Former desert resort to become UC Irvine research center


Reporting from Borrego Springs, Calif. -- The mood was buoyant and boosterish when the Borrego Desert Club had its grand opening party on Feb. 17, 1950.

The luau went on for three days. Hawaiian singer Hilo Hattie provided the entertainment. Moneyed couples enjoyed the panoramic view of the desert and the glistening stars. A photographer for Life magazine was there to capture the fun.

Designed by noted La Jolla architect William Kesling — known for his Streamline Moderne style — the Desert Club was envisioned by boosters as the social hub of an upscale resort community that would rival Palm Springs as a desert playground for the rich.


San Diego newspaper publisher James Copley took an interest in the region and used his newspapers to promote the getaway charms of Borrego Springs. A trickle of Hollywood stars came to town, including Bing Crosby, Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne. Gale Gordon, co-star and comic foil to Lucille Ball, served as honorary mayor.

Alas, the boom did not last, and by the late 1950s, the Desert Club was fading, and, with it, the hopes of early Borrego Springs’ investors and promoters, such as vintner Alphonse A. Burnand Jr.

Today, Borrego Springs is an unincorporated community of 3,000, with a small commercial strip, a tidy public park, a little-used public airport and the De Anza Country Club, among other attractions. Copley’s heirs sold the family’s La Casa del Zorro resort and Borrego Sun newspaper.

Now, the Desert Club is about to add a new, unexpected chapter: as a desert research center operated by the Irvine campus of the University of California.

For five years, professor Diane Pataki, director of UC Irvine’s Center for Environmental Biology, had been looking for a spot to study the desert ecosystem and the relationship between human development and the natural environment. Money was a problem — like other public institutions, the UC system has been hit hard by the recession.

Enter Audrey Steele Burnand, the widow of Burnand’s son, Alphonse “Sonny” Burnand III. Burnand family members have long been Borrego Springs benefactors — donating money and land for a hospital, Little League field, fire station and high school.


Jim Dice, a desert senior scientist at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, approached Audrey Steele Burnand about the Desert Club as a way to preserve her late father-in-law’s vision.

A deal was struck: Burnand would buy the Desert Club and donate it to UC Irvine as a research center. She also would provide funds to modify the building to fit the needs of students, including an annex with bunk-bed-style sleeping quarters for two dozen.

Escrow on the building is set to close this week. The dollar amount of Burnand’s gift, beyond the $650,000 purchase price of the Desert Club, was not disclosed. The house was owned by artist John Scranton and his former wife, novelist Lisa Fugard.

“I gave this gift to give new life to a beautiful, special place near the state park,” Burnand said in a written statement. The Desert Club “has deep meaning for my family,” she said.

UC Irvine hopes to have the property ready for students by winter 2012, said Pataki, an associate professor with a joint appointment in earth system science and ecology and evolutionary biology. For students and others interested in desert research, she said, proximity to Anza-Borrego is unbeatable.

Pataki already has a project in mind: a look at how the pumping of groundwater has harmed the native mesquite trees.

Gail Sevrens, acting superintendent of the park system’s Colorado Desert District, sees the arrangement as “win-win”: a historic structure is preserved and the park system gets the benefit of research that could help in managing 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego, the state’s largest park.

Scranton likes the idea of UC Irvine bringing life back to the Desert Club.

Sitting at the club’s wraparound bar, Scranton said: “This house needs a party.”