March 05, 2017

Photo Essay: A Modernist Desert Dwelling

"Do you like my Lautner?"

Those were the first words I heard uttered by the current owner of a property in Desert Hot Springs by architect John Lautner.

"I don't even really rent out single rooms anymore," she said, contrary to the place having been once known as the "Desert Hot Springs Motel" and "Hotel Lautner."

She's since renamed it "The Lautner" (which is better than "My Lautner," I suppose) and, as she explained, just rents out the entire compound for "weddings, parties, Coachella, whatever..."

I bristled. Lautner built this four-room residence in 1947 as a refuge—in what was, at the time, the middle of nowhere—from the craziness of LA (and, presumably even from Palm Springs).

He designed it as a safe harbor from the heat, the wind, and the other unforgiving elements of the Low Desert...

...that still allowed you to enjoy the desert...

...rather than hiding from it.

But its current owner, interior designer and set decorator Tracy Beckmann, seems to have gotten caught up in the "Hollywood" of it all.

It's true, this Lautner in Desert Hot Springs is lovely.

It's gone through a couple of restorations—one in the early 2000s by then-owner Steven Lowe (who had the wooden privacy separators painted a stark desert while, and most recently by Tracy and her partner, Ryan Trowbridge (who ended up having to replace the redwood altogether, in an undertaking that took nearly four years).

But just because Tracy has preserved the gunite roof and the I-beams that keep it held up... well as the clerestory windows...

...doesn't really make it her Lautner.

No matter how many furnishings she's dressed it with, or how hard she tries to sell it, or how wonderful it may be to stay in this Modernist retreat made of concrete and steel...

...she can't really lay claim to it entirely.

Anyone who buys it, rents it, or throws parties in it is simply borrowing it—not from the famed architect himself, nor from the Oscar-winning movie producer who commissioned him to build it.

It's on loan from the sky above and the sand below. And, one day, they'll choose to take it back.

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