Rudolph Schindler’s Strange Customers in the Desert
Frank Lloyd Wright, the influential and preeminent architect of the 20th century is quoted as remarking of his sidekick Rudolph Schindler: “Personally, I appreciate Rudolph. He is an incorrigible bohemian and refuses to allow the Los Angeles barber to ‘applying the razor to the skin of his neck. He also has singularly simple and effective ideas concerning his own personal conduct. I believe, however, that he is capable as an artist. I found him a superintendent too complacent and therefore rotten. The buildings he recently constructed in Los Angeles are well designed, but poorly executed. I suspect he was trying to give his clients too much for their money. I have to say that was his extreme fault in these circumstances of endeavoring to construct buildings.”
The quote illustrates Schindler in several important ways: his extreme eccentricity and his unusual clientele. Much has been written about Schindler’s “bohemian nature”. The beginning of the 20th century was a period of intellectual activity, tolerance, sexual freedom and explorations of all kinds. Schindler embraced these trends and more.
Schindler’s customers are an interesting topic themselves. In the desert, they are quirky and varied and, in some cases, downright bizarre. But Schindler seems to have made the most of the job opportunities. Luke Leuschner of the Palm Desert Historical Society documented their stories.
The most unusual of Schindler’s clients in the desert was his first, Paul Popenoe. In 1898, the United States Department of Agriculture created a special program of explorers to travel the world in search of new food crops to grow for the country. According to Sarah Seekatz, writing for National Public Radio, “These men introduced the country to exotic specimens like mangoes, avocados, and new varieties of sweet and juicy oranges.”
Popenoe went in search of date palms in the Middle East in 1911 with his brother Wilson at the request of their farmer father. They returned with thousands of specimens to plant in the Coachella Valley to usher in the date farming industry in Southern California.
Popenoe’s knowledge of agriculture and early recognition of Mendel’s revolutionary ideas on the laws of inheritance would lead him to a career in plant exploration, heredity and eugenics. His prolific writings on eugenics and forced sterilization became particularly heinous after the Nazi holocaust, and Popenoe pivoted to focus on families and proper marriage, earning him the title “father” and what is now commonly called marriage counseling.
Popenoe was clearly enchanted by the desert and commissioned a cabin from Schindler. The conservative, supposedly scientific Popenoe and the bohemian and free Schindler somehow collaborated. Modeled after Schindler’s King’s Road House, Popenoe’s Hut was completed in 1922 in Indio. It is widely considered the first building in the Coachella Valley of what is now known as modern design.
Schindler’s talent earned him the attention of other desert dwellers, including Pearl McCallum McManus herself. In 1930 he designed a subdivision of several houses for McManus and one named Kopenlanoff, across from the Del Tahquitz Hotel.
Clients were not uncommon for Schindler. He received a commission in 1926 from Jessica Morgenthau for a prospective studio. Morgenthau was a Pasadena antique dealer and associate of Lois Kellogg, the wild-willed heiress leading a decidedly avant-garde lifestyle that Schindler no doubt approved of.
Kellogg was wealthy – very wealthy – and after coming from Chicago in 1912 for a winter stay at the Desert Inn, she became fascinated with the area, returning again and again until 1919, when she bought her first plot. of land in town, located south of Baristo on Palm Canyon Drive, just before Ramon Road. She dressed exotically, lived unconventionally, surrounded by a group of exceptional women busy exploring their power and sexuality. And to support that lifestyle, she built a Moroccan-inspired castle and aptly nicknamed it Fool’s Folly.
Maryon Toole also had an alternative lifestyle. In 1946 Schindler designed a house for Toole to be built in Palm Village, an unincorporated area that would become part of Palm Desert. Many desert dwellers with idiosyncratic or alternative lifestyles wanted privacy. Toole and her close friend Sharlie “Lee” Andrews therefore left few historical traces.
The house Schindler designed for them is his own legacy. It features stone walls that protrude inside the house, seamlessly incorporating the exterior. Large walls of glass and clerestory windows and a huge cantilevered roof were spectacular and inventive. Schindler said, “the whole thing is shaded by a broad but slightly balanced roof reminiscent of a giant oak leaf.” The revolutionary yet functional design suits its particularly private client.
Another unusual Schindler client was Harriet Cody. Cody arrived in Palm Springs in 1916, one of the important pioneers who created Palm Springs. She is originally from Philadelphia where she married a promising young architect, Harold William Bryant Cody, cousin of Buffalo Bill Cody, and moved to San Francisco with him for a job. When he contracted tuberculosis, the desert gave him hope for recovery.
Harold Cody was assigned to be part of the design team working on the extensive remodeling of the Mission Inn at Riverside. He was also hired by Kellogg to design and oversee the construction of Fool’s Folly. He suffered from recurring bouts of pneumonia and was unable to complete his project; he died in 1924.
Harriet Cody took the last of their savings and bought some land. An accomplished horsewoman in both English and Western traditions, she opened a boarding stable to rent horses to guests staying at the Desert Inn. She also boarded horses for visitors which included movie cowboys like Tom Mix and Jack Holt who came to shoot movies in the desert. Cody realized she couldn’t make a living renting horses.
She bought four cottages at the California Exposition and opened a small hotel, the Casa Cody, located at 175 S. Cahuilla Road, now the oldest operating hotel in the city of Palm Springs. In 1931 Schindler designed a residence for her that was never completed. In 1942, she asked him to create a Palm Springs Officer’s Club for all servicemen stationed in the desert.
Hassell Donnell was one such serviceman. Released in 1925 for health reasons after 14 years of service, he was advised to go into the desert. According to the “Hi Desert Dreaming” publication, Hassell and his wife, Lida, were driving to California when “they heard about Twentynine Palms and decided to continue there, passing through Amboy; resulting in their farm of 100 acres… The Donnells said their intentions were to stay for a year, but they never left.
The transplanted Easterners took root and opened a small gas station for the comfort of their friends and a guest house called the Mission Inn. Over time, returning visitors and friends outnumbered the accommodation, so additions were made and the inn became known as Donnell’s Desert Hotel. A small grocery store was added and town development followed. In 1931 Schindler designed an extension for the hotel. This was never realized as Hassell died in 1933, but Lida and her children persisted, as did the hotel.
Although many of his designs went unrealized, Schindler and his distinctive host of patrons left their imprimatur in the wilderness.
Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Memories Thanks column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Email him at [email protected]