Independent women commissioned major desert architecture
Two old friends, once business partners and then enemy rivals, were both late sick. They had been separated for more than two decades, although their lives and careers were inextricably linked. By an unlikely twist of fate, in 1953, they were both ill and found themselves assigned to the same hospital room. The only record of their interaction in this room was that the two men, famous architects Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, spoke in German and laughed.
Incredibly unlikely, the moment was real but the makings of fiction. Writer Tom Lazarus imagined the conversation in this play for his play, “The Princes of King’s Road”. Mark Davis of Modernism Week had the idea to bring the piece to Palm Springs in 2019, and rightly so, as the two architects carried out projects in the desert.
Neutra is now widely known for the Kaufmann House, having secured the commission on her mentor and idol Frank Lloyd Wright, but Neutra and Schindler both designed intimate and interesting homes for equally interesting but idiosyncratic female clients in the wilderness. These projects represent a triumph of individuality, adventurous spirit and modesty in modern design.
Long before the Kaufmann commission, Neutra designed a home for Grace Lewis Miller in Palm Springs. Widowed in 1935, Miller’s life changed dramatically with the death of her doctor husband. She embarked on academic research, studying the story of Meriwether Lewis, with whom she claimed no relationship, in depth. To say that she was absorbed in her life is an understatement. She spent the next thirty years in libraries, historical societies and archives, expanding the explorer-scientist’s understanding beyond the usual documentation of the Pacific expedition. Believing her story to be underestimated and extremely dramatic, she wrote a screenplay for a 1938 film and produced numerous articles on various aspects of her life ignored by male historians. His sons donated his research and personal documents to the National Park Service’s Jefferson Expansion National Monument Archives.
These documents also contain treasures of extensive correspondence between Miller and Neutra regarding his order for a small house in the Palm Springs desert. Choosing Neutra was a radical act, as it had yet to gain prominence, and demonstrates Miller’s sophistication and independence.
Neutra’s sense of flexible space and her willingness to consider the smallest detail made the house extremely personal and well suited to her particular client. Documented in their letter exchange are discussions of her daily routine, the contents of her wardrobe, and her preferences for countless dates. Neutra asked how many jerseys and hats Miller had, designing drawers of varying depths specifically for each.
The house was to accommodate his academic activities and his varied interests in art and nature. Miller practiced the Mensendieck system of spinal exercises, developed by Bess Mensendieck, a female doctor trained in Europe, where students practiced their nude postures in front of a mirror, resulting in a wall of the main living space of the house was mirrored. Neutra used all of her knowledge from her Lovell nursing home to improve the therapeutic quality of Miller home.
Miller knew that she “didn’t want a Rubens, that she wanted a Picasso”. Neutra reportedly arrived by car hitched to a trailer in which he carried a rotary table for drawing and a canopy to study the angles of rotation of the sun and wind at the site.
The house invents the ‘open floor plan’, with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, with all rooms easily accessible from the outside, which was another much larger living space. The spaces were flexible like in Japanese homes, where the function changes depending on the time of day and the task at hand, described as “pragmatically elastic”.
Miller was delighted with the resulting reflective pool immediately adjacent to the screened porch, “The water dampens the effect of sunlight and sometimes causes the most beautiful reflections dancing on the hall roof and porch.” Translucent glass provided privacy and glorious light. The sliding doors created a connection with the outdoors and a sense of serenity as they allowed the delicate scent of citrus blossoms to perfume the bedroom, thus enhancing nighttime sleep.
Although modest, the house perfectly supported Miller’s intense and eclectic lifestyle and set an example of efficient living.
Schindler beat Neutra in the desert for 15 years, designing a Coachella “cabin” for Paul and Betty Popenoe in 1922. Considered the first modern structure ever built in the valley, it does not survive. But starting in 1946, during the days of the Kaufmann House, Schindler designed a house for Maryon Toole to build in Palm Village, an unincorporated area that would become part of Palm Desert.
Not much is known about Toole. Many desert dwellers with idiosyncratic or alternative lifestyles wanted it this way. She died at the age of 69 at Eisenhower Medical Center in 1985. She was one of the first residents of Palm Village and active in the newly amalgamated town of Palm Desert. She was Indian Wells’ first postmistress and was a captain in the Women’s Army Corps, serving during World War II and the Korean War. She and her close friend Sharlie “Lee” Andrews owned and operated the El Dorado Date Gardens in Indian Wells. She worked for a time with Edith Eddy Ward in real estate. There is no record of her marriage; she had no children.
The spectacular home that Schindler designed for Toole features stone walls that protrude inside the home, perfectly incorporating the exterior. Tall glass walls and slatted windows light up the interior while the enormous cantilever roof provides a respite from the desert sun. Schindler said, “the whole is shaded by a large but slightly balanced roof reminiscent of a giant oak leaf.” Under this leaf, Schindler’s design focused on a careful appointment of interiors and unspoiled views of the surrounding mountains in all directions. A central fireplace warmed the space during the winter nights. The highly functional design was elegant in the extreme.
Researcher Michael Darling said: “The richness of the Toole house shows an architect in full mastery of his medium, orchestrating a range of architectural concerns into a fully integrated whole. The house was completed in 1948.
A few years later, in 1953, Schindler, accidentally assigned to the same hospital room, was laughing with his old friend Neutra. Schindler would unfortunately not be leaving the hospital.
The fact that Neutra and Schindler accepted commissions for small desert houses for single women was indeed modern in an era when women were seen primarily as belonging to their husbands. The resulting architecture is a testament to the independence and intelligence of Miller and Toole as much as to the ingenuity of their respective architects.
The Desert is celebrating architecture in a few days with the fall preview weekend of Modernism Week. An easy and unplanned way to learn more is to visit the Palm Desert Historical Society, where there are new exhibits with never-before-seen photographs and ephemera found during last year’s excavation of the archives.
Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Thanks for the Memories column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to him at [email protected]