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Renovation of John Lautner’s Desert Hot Springs Motel Sets the Stage for Revival of the California Modernist’s Early Work

Two Los Angeles designers discover blockbuster architectural theatrics in a limited-release package

by Zach Mortice, Associate Editor

The exterior of the renovated motel is clad in refinished redwood.

The renovated motel’s garden patio.

 

When John Lautner completed his Desert Hot Springs motel for Hollywood producer Lucien Hubbard in 1947, his goal was to create a small studio apartment-style motel that was a comfortable, protected refuge from the harsh Southern California desert climate, yet as spatially riveting as any full-scale private residence. Little did Lautner know, later in his career his work would come to exemplify the spatial richness of Southern California Modernist houses. His Elrod House, the Sheats Goldstein Residence, all became iconic projects in a unique, regional pantheon. Somehow, the little Desert Hot Springs Motel has managed to hold its own against these titans. The four-unit motel is an introverted pile of concrete, steel, and wood that uses interior gardens to transform itself into a desert terrarium jewel box on the inside, letting nature and the landscape playfully wander through its interior spaces. But this hold on respectability has been precarious at times. After Hubbard’s death in 1971, it’s passed through several owners, converted in and out of private apartments, its expansive lot cut up and sold off, sitting empty and disused in a turgid and suffering real estate market. Soon enough, this quirky bungalow bunker in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., just north of Modernism-rich Palm Springs, will be able to shine with no qualifiers. It’s been purchased by a pair of Los Angeles-based designers, Tracy Beckmann and Ryan Trowbridge, with an eye toward renovation.

Even in its current transitory state, the motel packs a punch worth preserving. “It’s like putting Pop Rocks in your mouth for the first time,” Trowbridge says. “It just explodes.”

The market comes to Modernism lovers

Interior designer Mafa Foster purchased the motel after Hubbard’s death, and converted them into private apartments. Its next owner was Steve Lowe, a Beat generation writer, poet, and artist, who purchased the property in 2002 and reconverted it to a motel. He was an archivist of Beat author William Burroughs’ works and letters, and he envisioned the Desert Hot Springs Motel as an isolated and meditative space for writers to hone their craft. Christopher Carr of the architecture firm Wiehle Carr, sits on the John Lautner Foundation’s Board of Directors, and he says that Lowe’s stewardship had the added bonus of connecting Modernist designers with Beat generation writers; two art cultures that haven’t had an abundance of opportunities to interact. Lautner originally designed the motel to sit on an expansive and isolated patch of desert outside Palm Springs, but this patch of desert was eventually developed as Desert Hot Springs, and Lowe sold off parcels of the site.

Lowe died in 2007, leaving the future of the motel unclear. It still required more work, but Lowe’s family wasn’t interested in keeping it. Meanwhile, Beckmann and Trowbridge were looking to do a Lautner-style renovation of Beckmann’s home in Los Angeles. Beckmann had been smitten by Lautner’s architecture since she was in her early 20s and was asked to style a photo shoot for a Swedish ad campaign at Lautner’s Sheats Goldstein residence. She loved the way he used concrete. “I died and heard the voice of God when I walked in,” she says. While researching Lautner for their own renovation, they came across an Internet listing for the motel. They realized: Why renovate Beckman’s home to look like a Lautner when they could own the real thing?

It was certainly a financially advantageous time to be a buyer in the cratering Southern California real estate market. The motel had sat on the market for many months, in an out of escrow, with a sticker price of $1 million that no one took seriously. Ten open houses later, Beckmann and Trowbridge arrived, looked around, loved it, and started making offers almost immediately. It took six months to reach a compromise price, during which time they had to sort through five lenders before they found one that understood they were investing in a landmark example of Southern California Modernism that was one of Lautner’s few remaining commercial projects, and not an odd mini-motel in the desert. With a lender in hand that was willing to pay for architecture, they had their Lautner by early 2008—for only $425,000. Still, the bank required 40 percent down. “We thought we were going to lose it a few times,” Beckman says.

Eight months later they bought the house on the lot just behind to motel, where they’ll stay during the renovations. When the motel is complete, the designers intend to tear it down to restore sightlines from the motel, and potentially donate its parts to Habitat for Humanity. They got a good deal, here too. The house was in foreclosure. Perversely, but beneficially, imploding commercial and residential property values degraded the price of architecture to a point that True Believer architecture lovers like Beckman and Trowbridge could afford to become caretakers of Lautner’s work and its site.

‘Almost our own perfect client’

Beckmann and Trowbridge’s renovation will be a quite literal interpretation of Lautner’s original design, with a few new elements added as well. The new owners have been working with archival blueprints, and have discovered many discrepancies between these drawings and what was actually built, which they attribute to Lautner’s design ambition and willingness to experiment on the fly. In any case, there’s less definitive demarcation between the authentically original and after-the-fact interventions. Beckmann (an interior designer) and Trowbridge will also restore some changes made to the units when they were converted into apartments. “[We’re] trying to take it back to as original as the concept can be, and upgrade it to the function that it needs to work today,” Trowbridge says.

The exterior redwood cladding and window frames will be replaced, along with the windows and glasswork. The kitchenettes and bathrooms are also being upgraded. Bulky and noisy central air conditioning units had taken up residence in the garden patios, so Trowbridge removed them and installed mini ductless systems inside. He’s also adding a small wind turbine and photovoltaic panel array. Eventually, Beckman and Trowbridge will add a new guest reception center and clubhouse, and will also restore a pool that was on the site previously. Trowbridge (a furniture designer), is designing custom pieces for the motel. Both designers have other businesses to run, but they’re doing the renovation all themselves. They’ve only hired contractors for glasswork and site drainage needs. They had intended to open the motel in February, in time for the Palm Springs Modernism Week festival and the opening of the Palm Springs Art Museum’s John Lautner exhibition Between Heaven and Earth: The Architecture of John Lautner, but the need to feed this project with cash from their other jobs made them scale back their schedule. “Because we were doing the work ourselves, when a job comes along, we’d have to stop the Lautner, go back to L.A., make money, and go back to the Lautner again,” Beckman says.

“We’re almost our own perfect client,” Trowbridge says. “We just have to come up with the money.”

It took two years to get one of the units ready to showcase for Modernism Week, but 300 people from all over the world came through to see Lautner’s little motel. Beckmann and Trowbridge are hoping for a summer 2010 soft opening and a grand opening sometime during the late fall or winter.

Both Beckmann and Trowbidge say that the outwardly hermetic and grumpy building has been a challenge to work with. “I just don’t believe this guy believed in doing anything parallel,” Trowbridge says. “There’s nothing parallel in the property.”

“There’s no straight corner in his world that we’ve ever seen,” says Beckmann. “We’ve learned patience.”

And when this patience is exhausted and they’re confronted with an issue that puts an overextended budget on one side and architectural integrity on the other, Beckmann tends to mind the red ink and Trowbridge the architectural legacy. “There’s only one of them,” he reminds her. When Trowbridge wins, she calls it “pulling a Lautner,” testament to the resourceful and inspired architect that they’ve been tasked with reinterpreting.

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Reference:

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Photos:

Images courtesy of Tracy Beckmann

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