John Lautner's Desert Rose
Attending an open house is rarely a religious experience, but that’s how it went for interior designer Tracy Beckmann in late 2007. One night while cruising the website architectureforsale.com, she and her business partner, furniture designer Ryan Trowbridge, spotted a little-known John Lautner building on offer in Desert Hot Springs, California, with a showing the following morning. The 1947 complex consisted of four bunker-like spaces with roofs suspended from I-beams, designed for a 600-acre master-planned residential community that never came to be.
The next day, Beckmann and Trowbridge hit the road at dawn for the two-hour drive from Los Angeles, with visions of transforming the site into a hotel and architectural mecca. The place had been on the market for two years and was a borderline wreck—"there was so much water and termite damage you could put your finger through the redwood walls," says Trowbridge—but for Beckmann, a diehard Lautner fan, none of that mattered. "I opened the door to Unit Two and heard the voice of God," she says, solemnly. "Things looked bad, but we knew we could bring the place back."
Doing so proved to be a Herculean effort. It took the pair six months to close escrow because they couldn’t find a bank willing to give them a loan. "The banks hadn’t heard of Lautner, and all they saw in the neighborhood were small foreclosed homes," says Beckmann. They finally found an architecture aficionado at Wells Fargo who understood the site’s true value, believed in the project, and offered a mortgage if Beckmann and Trowbridge could pony up a 40 percent down payment on the $425,000 negotiated price.
Over the next four years, Beckmann and Trowbridge set to work renovating the place, respecting Lautner’s original design and intentions while coaxing the interiors into the 21st century. Embracing principles of adaptive reuse rather than traditional preservation, they tore out dated laminate cabinets, pedestal sinks, and cast-iron tubs, replacing them with floating glass shelves, wall-hung sinks, and spacious Heath Ceramics–tiled showers. Trowbridge replaced the layers of stucco on the interior walls with smooth concrete, reclad the exteriors and kitchens with redwood, and created custom steel beds with built-in bedside tables to fit the undulating concrete walls.
But what would the revered architect think of the contemporary revamp? "Lautner embraced new technologies," insists Beckmann, who along with Trowbridge has visited a dozen homes designed by the mid-century master. "He’d often revisit his old properties and renovate them to make them more efficient. So why would we go backward? We went forward, to take it to the next level."
Hotel Lautner opened last September. Among its first visitors were Judith Lautner and Karol Lautner Peterson, Lautner’s daughters, who bestowed the ultimate thumbs-up on the renovation project. "They said, ‘Our father would be proud,’" says Beckmann, beaming. "They were grateful we gave this place a second life."