Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer
 
GRAND DESIGNS – PALM SPRINGS HOUSE/E STEWART WILLIAMS – ‘THEY DID IT THEIR WAY’

KENASTON HOUSE –
WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
PHOTOGRAPHS – MARK LUSCOMBE-WHYTE

When Andrew Mandolene and Todd Goddard went on a shopping trip to Palm Springs five years ago they ended up with much more than they bargained for. They drove out to the epicentre of mid-century Californian cool to look for a lamp but ended up buying a 5,000 square foot, classic 1950s house by Palm Spring architect E. Stewart Williams.

"While we were shopping we noticed a paper flyer advertising the Kenaston House, which the owners were selling as a private sale," says Mandolene, a creative director. "We immediately drove over there and peered in through the windows and it was love at first sight.

"We stayed in Palm Springs for the weekend to arrange a viewing and then Todd – being a real estate broker himself – negotiated the deal the following week. We thought there was only cosmetic restoration work needed to bring back the sophisticated minimalism of the original house."

The single storey, low slung, four bedroomed house is in Rancho Mirage on the outskirts of Palm Springs in an area once popular with the Hollywood set. Frank Sinatra had Williams design a house for him just up the road, while the Kenaston House was a wedding gift from mining heir and entrepreneur Robert Kenaston and retired movie star Billie Dove for their son Roderick. The story goes that they told their son the only condition was that he didn't get a job and just relax. Much of the year the family spent on a yacht and had to shovel sand away from the door when they returned home.

Mandolene and Goddard had long been fans of mid-century style, having lived in a mid-century house in Los Angeles for some years, while they had been collecting mid-century furniture for years. For them, the Kenaston House was clearly a gem, with its U shaped design wrapping around a swimming pool and patio. Originally the house had been clad in silvery corrugated aluminium – some of which still remains – to reflect the heat, which can pass 100 degrees in the summer. The main living spaces are largely open plan with glass doors opening out to the pool and a fluid relationship between inside and out in classic desert modern style.

But what seemed at first like a cosmetic restoration actually ended up taking the best part of three years. They bought some pieces of furniture with the house and got hold of the original plans, but then realised that the textured walnut walls in the bedroom and corridor would need time consuming work, having been spray painted orange and beige. The kitchen needed reinventing, the floors redoing and the list began to grow.

"To begin with we removed more from the house than we added which instantly made the house more elegant and soothing," says Mandolene. "The low point was the painstaking, slow and costly wood restoration process, although there was an enormous change for the better when it was complete. One of the high points was seeing the floors change from a drab, battleship grey colour to a bright and inviting glossy resin finish – although it was also challenging as we couldn't move in or start any other work until that was completed."

Outside the landscaping was redone to increase privacy and shade while the pool was cleaned up. Inside the kitchen was reinvented and updated and the suspended fireplace in the living room – a typical E. Stewart Williams feature – restored, as was the indoor fern garden. At auction, Mandolene and Goddard managed to buy a cabinet that once graced Williams' own home – and now helps lightly divide the dining area from the rest of the living room – while the man himself, who died in 2005 aged 95, dropped by during the restoration to see how things were going.

Eventually the Kenaston House was sympathetically and lovingly restored to glory and listed as a historic building. The house also formed a backdrop to many period inspired photo shoots including a 60 page spread in W magazine with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, basing the shoot on their roles in Mr and Mrs Smith. Most importantly, for Mandolene and Goddard, it offered a wonderful desert retreat.

"Our favourite place in the house is actually outside," says Mandolene, who is now working with Goddard on restoring another modernist masterpiece near New York. "We love being by the pool and appreciating the mountain views and the architectural genius of the house while we are swimming. But I especially love the master bedroom as well, which is warm and private and rich with the natural wood. It's a great contrast to the open, bright feel of the main social spaces."

BOX

E. Stewart Williams was one of the leading lights of the mid-century modernist scene in Palm Springs. As well as the Kenaston House (1957) and the Sinatra House (1947), he designed a number of other houses, buildings and banks in this desert city, a few hours drive from Los Angeles. Among his best known buildings is the Palm Springs Desert Museum, finished in 1972, which is well worth a visit. The Museum also owns the last home of architect Albert Frey – another desert modernist – which is situated in the mountains just behind the Museum.

Williams, Frey and their contemporaries such as Donald Wexler and William Cody helped turn Palm Springs into one of the most fashionable and architecturally stunning parts of California, beloved of the Hollywood set in the heyday of the 1950s and '60s. As well as resort hotels like The Horizon and the Movie Colony, they developed a new way of living with low slung houses built with a strong relationship between indoors and out and with an emphasis on light, flexibility, transparency and openness.

In the 1980s and '90s Palm Springs fell from grace but now is as fashionable as ever with original modernist houses now much in demand and the hotels full once more.

www.palm-springs.org