A tiny home is getting some of the biggest buzz at this week’s annual Modernism Week in Palm Springs, Calif., where an expected 100,000-plus design-obsessed pilgrims indulge in talks, tours and a shared delight in throwback architecture.
Tickets online sold out—but may be available at the door—for the self-guided tour of the small property on Santa Rosa Way in Palm Desert, about a half-hour drive southeast.
There, California architect Walter S. White in 1955 built the Miles C. Bates House, also called the Wave House, a career-defining dwelling named for the shape of its roof, that went from a sublime structure in its heyday to ruination and back again. Now fully restored, the 827-square-foot, one-bedroom, two-bathroom home will be open for public viewing for the first time.
Just three years ago, the house was an eyesore, badly vandalized and sitting on the city’s auction block after passing through nearly a dozen owners. The house had been purchased in 2007 for $725,000 by the Palm Desert Redevelopment Agency, which, unaware of its historic and architectural significance, had marked it as a possible site for a city redevelopment project. When the state ended its funding of such plans, the city put the home out to bid in 2017, offering a $50,000 grant to the successful bidder.
“It was during this time that we realized that the original Miles C. Bates House was still there under several additions, a roof repair and other auxiliary buildings,” said Cora Gaugush, a management specialist in the city’s public-works department. The home was accepted to the National Register of Historic Places in March 2018.
When Los Angeles architect Christian Stayner first saw the city’s proposal in January 2018, he nearly shrugged it off. “I forwarded the notice for bidding to my father [architect Gil Stayner] as somewhat of a joke,” said Mr. Stayner, 38 years old.
But to his father, it felt like a calling. He had a history with Palm Desert that dated to 1989 when he designed a house for a client in nearby Cahuilla Hills.
“I was intrigued by White’s elegant, efficient and graceful floor plan,” said Gil Stayner, 75, who wanted to work on the restoration with his son, who founded Stayner Architects in L.A. in 2016.
Only a handful of bidders enrolled in the auction, held during the 2018 Modernism Week. In less than five minutes, the Stayners had the winning bid of $351,410.
“Our family realized there was an opportunity to save a one-of-a-kind building, provide a desert home for our family and offer a cultural resource to the community of Palm Desert,” said Christian Stayner.
The Stayners’ plan was to restore the home and expand on what White started on the 1/3-acre lot by building two additional single-bedroom dwellings, and a pool cabana, to create a micro-boutique hotel called the Desert Wave. Working with general contractor Kevin O’Donnell, the Wave House is totally restored. The two new buildings are set to be completed in early 2021.
Walter S. White was a Coachella Valley-based modernist architect and industrial designer when he was commissioned to build a home by artist Miles C. Bates. The original 1955 building permit for the house shows a valuation of $9,988, or about $94,000 in current dollars.
The house is a structural unicorn named for its organic, curvilinear roof that White designed using wooden dowels featuring concave elements. The wave-shape roof appears to levitate above the structure, following the line of the San Jacinto Mountains visible behind it.
“It really is one of the purest examples of White’s theory that you start with the roof, and the walls don’t touch the roof,” said Gil Stayner.
The roof is supported by beams held in place by steel posts at the four corners of the home. Glass walls enhance the signature canopy. “It’s similar to a roll-top desk, resting on beams. It just conforms with the intended shape. It’s an amazing concept,” he added.
The cost of refurbishing the roof was $81,000, in a project that totaled about $1 million, minus the home-purchase price.
Outside the home, its facade is defined by a 6-foot-tall masonry wall interrupted by the wood front door and a sidelight of thin, reeded glass. The front yard is landscaped by the Cactus Store in L.A. with provincial plants—such as agave, soft-leaf yucca and assorted cactuses—from the Mojave Desert Land Trust, a nonprofit with a native-plant restoration nursery and a seed bank.
“We’ve placed much emphasis on restoring the experience of the house—the desert landscape, the ambient sounds, the smells and textures, the life of the house we discovered through oral history—as equal importance to the visual restoration grounded in historic photographs and plans,” said Christian Stayner.
Despite decades of neglect, there were moments of awe during the project. “We were surprised by how some items, like the original wood paneling and joinery were mummified underneath faux finishes added after Bates’s premature death,” said Christian Stayner, referring to the original owner, who died at age 45.
That ash paneling, the terrazzo flooring that runs throughout the home and patio, and some of the smallest design details, were restored to their 1950s condition. The entry vestibule has the original pebble-dash floor made of river rocks, also underfoot in the shower area of the main bathroom.
In the exterior wood wall near the bathroom, an original Pyro-Blo exhaust fan still circulates air. That bathroom, dramatically defined by a large plate-glass window, faces a private garden, as does the bedroom.
Other elements were fabricated to replicate, or improve on, the original. A guest bathroom with a glass ceiling that originally was outfitted in cardboard pegboard, was redone with a painted sheet of perforated steel to better withstand humidity.
The kitchen is a replication of White’s original design, down to the stainless-steel sink and countertops, and sleek teal cabinetry.
The team opted for an updated refrigerator and convection oven, as well as grapefruit-pink tile by Heath Ceramics on an end wall. Also replaced were outdated heating and drainage elements.
Los Angeles metal workers Conant Moran helped with a mix of restoration and replacing the exterior steel-framed doors and windows—at a cost of $50,000.
Inside, the self-bracing L-shape concrete-block masonry walls, reminiscent of a cubist floor plan first proferred in the early 1920s by German architect Mies van der Rohe, stabilize the home against earthquakes and wind.
While the Stayner family continues to make short stays at the home, starting this March the house will be available for rent. Part of the proceeds will go toward upkeep, said Christian Stayner.
Real-estate agent Maureen Erbe said a Walter S. White-designed two-bedroom, one-bath home nearby with a swimming pool on a smaller lot recently sold for $345,000.
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