After falling for the bright azure sky, craggy mountains and Rat Pack lore of Palm Springs, California, in the 1990s, Clive Wilkinson finally bought an empty lot there in 2009, intending to build a getaway of his own.
“You felt you were on holiday, even though you were only two hours out of LA,” said Wilkinson, 65, a Los Angeles-area architect, explaining the lure of the city. “Of course, it’s got a little bit of this legacy of the ’60s,” he added, when it was a hangout for entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.
For years, Wilkinson saved money to build. Then, in 2015, something unexpected happened: The owner of the neighboring property asked if he would be willing to part with his land.
“I didn’t want to sell, so I threw out a very big number,” Wilkinson said.
Much to his surprise, the neighbor agreed to pay it. “Then I was in the odd position of having a lot of extra money,” he said.
Flush with cash and more eager than ever to build a vacation home in Palm Springs, he made quick work of finding a replacement property, paying $900,000 for a low-slung, 1955 ranch house on a double lot in the Historic Tennis Club neighborhood. The home had barely been touched since it was built and seemed to be begging for a gut renovation. And it had a large pebbled yard, but no pool, which Wilkinson viewed as another opportunity to bring his design vision to the property.
He also liked that the house was a short walk from Melvyn’s restaurant, a onetime celebrity magnet steeped in Sinatra stories that opened in 1975 and was still going strong.
For the renovation, Wilkinson, who has designed big, showstopping offices for companies like Microsoft, Intuit and Macquarie Group, decided to keep things simple. Rather than adding decorative details, he focused on peeling back what was already there, stripping things down to the basics.
“I took out all the carpet and tile, just to expose the concrete floors,” he said. He also demolished the wall between the kitchen and living area, and enlarged openings in the living room and bedroom walls to add big glass doors with views to the yard.
For the new kitchen and dining area, he designed simple cabinets, a large island with integrated banquette seating and a boxy dining table with benches, all out of Douglas fir plywood.
“If was very Donald Judd-influenced,” he said.
He used the same material to create built-in cabinetry and bedside tables in the two bedrooms and in the self-contained guest suite, or casita, by the garage.
The largest, most attention-grabbing feature he added was the pool, an irregular, asymmetrical affair with a waterfall fountain. The form of the pool, Wilkinson said, grew out of his desire to install it as close to the house as possible without harming any trees.
“There was this one glorious, big ficus sitting in the middle,” he said, so he bent the pool around it.
“I wanted to use the shade of the tree” for the pool deck, he said. “Then the steps into the pool are positioned so that if you’re sitting on them, you’re looking at the best view, which is the mountains.”
There were a number of other changes — less exciting but equally expensive — along the way. The roof, it turned out, needed to be replaced, the exterior needed new stucco and the original plumbing pipes had to be removed.
“It was all lead piping,” Wilkinson said. “We had to replace that with copper.”
They also had to dig up parts of the concrete flooring to renovate the bathrooms. By the time the construction and landscaping was completed in September 2016, he had spent about $525,000.
Since then, the home has served many functions. Last October, Wilkinson and his new wife, Elisabeth, 49, eloped there. “We went off to Palm Springs one weekend, hired a local minister, got married at the house and didn’t tell anyone,” Wilkinson said, until they returned to Los Angeles. “We went over to Melvyn’s that night for a big dinner and danced in the bar.”
Now that the secret is out, the couple makes weekend visits with Clive Wilkinson’s children, Hayden, 8, and, Keira, 7, and Elisabeth Wilkinson’s daughter, Chloe, 13. Wilkinson’s ex-wife also sometimes uses the house with the children.
When no family members are there, he rents it out on Airbnb. And a couple of times, he has invited his employees out for an elaborate dinner.
“We put them up in a local hotel,” he said, “and had a 40-person dinner at a single long table between the house and the pool.”