Novelist and interior designer Kristopher Dukes and her husband, Matt Jacobson, Facebook’s head of market development, live in a modern 1980s-era, Ray Kappe–designed home in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles. But when they want to get away from it all, they head east and keep going past Palm Springs, where many of the Los Angeles elite have weekend homes, to the high desert by Joshua Tree National Park. There, Ms. Dukes says, she can truly disconnect and unwind.
"I feel like Palm Springs is more of an extension of L.A.," she says, "but the desert just has a completely different vibe that is art-driven, international, and very far away from it all."
Until a few years ago, getting away from it all for the couple meant staying in a prefab prototype home designed by the famed Marmol Radziner architectural firm, which Jacobson picked up for about US$650,000 during the home-sales slump of 2011. "You can see the horizon from this home, and the beautiful way that the nearby mountains are framed," says Ms. Dukes of the two-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot space that’s modular, sparse, and located off an unpaved road in Desert Hot Springs. "There’s a sense of expansiveness about it that I really, really love."
Then, in 2013, after a weekend spent at the Marmol Radziner home with Mr. Kappe and his wife, Shelly, the two couples decided to take a look at a second architecturally significant home in the area. This one was designed by organic architect Kendrick Bangs Kellogg and constructed over the course of two decades, beginning in 1987.
Ms. Dukes had found the property listed for sale on a real estate website and was intrigued by the otherworldly landscape and fascinating design, as the home is built into one of the boulder-strewn hillsides for which the neighboring 800,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park is known. "The online photos made it look like a rendering," Ms. Dukes says. "It didn’t seem like you could build a house that looked like that."
While her original intention was to just see the place, something else transpired after they stepped inside. "It was even more stunning in person," Ms. Dukes says. And while Mr. Jacobson originally stayed in the car, stating that he didn’t want another desert house, he was persuaded to change his mind when Mr. Kappe unequivocally told him, ‘You have to buy this house,’ " Ms. Dukes says, noting that this was totally out of character for the architect, who is typically quiet and understated. The couple bought the property for US$2.95 million in 2014.
An ‘Experimental Culture’
Featured in advertising campaigns for high-end lifestyle brands, including Calvin Klein Home and Louis Vuitton, the Kellogg house is part of a larger story about the freedom that the desert provides to architects, designers, and artists who want to create without being confined by the landscape around them. And just as Marmol Radziner and Kellogg built homes that are considered architecturally significant, others have done the same, and plan to do the same in the years ahead.
Meanwhile, buyers who are looking to buy or build a second home that’s close to nature and away from the bustle of Palm Springs still have the opportunity to do so in Joshua Tree, which has a population of about 9,000; in the hipper Pipes Canyon or nearby Pioneertown, where you can find famed music venue and barbecue spot Pappy + Harriet’s; or in other places near the national park, which attracted a record-breaking 2.8 million visitors in 2017.
"I built architecture in Joshua Tree because it has a more open landscape, and a more open experimental culture," says Los Angeles–based architect Robert Stone, who built two houses in Joshua Tree, known as the gold house (Acido Dorado) and the black house (Rosa Muerta), almost a decade ago. Today, both regularly serve as the backdrop for high-end photos featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines, and for the Saint Laurent fashion brand. "I wanted to build something truly new that redirects the history of architecture," Mr. Stone continues, "and I needed a blank canvas to do that. You can still find that blank canvas in Joshua Tree."
To explain how we got to where we are now, Mr. Stone, who grew up in Palm Springs, offered an abbreviated history. "If you looked at Palm Springs in the 1940s, when the very first real modern houses were built," he says, "you would see a lot of open land, a mix of run-down shacks, and just a few far-flung houses that we now consider iconic." One of those is the Richard Neutra–designed Kaufmann house, which introduced the classic Southern California indoor/outdoor living and a more reductive new style of architecture when it was built in 1946. Interestingly in the early aughts, Marmol Radziner completed a painstaking renovation of the home, which had fallen into disrepair after Barry Manilow and others owned it.
Today, Mr. Stone continues, the shacks have all since been replaced by condominiums, and the open landscape, by subdivisions. The Southern California modernism that was popular through the 1960s became watered down over the years, he says. What’s left is a playground where the wealthy can bask in the sun, but where there's no land to build on or any space where architects can try new concepts and play.
"In the past two years, there have been a lot of people priced out of Palm Springs," says Rich Nolan, a real estate agent who heads up the Coachella Valley offices for The Agency, noting that the US$649,125 median sales price in June 2018 for a single-family home in Palm Springs is 8% above the previous all-time high median price from 2006. And there’s plenty of inventory that’s much more expensive, like the 14 ultramodern units he is currently selling in a new development called Linea Palm Springs, which start at US$2.7 million.
When would-be buyers can’t get into Palm Springs—or the nearby Indian Wells, with a median sales price of US$1.07 million, or Rancho Mirage, with a median sales price of US$710,000— their natural next step is to look to Joshua Tree, Mr. Nolan says, where there is still a good deal of land available, although fewer resale properties.
One Joshua Tree resale property that is available is Mojave Rock Ranch—a one-of-a-kind dwelling on a huge piece of land that tells a story of both the area’s past and its potential for the future.
A ‘Piece of Art’ for Sale
Like the Kellogg house and Mr. Stone’s homes, Mojave Rock Ranch, which is listed for US$1.95 million, after recent price cuts (and a reduction in acreage) from US$2.9 million, and earlier, US$4.5 million, has appeared in fashion campaigns and photo shoots. But in this case, it’s not because of the home’s architecture, but because of the property’s environment, design, and landscaping, which offers panoramic views of 225 acres of mostly undeveloped desert; trinkets and treasures from around the world cemented into the walls of the many indoor and outdoor spaces; and thousands of cacti, flowers, and sculptures—sometimes esoteric, obscure, or strange—placed throughout the grounds.
The result, which was created by owners Gino Dreese, 61, and Troy Williams, 56, over the past 25 years, is meant to evoke a sense of wonder in guests, who in the past have included Hollywood insiders and other movie and music luminaries, such as the Coppolas, Ridley Scott’s family, and the Beastie Boys.
"The ranch is our pride and joy," Mr. Dreese says, noting that it started with the purchase of just an 800-square-foot homestead cabin on some 40 acres, which they added to and made their own over the years. They picked up more land and more of the cabins, originally built around the 1950s, to rent out to the Hollywood set who wanted to experience the desert. "We were kind of the forerunners in the area," he continues. "There were no rentals at all in Joshua Tree before we got here."
They sold some cabins in the early 2000s but kept their original purchase, and after an around-the-world trip in 2004, incorporated much of what they had seen, experienced, and purchased. "We used whatever we could to make it look funky and interesting," Mr. Dreese says.
This included adding colored-glass bottles in the walls and constructing a stylized branch enclosure, called an African boma, around a circular clearing meant to be used for bonfires and open-air meals.
The couple now lives in Palm Springs, where they own and run a high-end landscape-design business. They’re selling because they’re ready to slow down a little bit, Mr. Dreese says, and hope to hand off the property to someone who’s younger and can bring it to the next level. "It’s like you’re buying a piece of art," he says, adding that the property is totally secluded and could be turned into a high-end rental, or converted into some sort of artists’ residence or resort.
Preserving Art and Architecture
Ms. Dukes and Mr. Jacobson purchased the Marmol Radziner home in Desert Hot Springs and the Kellogg house in Joshua Tree in an effort to preserve the homes as works of art. But what Ms. Dukes found is that the Kellogg house, despite appearances, is also incredibly cozy and warm to live in. On trips to Joshua Tree, which they make about every other month, Ms. Dukes says they find themselves relaxing a lot of the time on the built-in, custom-made couches, or on the decks overlooking the park.
"In pictures, it can look so Gaudi-esque," Ms. Dukes says. "But when you’re there, you can just hang out and enjoy the space. There are no right angles, and it’s comfortable. The walls almost hug you when you’re inside."
And then there is the intricate design, which includes golden spirals and shell-like, nautical patterns, to discover and enjoy. Ms. Dukes says her favorite thing about the home is how the ceiling in the master bedroom is made up of what looks like fingers, with glass in between where they’d touch. "When you’re in bed at night, you can look up and see the planes and the stars," she says. "Everything is moving, and it’s really magical."
This, of course, is just a small sampling of the significant architecture and design work you can find in the region, or will be able to find soon. Currently, there’s the Lloyd Wright and Frank Lloyd Wright Joshua Tree Retreat Center, which was built in 1946 and is also known as the Institute of Mentalphysics.
Then there's the work of interior designers and artists from Joshua Tree who have gained thousands of followers on Instagram, including Cosmic American and Casa Joshua Tree. And there are several ambitious projects planned by architects for the high desert, including the Whitaker Studio Joshua Tree Residence, which will feature interconnected, stark white shipping containers rising from the boulders.
Mr. Stone’s hope is that this is just the beginning, and that there will be more homes with artistic and architectural value yet to come.
"I hope somebody will read this article and decide to build property in the area," he says. "We should use the blank canvas of Joshua Tree and make architecture that’s as ambitious and relevant to our time as the first modern architecture was to its time." This story first appeared in Mansion Global magazine, published on November 19th, 2018.