“Old is cool,” says J.R. Roberts as he offers you a tour of his Palm Springs home. “People come from all over the world to look at our midcentury modern architecture during Modernism Week. These houses make us feel good. I think it’s because people — especially millennials — crave the warmth of the past.”
Built in 1952 as a spec house, the three-bedroom home is more than just cool: It was once owned by the beloved entertainer Lawrence Welk, who was drawn to the house, in part, for its proximity to the city’s many golf courses.
Roberts, 59, a former Palm Springs councilman, had just restored a house in Twin Palms when a real estate agent showed him a photograph of the 2,700-square-foot ranch house.
“A friend sent me an aerial shot of the house, and I loved the layout,” he says. “I knew when I walked in the house that I wanted to buy it.”
As much as he was delighted by the Hollywood lore, Roberts says he was most impressed by the home’s dramatic orientation facing the mountains.
He purchased the house “as is” for $1.1 million and proceeded to restore it to its original state.
It came together, in part, thanks to a touch of kismet.
“When I showed my friend [singer] Marky Lennon photos of the house, he said, ‘I’ve stayed at that house!’” Roberts recalled. “Marky connected with his aunts” — the Lennon Sisters, the pop group that came to fame in the 1950s — “and he gave me original photos that I used to bring back the house.”
Over five months, Roberts gave the home a serious update by removing many of the alterations from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s: weathered red brick wainscoting, planters and deck overlays, a faux column that had been installed next to the front door, aluminum sliding windows, bathroom finishes, cabinets and fixtures.
To add light and open up the interiors, he removed a wall between the kitchen and dining room and took out the kitchen island. The kitchen countertops, appliances, plumbing and lighting also were removed, but the vintage steel St. Charles cabinets were preserved and reused.
Using Lennon’s photos as a reference, Roberts saved all the original fixtures, lighting and finish plumbing in one of the bathrooms and found matching vintage fixtures and finishes, including a turquoise sink and toilet.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)
The old roof had to go, as did the plumbing and electrical. New windows and doors were installed to match the originals, and the garage was converted from a bedroom back to a garage where Roberts can store his 1966 Mustang.
Part of the home’s charm is its long, low floor plan, which was covered in shag carpeting. Now, with the addition of new smooth terrazzo floors, the home’s clean lines dazzle.
Roberts left the pool and front yard intact and added a sculptural cactus garden in back, complete with a fire pit and lounge area. “The backyard is like a fish tank,” Roberts says. “It’s my dream desertscape. I think of it as under the ocean, only it’s cactus.”
Roberts, who previously lived in the noted Edris House atop a rocky hillside, loves that he can now ride his bike to town from his El Mirador neighborhood.
His passion for preservation motivates him to go beyond his own personal residence. He will open his home to the public for tours on Feb. 15 and 22 during Modernism Week, with all proceeds benefiting the historic Plaza Theatre. “The theater has played a vital role in the history of Palm Springs,” Roberts says. “Frank Sinatra and Amos and Andy all used to do radio shows there. Those theaters were living rooms for people.”
Roberts likes to call Modernism Week “hard-core preservation wrapped in fun,” but he also hopes visitors will leave the event with a meaningful takeaway: “I like to show people how cool old can houses can be,” he says. “You don’t have to tear down houses. Honor historic buildings. Don’t remodel; restore.”
It is a sentiment favored in Palm Springs. Just last week, the Palm Springs City Council voted to designate the home as a Class 1 historic site.
When: Feb. 13-23
Where: Palm Springs
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