RANCHO MIRAGE HISTORY
Established in 1934 | Incorporated in 1973
In the 1930s, two real estate men bought an area of desert off highway 111 to create ‘El Rancho Mirage.’ Frank Morgan, who was the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz (1939), built his home in 1937 which still stands today. In 1944 Major A. Ronald Button bought 80 acres at $100 an acre, which was later expanded. He was a Hollywood attorney, friend of Ronald Reagan, and later State Treasurer for California. Button’s influence led the Desert Sun to name Rancho Mirage a “Filmland Annex,” with actors John Warburton, Hedy Lamarr, Jeannette MacDonald, and George Brent building homes. By 1948 Button had nearly 100 homes completed, two apartment hotels, and a 75-foot community swimming pool. In the 1950s he partnered with media personality Art Linkletter to build additional homes. Homebuilders grew the subdivision through the 1960s generating numerous design styles. Early marketing touted “one more hour of sunshine than Palm Springs”. The “Rancho Mirage” moniker became the name for the entire city when it was incorporated in 1973.
The creation of Thunderbird and Tamarisk Country Clubs transformed the barren desert into an oasis from the early 1950s as the clubs became social powerhouses. Hollywood stars rubbed shoulders with politicians, sports celebrities, and titans of industry. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Howard and Anita Richmond, Phil Harris and Alice Faye, Ralph Kiner, Ben Hogan, Jimmy Hines, Leonard Firestone, Robert McCulloch, steel magnate Earle Jorgensen, and publisher Walter Annenberg, were among the names that grabbed the nation’s attention. US Presidents arrived, starting with Eisenhower in 1954, continuing with Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Ford, through to Obama, earning the city its nickname: ‘Playground of Presidents.’
The clubs’ architectural impact was to introduce the concept of homes on golf courses - a model that was adopted around the world. Fairway-adjacent sites, with non-stop panoramic views and mountain backdrops, encouraged architectural experimentation. Distinctive residences were designed by leading architects: Welton Becket, William Cody, Donald Wexler, Richard Harrison, Buff & Hensman, Wallace Neff, William Pereira, William Krisel, Howard Lapham, E. Stewart Williams, Paul R. Williams, and more.
Developers bought surrounding acreage to build satellite communities of single homes, co-op apartments, and eventually condominiums. By the early 1970s, thousands of condos were under construction at super-sized clubs like Mission Hills, The Springs, and Sunrise. A 1974 Desert Sun article called Rancho Mirage ‘The Country Club Capital of the World.’
The City of Rancho Mirage Historical Resources Survey (2003) described three eras of development. The following text is an edited summary from that survey.
EARLY AGRICULTURAL AND RESIDENTIAL PERIOD
1924 – 1950
The DaValls' Wonder Palms Date Ranch, William Everett’s Eleven Mile Ranch and the Warburtons' Red Roof Ranch were early farms growing date palms, table grapes, and citrus. In 1924, Los Angeles developers purchased several hundred acres to subdivide into ten-acre farms geared to “gentlemen farmers,” among them the Clancys – hence Clancy Lane.
A Pasadena investor purchased land around the area known as Magnesia Falls Cove in 1934, called it ‘Rancho Mirage’ and began selling lots offering “modern attractive small homes.” Advertisements boasted that Rancho Mirage offered “one more hour sunshine” than Palm Springs.
In 1944, Hollywood lawyer, later Treasurer for the State of California, A. Ronald Button, purchased the holding to restart residential development. In 1956, he was briefly joined in his venture by enterprising brother-in-law and TV personality Art Linkletter.
In 1946, Eleven Mile Ranch converted into the White Sun Guest Ranch; Frank Bogert opened the Thunderbird Ranch Guest Ranch in 1947 designed by Pasadena architect Gordon Kaufman. Visitors enjoyed vacations in rustic cabins, with chuckwagon breakfasts, swimming and horseback riding.
COUNTRY CLUB ERA
1951 – 1973
In 1950, entrepreneur and golfer Johnny Dawson chose Thunderbird Ranch and Red Roof ranches as the location for an 18-hole golf course and country club, backed by investors that included businessmen and Hollywood celebrities such as Bob Hope, Randolph Scott, Phil Harris, Desi Arnaz, and Ralph Kiner. The key innovation was the sale of residential lots along the fairways; celebrity and industrialist investors attracted like-minded purchasers. Thunderbird Country Club opened in 1951, becoming the first 18-hole golf course in the Coachella Valley. William F. Cody designed the remodel of the guest ranch buildings and fourteen “cottages,” available to members.
Tamarisk Country Club was created on land that was part of Wonder Palms Hotel and Guest Ranch. A group of 65 investors included Hollywood notables Jack Benny, George Burns, Danny Kaye, and the Marx Brothers plus businessmen Lou Halper and Tom May of May Company. It also offered home sites along the fairways and was ‘unrestricted.’ The club opened in 1952, with a golf course designed by William Bell. The country clubs had profound implications for Rancho Mirage: the evolution of a “Desert Modern” style of architecture that grew out of local architects’ need to adapt plans to the unique requirements of a new style of living.
Characteristics included 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 panoramic views while front elevations are often shielded for privacy. Roofs float above glass walls and clerestories, ceilings are supported by thin steel or wood posts. Exterior materials include stucco, wood, slump stone, and natural rock.
Architects contributing to Desert Modern style included William F. Cody, E. Stewart Williams, Palmer & Krisel, Wexler & Harrison. Because of their affluence, property owners often commissioned architects of national and international prominence, such as Welton Becket, A. Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons, Richard Neutra, William Pereira, Wallace Neff, and Paul R. Williams.
Multi-family developments were a type peculiar to Rancho Mirage: single-family residences grouped around community landscape and swimming pools.
1973 – Present
In the late 1960s, Rancho Mirage had a year-round population of approximately 500 and 1500 seasonal residents. By 1970, 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 August 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. Country club development in gated communities such as Mission Hills, The Springs, and Sunrise Country Clubs continued unabated. 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. A number of custom, individual homes have been built by important architects that should be recognized as they age.