Neighborhood Spotlight: Thunderbird Heights sprouted from an onion field

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The tony, uber-exclusive neighborhood of Thunderbird Heights — playground of presidents and Hollywood A-listers, adjacent to one of California’s most storied golf courses and home of some of the finest examples of Midcentury Modern architecture — had its humble origins in an onion field outside of Palm Springs.

In 1950, that field was one of the parcels that a group of investors, including Bob Hope and Desi Arnaz, was eyeing as the potential site of a new country club in the Coachella Valley.

The impetus for their plan was the existence of the Thunderbird Ranch, a celebrity retreat that boasted cabins designed by Gordon Kaufmann, a pool, riding stables and plenty of crisp, clean desert air — everything that well-heeled members of Hollywood royalty might require in their winter home, with the glaring exception of a proper golf course.


To address that need the group set out to remake the ranch, the onion field and acres of windblown desert into a club with world-class links.

It wouldn’t be easy. A competing group led by golfing legend Ben Hogan was also looking to build in the area, and people at the time thought that Palm Springs and environs could support only one 18-hole course. But then a fortuitous windstorm dissuaded the Hogan group, and construction of Thunderbird moved forward as planned.

While golf-course architect Lawrence Hughes set to work on the greens and sand traps, the investment group began work on the club itself. They sold residential lots along the fairways to Bing Crosby and Hoagy Carmichael, renovated the old ranch house and cottages and engaged famed local architect William Cody to design 14 more guest cottages.

Thunderbird Country Club opened in 1951, and was an instant hit.

As buyers snapped up the limited residential space inside the club, latecomers moved into nearby hills overlooking the course. Modernist retreats designed by legendary architects such as Howard Lapham sprang up on the hillsides of the new, gated neighborhood, dubbed Thunderbird Heights.

The club and the heights became a haunt for privacy-seeking celebrities of all types, including past and current presidents. Dwight Eisenhower was a member, as was Gerald Ford, who owned a home on the 13th fairway. Lyndon Johnson played there while he was president, and Richard Nixon teed off when he was still vice president.

Barack Obama extended the legacy into the 21st century and has been such a regular visitor that he’s prompted sporadic rumors he was considering moving to the Heights.


Neighborhood highlights

Golf and glitz: Thunderbird’s golf course has famously hosted celebrities including Crosby and Obama, been the site of the Ryder Cup and gave us the motorized golf cart. Thunderbird also lent its name to the classic sports car that debuted in 1955, the idea of club member and Ford Motor Co. Chairman Ernest Breech.

Serene seclusion: Why live in West L.A., when life behind the gates of Thunderbird Heights is quiet, private and blissfully free of traffic?

Desert skies: The price of admission to Thunderbird Heights buys you spectacular sunset views over the mountain-ringed Coachella Valley.

Neighborhood challenges

Back of beyond: If you crave city lights, late-night bar-hopping and world-class cultural events, you might want to keep a pied-à-terre back in Los Angeles.

Expert insight

Cary Gerken, a broker with TBO Properties Inc., said people flock to Thunderbird Heights for the views and the privacy.

“There are no street lights,” he said, so residents could stroll their backyards naked “and no one would know the difference.”


Although plenty of multimillionaires buy up the hillside homes, Gerken said it’s still a very understated community. Residents drive minivans and make new friends on the golf course, regardless of status or name recognition.

Six homes are for sale in the neighborhood right now, with prices ranging from $1.5 million to $5 million. Gerken said the renovated Midcentury Moderns sell faster than anything else.

“Everyone wants a glass-covered Midcentury combined with those commanding Thunderbird Heights views,” Gerken said. “It’s a seller every time.”

Market snapshot

In the 92270 ZIP Code, which also includes Rancho Mirage, the median price for single-family homes based on 21 sales in December was $555,000, down 12.6% year over year, according to CoreLogic.

Times staff writer Jack Flemming contributed to this report.