Architecture in Rancho Mirage
Architecture in Rancho Mirage is primarily a story of residential development. The City of Rancho Mirage Historical Resources Survey (2003) described three eras of development:
Early Agricultural and Residential Period: 1924 - 1950.
Early interest in the Rancho Mirage area was purely agricultural. The DaVall family’s Wonder Palms Date Ranch, William Everett’s Eleven Mile Ranch and Johnny and Ruth Warburton’s Red Roof Ranch were some of the early farms that saw an opportunity to get produce to market before crops in other regions could ripen. The area was particularly suited to cultivation of dates and date orchards soon dotted the landscape.
As Palm Springs caught on with the Hollywood crowd, developers began looking down valley for opportunities. The Magnesia Falls area became the epicenter for early residential development. In 1924, Los Angeles developers purchased several hundred acres with the intention of subdividing it into ten-acre farms geared to “gentlemen farmers”. LM and Helen Clancy built the first rancho in 1932 planting grapefruit, dates and grapes.
A Pasadena investor and developer purchased land in 1934 and began selling lots offering “modern attractive small homes”. A 1937 advertisement in the Pasadena Star-News, boasted that Rancho Mirage offered “one more hour sunshine” than Palm Springs. Hollywood lawyer and, later, Treasurer for the State of California, A. Ronald Button purchased the entire holding in the late 1940s to build post-war homes. In 1956, he was joined in his venture by enterprising brother-in-law and TV personality Art Linkletter.
Besides a hand full of year round and seasonal residents, visitors were drawn to the area for dude ranch vacations. Guests lived in rustic cabins, taking meals communally in lodges or on chuck wagon expeditions. Activities included swimming and horseback riding. In 1946, Eleven Mile Ranch converted into the White Sun Guest Ranch and Frank Bogert opened the Thunderbird Ranch featuring ranch style cabins and clubhouse arranged around a pool designed by Pasadena architect Gordon Kaufman.
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) 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 site of 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 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 a refinement of the avant-garde International Style of the 1920s and 1930s, and grew out of local architects’ need 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 glass walls and clerestories with 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 elsewhere. These architects included Welton Becket, A. Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons, Richard Neutra, William Pereira, Wallace Neff and Paul Williams. For some, these commissions were rare examples of an architect’s work in the desert or in a residential mode.
Other developments included higher density, multi-family developments including a type peculiar to Rancho Mirage: clusters of single family residences grouped around commonly owned landscape and recreational amenities such as swimming pools.
City Era: 1973 - Present.
In the late 1960s, Rancho Mirage had a year-round population of approximately 500 and a seasonal residency of a least 1,500. By 1970, it had experienced two decades of steady growth. When the neighboring communities of Cathedral City and Palm Desert began to show interest in expanding to encompass the new Eisenhower Medical Center, a movement to incorporate Rancho Mirage as a city was formed. In an election, 85 percent of the voters favored incorporation. On August 3, 1973, Rancho Mirage became the sixteenth city in Riverside County.
The mid-1970s witnessed a building boom with 5,000 dwelling units reported in progress in 1974 alone. The development of country clubs continued unabated. Commercial growth accelerated along Highway 111 including the distinctive Organic Modern styled Chart House, designed by Kendrick Kellogg in 1978 as a the most notable architectural milestone.
Much of the residential building occurred in planned developments of gated communities surrounding golf courses and country clubs such as Mission Hills, The Springs and Sunrise Country Club. Though many of these developments may never attain the status of ‘historic’ architecture, they have had a significant impact on the character of the city. In addition, a number of individual homes were and are being built by important architects that should be recognized as they age into that historic category.