollywood celebrities such as Bob Hope, Randolph Scott, Phil Harris, Desi Arnaz and Ralph Kiner, the property was purchased and the Thunderbird Country Club incorporated in May 1950. In an innovative approach to country club development, lots along the fairways were offered for sale to club members. Entertainers Phil Harris, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, songwriter Hoagy Carmichael and tire company executive (later ambassador to Belgium) Leonard Firestone were among the first buyers. The club opened in 1951, becoming the first 18-hole golf course in the Coachella Valley, with Jimmy Hines as the golf pro. Local architect William Cody was hired to remodel the guest ranch buildings and to construct fourteen “cottages” which were available to members.
The same successful formula was followed a year later, when Tamarisk Country Club opened on the former Wonder Palms Hotel and Guest Ranch. Incorporated in 1951 by a group of 65 investors, including Hollywood notables Jack Benny, George Burns, Danny Kaye, Sol Lessor and the Marx Brothers plus businessmen like Lou Halper, Tom May and Abe Lastfogel. It also offered home sites along the fairways as a means of financing club improvements. The club opened in 1952, with a golf course designed by William Bell and renowned golfer Ben Hogan as the golf pro.
Attracting attention initially because of their well-heeled members, Thunderbird and Tamarisk focused the limelight by hosting tournaments such as the Women’s Invitational, the Ryder Cup and the first Bob Hope Classic. High profile visitors, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, brought additional publicity.
Construction of the country clubs and the associated residences coincided with another development that had profound implications for the character of Rancho Mirage: the evolution of a “Desert Modern” style of architecture. The Desert Modern style was in many ways a domestication and refinement of the avant garde International Style of the 1920s and 1930s, and grew out of local architects’ desire to adapt modern materials, techniques and floor plans to the unique requirements of desert living. Characteristics include large expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass sheltered by deep overhangs extending from flat roofs and flowing interior floor plans that merged imperceptibly with the outdoors. Oriented to the rear, Desert Modern houses in Rancho Mirage embrace desert, swimming pool and golf course views plus outdoor access while front elevations are often shielded for privacy. Desert Modern houses appear light, with roofs floating above the glass walls and clerestories, and ceilings supported by thin steel or wood posts. In addition to glass, exterior materials include stucco, wood, slumpstone, and natural rock.
Several architects contributed to the development of the Desert Modern style including William F. Cody, E. Stewart Williams, Dan Palmer, William Krisel and Howard Lapham. Because of their affluence, several Rancho Mirage property owners were able to commission architects of regional, national and even international prominence to design their vacation homes. In many cases, the architects had designed projects for their clients in their home cities. These architects included Welton Becket, A. Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons, Richard Neutra, William Pereira, Wallace Neff and Paul Williams. In many cases, these commissions were rare examples of an architect’s work in the desert or in a residential mode.
Construction during this era include mostly single family homes in the Modern