For a little-known house in Palm Springs, Marmol Radziner forgoes a textbook restoration in favor of a thoughtful update to the midcentury-modern gem.
Was there ever an odder movie star than Laurence Harvey? In unsettling films like Butterfield 8 and The Manchurian Candidate, he was the definition of the smooth, handsome devil, that strange light behind his eyes making clear that in real life, too, he was trouble: never without a cigarette and drink, bellicose, sexually all over the map, and doing his best to die young. He made it to 45.
Harvey lived only four years to enjoy this house, which he built in Palm Springs, California, in 1969. The wild man liked his 1963 Beverly Hills house so much that he commissioned the same architecture firm—venerable Southern California modernists Buff & Hensman—to create this oasis of tranquillity in the desert. After nearly 50 years it has passed the truest test of architecture: It looks even better today than when it was built, after a fine-tuning by architects.
Marmol Radziner and in the care of Rea Laccone and Paul Perla, the couple who have found their own bliss here. Amazingly, this house is barely on the radar in Palm Springs, where trophy properties by midcentury masters, particularly those with an Old Hollywood provenance, are paraded like dogs at Westminster. It’s in a fine old neighborhood where once you might have bumped into Kirk Douglas or Dinah Shore taking a morning walk.
As big as the compound is, little of it can be seen from the street—only a long, low stone wall and two seemingly impenetrable front doors. Solid walnut, they swing open slowly, and when they do the last thing you expect happens: You are still outdoors, in a vast garden room sur-rounded by glass pavilions, under the spell of towering Mount San Jacinto.
There’s hardly any color. The furniture is spare and quiet. Every element is strong and deliberate. All the local kitsch suddenly seems very far away as a deep calm sets in. “No makeup required,” says Laccone, who cofounded the fashion brand Vince because she couldn’t find a good T-shirt.
It might easily have gone a different route. Palm Springs has a taste for fanatical midcentury restorations, down to original appliances and an Avanti in the driveway. Partly because Laccone and Perla are fashion people, and partly because Marmol Radziner have so much experience with important modern houses, there was a healthy impulse to move forward rather than backward, with much more interesting results. “The trick to any renovation is not to lose the soul of a building,” says Ron Radziner, the firm’s design principal, making it sound considerably easier than it is. Exactly where does a building’s soul lie?
Buff & Hensman were known for post-and-beam houses, so the spirit of this home lay in the rhythm of its skeleton, which Marmol Radziner emphasized by changing its outlines from white to brown-black. Radziner was also fascinated by how the plan pushed indoor-outdoor living “to the limit.” The 5,500-square-foot house, two casitas, and a poolhouse open through floor-to-ceiling glass to what is essentially a second alfresco house, with sheltered living rooms, a kitchen, a dining room, a pool—everything but bedrooms. By using the same terrazzo floor inside and out, Radziner wove the two together more tightly than ever. “Terrazzo feels seamless,” he says. Often you’re not quite sure which side of the glass you’re on.
Although some very 1960s orange and yellow tile was preserved, Radziner found that “the original materials weren’t great for longevity. And the layout had the usual problems, with a separate kitchen. Especially in a vacation house, people today live fluidly.”
Now everywhere you have life’s real luxuries: a peaceful atmosphere; a feeling of shelter in the desert air; the sense that this house is going to look just like this forever. It all seems so right, it’s hard to believe everything was not the original architects’ intent. Although modern Palm Springs and Albert Einstein are not dots ordinarily connected, something he once said happens to describe this house perfectly: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”