TELEGRAPH SATURDAY MAGAZINE
Life on Mars
With its unearthly looks and futuristic interiors, the Elrod house in Palm Springs has been used as a film location for James Bond. Yet it’s also a surprisingly comfortable place to live. By Lucie Young
‘At least when they come down from Mars, they will know where to go,’ the comedian Bob Hope joked when he saw the model for his John Lautner-designed home in Palm Springs. His wife Dolores had been inspired to hire Lautner after seeing the decorator Arthur Elrod’s home, a few hundred yards away in the same exclusive Southridge community overlooking Palm Springs.
John Lautner, who died in 1994 age 82, was one of the most eccentric and innovative of America’s mid-century architects. He trained with Frank Lloyd Wright, who called him the second greatest architect in the world (after himself, of course). Lautner’s futuristic houses are often used as film sets. The Chemosphere, a giant saucer on top of a concrete stalk, features in Body Double; the Garcia, a glass and concrete tree-house on Mullholland Drive, appears in Lethal Weapon and the Elrod, with its space-station feel and 60 ft-wide domed living-room, starred in the Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever.
Lautner never repeated himself. ‘The infinite variety of these spaces can be as varied as life itself,’ he wrote. Boxes were for dog kennels and jails, he insisted. It was a controversial approach in a city enthralled with Modernism. But the boxy Modernist constructs of his contemporaries with their sliding glass walls, often left their occupants feeling vulnerable and exposed. Many home owners put up curtains and others discovered that a glass house was little better than a magnifying glass – intensifying the desert heat in summer and leaving the interior exposed to freezing cold at night. ‘
All people really need is a sense of freedom and a little shelter that doesn’t box you in,’ Lautner said. It was his opinion that people hadn’t changed much in 2,000 years. His massive concrete structures combine a primordial sense of protection with exhilarating panoramic views. In the Elrod, light pours in from petal like slits in the ceiling (light from just one side was unbalanced, according to Lautner) and the floor-to-ceiling windows give 270-degree views. ‘Throughout the day there are five different mountain ranges that light up – the San Jacintos, the San Bernardinos, the little San Bernardinos, the Chocolate Mountains and the Santa Rosas,’ says the property developer Michael Kilroy, who bought the Elrod in 2002.
When Kilroy first saw the house, he was surprised. ‘I expected drama, but I didn’t expect the human scale and how very comfortable and grounded the house is.’ The sense of security comes from the concrete roof and the rocks that cradle the structure and poke in through the glass walls. When the house was built in 1968, the land was leveled and then cut down eight feet to expose the rock outcrops that Lautner wanted to incorporate into the house. Entering the living-room, the first thing you encounter is a massive rock formation that generates a feeling of being in a cave and dramatically curtails, then reveals, the view. In the master bedroom another boulder creates a womb-like wall and a place on which to perch. ‘ I put a pillow up on the rock and read or nap. The rock make me feel safe,’ Kilroy says. In the master bathroom, rocky outcrops make bathers feel as if they are taking a dip in a mountain pool.
One of the biggest surprises, walking around the perimeter of the house is how unprepossessing the exterior is. Unlike his architectural contemporaries, Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig and Craig Ellwood, who were obsessed with how their houses photographed inside and out, Lautner had little interest in exteriors. His focus was on how people felt in his buildings, not how they looked to the neighbors. When he was building the Desert Hot Springs Motel (20 minutes away in Desert Hot Springs and recently reopened to the public), the locals thought it must be a secret government project because it seemed so Spartan from the street.
The Elrod’s original interior had a lot of color. Arthur Elrod, who died in 1974, created spectacular interiors for clients such as Bob and Dolores Hope, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny and Winthrop Rockefeller in the 1950s-1970s, and his decorating style was Hollywood Regency (some of his furniture now fetches thousands on eBay). Pictures from the 1970s, show an orange day bed, glass bubble chandelier and red lacquer cubes in the bedroom and a Calder-style mobile hanging down in the living room. One of Kilroy’s favourite hideaways is Elrod’s pot pourri room. ‘Isn’t this the daffiest thing you’ve ever seen?’ Kilroy says opening an outside door. Inside are boxes neatly labeled ‘oak moss’, ‘lemon peels’, ‘gum benzoin’, ‘tonka beans’ and ‘silver weed’.
In the 1990s the supermarket billionaire Ronald W Burkle bought the house and meticulously restored the interior. He repaired the black slate floor in the living-room (a previous owner had carpeted over everything, driving tacks into the slate floor). He also reconstructed furnishings to look like the more tasteful originals, including the round beige and grey rug and curved banquets in the living room. Elsewhere he filled the space with futuristic-looking French furniture by the likes of Philippe Starck, Jean Nouvel and Pascal Morgue. Kilroy wasn’t sure about the giant yellow art glass ‘Persians’ by Dale Chihuley that Burkle installed in the living-room and kitchen. ‘My take originally was, aren’t they the stuff in every regional airport?’ he says. ‘But my mother liked them and they don’t interfere with the architecture. The colors are taken from the wildflowers on the property. Now I think it’s like flowers at the back of a cave.’ Kilroy recently purchased Steve McQueen’s old weekend house next door, complete with original furnishings. For Kilroy, it wasn’t so much a nostalgia trip, as to prevent anyone else building a McMansion next to Elrod.
As the sun dips behind the fifth mountain range, the black floor vanishes into the night sky. Kilroy sits in the dark looking out over the city. ‘This place is built like a fortress. It is George Jetson meets The Guns of Navaronne,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘It is magical. It is neither too cramped nor too cavernous. It is awe-inspiring and nurturing’. The perfect home.