March 01, 2020

Photo Essay: A Space Age Desert Enclave for Comedy Royalty and An Ice Cream King

About a dozen miles southeast of Palm Springs, the desert community of Rancho Mirage boasts its own Mid-Century Modern architecture and historic Hollywood connections—much of which centers around the Tamarisk Country Club.

It was the second such 18-hole private club in the desert cities in and around Palm Springs when it launched in 1952 thanks to the "Golden 65"—a group of founding members that included 4 of the 5 Marx Brothers.

But Tamarisk was "unrestricted"—which meant it welcomed Jews at a time when not every country club did.

The club later attracted such icons as Frank Sinatra (who snatched up five lots along the 17th fairway in 1954), President Gerald Ford, and inventor and entrepreneur Leo Maranz.

A mechanical engineer, Maranz invented the soft serve ice cream pump and freezer that led to him co-founding the Tastee-Freeze brand in 1950 and expanding it nationally with his partner Harry Axene (formerly of Dairy Queen).

In 1960, the Maranz Residence was to be the Chicago-born ice cream man's first foray into homeownership after years of apartment living. He told Palm Springs Life, "If I'm going to have a house I want it to be the most unusual one on the Tamarisk fairways."

In stepped structural engineer and architectural designer Valentine Joseph Powelson, Jr. (a.k.a. Val Powelson), whose cutting-edge design gave the Maranz Residence a three-pointed, winged roof straight out of the Space Age handbook—thanks to a post-war engineering innovation that had reached its height in the 1950s, the hyperbolic paraboloid.

The "Gullwing House," as it's been nicknamed, evokes more Googie than other residential mid-century buildings in the Palm Springs area—and features one of Powelson's signature touches. Facing the country club's fourth tee, there's a steeply pitched gabled roof that projects to a sharp point supported by an exposed beam at the apex.

Hyperbolic paraboloid (or simply "h/p") roofs curve in two different directions, giving it a shape that looks like a saddle. Its double curvature not only makes it seismically stable—but it also eliminates the need for view-obstructing internal supports.

Powelson further ensured a good view of the fairway by avoiding right angles in the house's interior.

The nearly 4,000 square-foot landmark reportedly took only five months to build—and it's still in impeccable condition.

The sculptural roofline has held up well, despite the home's proximity to the San Andreas Fault.

Leo and his wife Esther added a two-bedroom guest house in a similar style shortly after the completion of the main home—their expectations likely far surpassed.

Around the corner from the Maranz Residence is another Tamarisk landmark and mid-century masterpiece—the 1957 "Sputnik" House, so named after the Russian satellite that launched in October of that same year.

Also designed by Val Powelson, it was built on the third fairway for the youngest of the Marx Brothers, Gummo—whose fellow founding members of the Tamarisk Country Club were Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo. Gummo himself signed the club's original incorporation papers in 1951 alongside LA developer Lou Halper and Joe Blumenfeld.

The connection between the Maranz Residence and the Gummo Marx Home? For both, Powelson had been commissioned by the same local contractor/developer—Robert Marx, son of Gummo, and also the son-in-law of Maranz.

Bob had left showbiz to step out from the shadow of his father and no longer be known as just "Gummo's son." Gummo explained to Bob that he understood, having forever been known only as "Groucho's brother."

Together with Powelson, Bob Marx formed the MarVal Construction Company—"Designers and Builders of Elegant Living," based in Palm Springs.

The nearly 3,000-square-foot Tamarisk home was Gummo's third in the area, after also living at Estates and on Golf Circle. Neither of those predecessors could compare, however, to the Sputnik house.

As with the Maranz Residence, a prominent center beam projects from through the living room and out to the apex at the rear of the house...

...practically pointing its residents and visitors out to the concrete patio and swimming pool, if not up into the ever-blue desert sky.

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