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Reinventing a Palms Springs Paradise

Rising Star: A mid-century relic with a famous connection is transformed into a Palms Springs paradise.

When Howard Hawkes and Kevin Kemper, both partners at Palm Springs-based H3K Design, drove up to this Thunderbird Heights estate, they could see its character immediately—even though it was well-hidden behind a wall of dead, overgrown trees. The house was in serious disrepair, but as soon as the design duo walked through the front doors, they knew they wanted to buy it.

“It was the quintessential Palm Springs house—U-shaped around a pool, views of the valley below, walls of glass. And even better, the house hadn’t been updated or transformed over the years, so there was no work to be undone,” says Hawkes. “It truly was still a 1960s house. We knew we could transform it into a dream house.”

Mid-century optimism

Although the designers had never taken on a project of this scale, Kemper says mid-century modern homes are some of their favourite projects to tackle.

“We have always been fans of minimalism and the optimism of mid-century design,” says Hawkes. “We also lean to contemporary and modern. We feel that it is the ultimate in edited design—editing is even more important than concept.”

Describing their own personal style as favouring clean, minimal spaces that create a relationship with the outdoors through design of windows, doors, and sliding glass doors, Hawkes and Kemper set out to transform this rundown mid-century relic into a contemporary Palm Springs paradise.

Star history

When Hawkes and Kemper discovered Thunderbird Heights, they knew the property was special. But they hadn’t discovered its star quality until the renovation was almost complete.

The home’s original owners were Melvin and Ethel Eaton, founders of Norwich Pharmaceutical and the creators of Pepto-Bismol.

“The Eatons were extremely wealthy, which allowed them to have several homes across the United States. Before they moved their winter home to Thunderbird Heights, they lived in Thunderbird Country Club, in a house across the street from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz,” says Kemper.

Their friendship with Lucy and Desi continued even after they moved, and the Eatons were frequently written up in the local society pages. In 1960, Fortune Magazine hired famous French photographer, Robert Doisneau, to do a photo spread on Palm Springs estates. Doisneau chose the Eatons as one of his subjects and the pictures from that photo shoot later appeared in the coffee table book, 1960: Palm Springs.

Architectural elements

Hawkes’ and Kemper’s plan was to restore the property, celebrating its architectural elements, while taking the house into the 21st century.

The house already had great bones, with high ceilings, a U-shaped floor plan and glass walls. It also still had many of the original doors and door hardware and even 60s state-of-art electronics, including a call system in the kitchen so the original residents could call upon their staff. The house also had its original Sub-Zero refrigerator and separate Sub-Zero freezer still an operating condition.

Restoring splendor

The fluted columns surrounding the pool and supporting the patio roof were another key
design element.

“All the contractors we talked to wanted to replace them with something similar, but we opted to have them restored so they look identical to the way they were when the house was built,” says Hawkes, adding they were also able to salvage the Regency-style handrails that were in the living room, as well as the original door knockers.

The cantilevered-covered patios also featured large recessed lights that had a custom
star-shaped baffle.

“We originally thought they were painted,

but after careful inspection realized they were originally chromed. We had all of the baffles re-chromed to bring them back to their original splendor,” says Kemper.

Fast-forward to 2017

In order to have this 1960 design work for the 21st century, the designers relocated the kitchen from a small room in the house—about the size of a closet—to the new great room. The bathrooms also needed reconfiguration.

“The original master bath had a very large ‘his and her’ bathroom and closet area, and we
combined them into one even larger master bath with a large walk-in closet, complete with its own washer and dryer and bar refrigerator,” says Hawkes.

The challenges

The massive scale of the restoration came at a hefty cost, and financing the project was daunting for the designers.

“Every time we turned around, something needed repair that had a cost with several zeros after the first number,” says Kemper. “Relocating the kitchen to an area that was conducive to today’s lifestyle was challenging without sacrificing other rooms. The final outcome was to swap the living room and dining room and turn the original living room into a great room with kitchen.”

Star quality

Now that the entire project is complete, both designers think the house is spectacular.

“We retained the architecture and grandeur of the house and turned it into a home that embraces the 21st century,” says Hawkes. “Nothing was left untouched and no expense was spared. The house really is like an ugly duckling that turned into a beautiful swan!”

Photography by Patrick Ketchum

-by Rachel Naud