Much of the midcentury modern architecture one gawks at in Palm Springs sprouted in the ’50s and ’60s—like the Swiss Miss A-frames by Charles Dubois in the Vista Las Palmas neighborhood and Robert Alexander’s House of Tomorrow, where Elvis and Priscilla Presley holed up for their honeymoon.
That’s why the Desert House, built in 1946 by Austrian-born architect Richard Neutra for retail tycoon Edgar J. Kaufmann, stands out all the more. Fusing glass, steel, and stone, "it is an architectural marvel that helped define the modernist aesthetic," says Gerard Bisignano, partner at Vista Sotheby’s International Realty, who is handling the sale of the 3,162-square-foot home.
If this pioneering example of International Style architecture is snagged for the listed $25 million, it will become the most expensive real estate transaction in Palm Springs history—a title currently held by the futuristic John Lautner–designed Bob and Dolores Hope Estate, which sold to billionaire Ron Burkle in 2016 for $13 million.
Designated a Class 1 Historic site by the Palm Springs City Council, the five-bedroom, six-bathroom Kaufmann Desert House is a triumph that reflects Kaufmann’s vision as much as it does Neutra’s brazen talents.
Best known for his eponymous Pittsburgh department store, Kaufmann revered good design. In 1934, he and his wife Liliane commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build their weekend home along Bear Run in southwestern Pennsylvania—which would become Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater—as well as Kaufmann’s office.
Although Kaufmann considered Wright for the Palm Springs structure—where he and Liliane planned to live for only two months out of the year— he ultimately wanted a design that dared to make an impression on the desert landscape, rather than meld with it as per Wright’s organic approach. So, he chose Neutra.
The result is a striking, sculptural layout resembling a pinwheel with various wings radiating from the central living and dining room. Throughout, there is a strong connection between the indoors and outdoors, reinforced through large swaths of glazing and shade-inducing vertical aluminum louvers that are also one of the home’s highlights.
Outside, the pool has a particularly nostalgic appeal—thanks to its appearances in a moody 1947 photograph by Julius Shulman that illuminates a lone, lounging Liliane by the water, and Poolside Gossip, Slim Aarons’s 1970 depiction of chic ladies savoring a leisurely afternoon in the Palm Springs sunshine.
When Kaufmann passed away in 1955, the Desert House cycled through several different owners, including Barry Manilow, and significant design changes were implemented to make the Desert House more comfortable for year-round living. Square footage expanded, the courtyard was covered, and air conditioning was added to the roof—but as a consequence of those "improvements," the house began to crumble and lose its soul.
It wasn’t until 1993, when Brent and Beth Harris, a financial executive and an architectural historian, moved in that there was an attempt to bring the Neutra house back to its original splendor piece by piece. In the absence of Neutra’s original plans, the Harrises turned to the prominent "desert modernist" architect Albert Frey for his expertise, and they hired Los Angeles–based Marmol Radziner, the firm that had recently spruced up Neutra’s Kun House #2 near Laurel Canyon.
Marmol Radziner spent more than five years painstakingly revamping the Kaufmann Desert House in a thoughtful process that included an on-site archaeological excavation and poring over Neutra’s archives at UCLA. Such thorough research led him to convince a Utah quarry to re-open a section of its site so that more of the original buff-colored sandstone could be obtained. A fabricator in Kansas also fired up a defunct machine to reproduce crimped metal. Birch-veneered plywood was matched, concrete and silica sand floors were patched, and even ductwork was carefully hidden.
Twenty-five million dollars is certainly a hefty price tag, but then again, the buyer is stepping back into the past, into a profound moment of architectural history. Consider the second-story, open-air gloriette—a French word translating to "little glory"—where views of the San Jacinto Mountains are particularly heady. Multiple levels were forbidden when Neutra was building the Desert Kaufmann House, but the gloriette, reached via an outdoor staircase, is a clever workaround—just one of Neutra’s subtle innovations.
"It is an aesthetic standout and brings the house into a balanced harmony," says Bisignano. "Looking at it from the outside, something in your spirit entices you to want to explore that area." Now, someone with enough money can do just that whenever they like.
The Kaufmann Desert House, located at 470 West Vista Chino in Palm Springs, California, is current listed for $25,000,000 by Gerard Bisignano of Vista Sotheby’s International Realty .
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