Cubist shapes. Glass walls. Open plans.
Long seen as a beacon for Hollywood’s A-list – a custom begun when actors, under the old “studio system”, were required to venture no further than 2 hours away in case their services were needed while on a shoot – Palm Springs, in California, remains renowned for one other thing: mid-century modern design.
Drawn to the desert terrain and its 360° view of the mountains, architects like Richard Neutra, John Lautner, and Donald Wexler have left their mark in an architectural idiom all its own. Every house tells a story, i.e. Kirk Douglas’ erstwhile home, more specifically? It tells a whole damn novel.
‘Check out this plaque’, my host told me, the first time that I visited. We were standing in the “tennis pavilion,” behind the house, on Via Lola, in which on one wall lies a commemoration of all the well-known people who’ve wafted through the house. Senator Robert Kennedy, Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood, Ladybird Johnson, Dr. Henry Kissinger, Mr. and Mrs. Gregory Peck, and Billy Wilder: just some of the names on the list.
Papering the walls, in addition, inside the pavilion? Vintage movie posters covering the career of one of the only living gods of movieland’s Golden Age, including his iconic role in Spartacus. On one side looms a tennis court that at night, in particular, lights up like a David LaChapelle photograph. On the other, a swish, letter-K-shaped swimming pool – just another ode to the one-time man of the manor.
All this, and more, of late? It is the bastion of Toronto power-duo Michael Budman and Diane Bald! Scooping up the Wexler classic just two years back (part of a time-honoured tradition of California-bound Canadians!), it went for $3.5 million (according to the Desert Sun). Giving it a “sensitive renovation,” moreover, the Budman-Balds have leaned into its history, even opening up the house to the public as part of the city’s annual Modernism Week, held in February.
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An added bonus: Michael, the co-founder of Roots, and his wife, have long been palsy with Kirk Douglas’ son, Michael Douglas, and his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones. From what I understand, this helped to seal the deal with the sale, with Michael and Catherine, together with their kids, even paying a visit to the house afterwards, Mr. Fatal Attraction even confirmed it in a dispatch on Facebook:
“Friends of mine purchased Kirk’s old house and have redecorated it complete with a Kirk Douglas media room…I am standing in front of the residence as it is today. The backyard and pool haven’t changed much.”
Did I mention the 4000-square-foot estate actually backs up to Leonardo DiCaprio’s house, which famously once belonged to Dinah Shore? Well, yeah, I just did.
With real estate, in Palm Springs, always being nothing less than a spectator sport – and a perspicacious lens into the worlds of the rich and famous – it is also worth pointing out that when the house was originally built in the 1950s. It was done so for Bob Howard, whose dad owned the legendary racehorse, Seabiscuit. Howard kept it until 1957, after which the Douglases took over. Kirk sold the home in 1999, and it changed hands one more time afterwards.
Puttering around the art-speckled, low-slung home – dwarfed from the street by a rock wall, and featuring floor-to-ceiling windows beckoning towards the pool at its back – I made a mental note of its five bedrooms. One, in particular, I was told, is known as the “Kate and Spencer room,” because Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy rented the house from the Douglases on a few occasions, it playing a backdrop to their illustrious love affair.
I also made a note of the plethora of lemon trees in its courtyard, it making for a splendidly shaded sit-and-read area. Zesty!
And while both the new owners have taken very nicely to their home-away-from-home – Diane, in particular, getting into hiking in the nearby Indian Canyon Reserve – it is the very particular history of the house that continues to tease.
“It was a terrific place to live,” as Kirk Douglas, the younger brother of Michael, shared recently. “We had so many friends who were neighbours — Dean Martin, Sidney Sheldon…We had tennis parties every Sunday.”
“When Henry Kissinger was up there for a week,” he further recalled, “we had to install special phones with 10 lines. They’re still there.”
Meanwhile, Ann Douglas, Kirk’s wife of 64 years, had another specific flash, when ruminating on the house not long ago: some of their neighbours were so competitive with the gin rummy games they used to regularly host, “they would still be dealing the cards when Kirk went to sleep.”
Once, she went on, “I came downstairs in the morning and found the game still going strong. It was a magical time.”