HISTORICAL RESOURCES SURVEY
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot
Lyrics from ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ by Joni Mitchell
One of the main reasons Preservation Mirage exists is to help save important architecture in the city of Rancho Mirage. In recent years, Rancho Mirage has become a sought-after destination for people seeking a mid-century home in the desert. As Sinatra did, in the early 1950s, when he moved from the heart of Palm Springs to the tranquility of Tamarisk Country Club, people choose Rancho Mirage as a quieter alternative to Palm Springs.
Midcentury desert modern architecture is well represented in Rancho Mirage and even a handful of homes dating back to the 1930s remain, but many important homes have been lost to demolition or aggressive remodeling. The losses started in the 1980s, when midcentury modern was out of fashion and when homeowners desired the architectural equivalent of Dynasty shoulder pads. The losses continued through the 90s when ‘greed was good’ (to paraphrase Gordon Gekko) and houses on steroids started to become the norm. Iconic desert modern architecture from the 1950s and 1960s remains under threat.
Exactly twenty years ago in Rancho Mirage, the Maslon House was demolished. One of the most important houses in the desert, it was designed by modernist architect Richard Neutra. He is widely considered to be the father of Modernism and this was one of his last projects in the USA before he returned to Europe. It was a shining example of desert modern architecture, with its soaring overhangs, streamlined style, and walls of glass for panoramic views across the Tamarisk Country Club fairways to the mountains beyond. The house was sold by the Maslon Estate when Luella Maslon died. The new owner assured concerned heirs, agents, and neighbors, that he would keep the house as it was. Instead, it was demolished. Brad Dunning in the New York Times noted that ‘Rancho Mirage’s (then) city manager had no idea who the architect was or what the house represented.’ This resulted in the issuing of the demolition permit, and the rest is history.
The subsequent international outcry from the preservation and architecture community not only resulted in lengthy articles about the Maslon House demolition but also resulted in the City of Rancho Mirage being placed on the National Register’s list of ‘Teardowns in Historic Neighborhoods.’ Peter Morruzzi, one of the founders of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, led the preservation outcry in the desert. Although his preservation efforts came too late to save the iconic Neutra, they resulted in the city commissioning him and his architectural historian colleagues Leslie Heumann and Theresa Grimes to survey the city’s historical resources. The resulting survey was undertaken in the Fall of 2002 and published early in 2003. It was a valuable survey that identified many important homes and at last made the city managers, planners, and councilors aware of the architectural legacy that existed on their doorstep.
Fast forward 20 years and the survey is in desperate need of being updated. One of the major gaps in the city’s survey – acknowledged recently by one of the city’s council members – is the fact that the original survey team was not given permission to go into gated communities like Thunderbird Country Club or Thunderbird Heights. This omission has resulted in the demolition of numerous midcentury homes in particular in those locations – because they fly under the city’s radar. The most recent example was the 2020 demolition of the 1960 Howard Lapham-designed Hyatt von Dehn house in Thunderbird Heights.
With the help of digitized archives that didn’t exist 20 years ago, Preservation Mirage has been able to identify and produce its own list of historic homes that never appeared on the city’s survey. Preservation Mirage considers an update to the city’s survey of architectural resources vital, now more than ever. We will continue to pressure the city for an updated survey that includes this list so that homes previously unidentified by the 2002 survey can be offered some element of protection in the future.
Our city’s architectural legacy is at constant risk, we hope you will join us in our campaign for an updated survey.