PART TWO: DESERT TURF TO THE SUNNY SURF
I'm a licensed realtor in Nevada and California so I invest a lot of hours Priusing from the shady turf of Las Vegas to the sunny surf of Malibu and back again. And because I am a Mid Century Modern Lover, that’s what I look for.
And I find it. Everywhere.
Clara Bow by the sea, looking kind of punk circa 1927.
“My life in Hollywood contained plenty of uproar. I'm sorry for a lot of it but not awfully sorry. I never did anything to hurt anyone else. I made a place for myself on the screen and you can't do that by being Mrs. Alcott's idea of a Little Woman.”
- Clara Bow
Searchlight, Nevada is about exactly halfway between Las Vegas and Needles and in Searchlight is a classic example of Mid Century Modern. Which is of special interest to me as it was home to Clara Bow: Five foot three, a girl who moved to the desert from the sea.
Clara Bow was also another daughter of a double race, although in her case it was a movie star who was the most popular star of the silent movie era and had some rough times making the transition into the talkies of the 1930s.
Clara Bow as the It Girl, the biggest movie star of the silent era, the Madonna of the Roaring Twenties: Sassy, saucy, pretty, spirited, a non-conformist.
To quote John Wayne in True Grit and Val Kilmer in Tombstone: “She reminds me of me.”
Aerial view of the Walking Box Ranch house, Searchlight, Nevada
In 1929, Clara Bow was one of the first movie stars to lease property from May Rindge and build a beach cottage in the Malibu Colony. One of my favorite photos is Clara Bow looking sassy in high heels, a gun belt and a sombrero wearing a tight one-piece suit standing next to a wooden surfboard: a punky portrait taken in 1927.
Clara Bow made the transition from silent movie to talkies but by the early 30s The It Girl was tired of It All. Atlas Obscura picks up the story from there and explains her transition from the sandy surf to the sandy desert:
WHEN SILENT FILM ACTORS CLARA Bow (aka “The It Girl”) and Rex Bell got married in 1931, they desperately needed an escape from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood. Searchlight, Nevada yielded the perfect landscape, an uninhabited desert far away from the glitz and glamour, where the couple could, at long last, live in complete solitude.
Rex and Clara’s escape was a Spanish Colonial style ranch complete with a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a cactus garden on a 400,000 acre plot of arid land, located just a short ride away from the Nipton stop of the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. The ranch was named the “Walking Box Ranch” in reference to the Hollywood box cameras - nicknamed “walking box cameras” - that followed the Bells throughout their star-studded acting careers. In fact, the image of a box camera mounted on a tripod remains the ranch’s logo to this day.
Over the years, the Walking Box Ranch grew to be one of the most well-known celebrity homes in all of Nevada. During the 1930s and 40s, Rex and Clara regularly invited many of their Hollywood friends for a relaxing get-together at the ranch, including Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Errol Flynn. Not only was the ranch a movie star getaway, but it also operated as a functioning cattle ranch until the 1980s. The old barn, livestock corrals, and water troughs remain standing at the ranch today.
As of now, long after the death of Rex and Clara, the Walking Box Ranch remains in its original form and is now listed under the National Register of Historic Places. Now run by the Bureau of Land Management and offering guided tours, everyone is invited to visit the formerly secluded getaway.
The Malibu Colony - or what’s left of it - after an October 26, 1929 fire in John Gilbert’s house combined with the Devil Winds to take the whole place out. Most of the Colony residents had gone north on the train for USC vs Stanford football. They returned to find their beloved beach cottages gone. A few days later, the Stock Market crashed on Black Monday. Hard times for the 1%. Photo: Wanamaker/Bison Archives.
Clara Bow’s beach cottage in the Malibu Colony is long gone. Malibu Colony is layered like Las Vegas and one charry layer was laid down in 1929 when most of the beach cottages in the Colony burned after a fire broke out in the cabin of John Gilbert. The Devil Winds were up and the whole shebang went up in smoke and ash.
The beach cottages were quickly rebuilt by 1932, but since then, increasingly wealthy and architecturally-ambitious people famous and anonymous have moved into the Malibu Colony, and razed most remnants of Mid Century Modern.
According to architect friends, Malibu was a showplace for Mid Century Modern through the second half of the 20th Century, because Malibu is the kind of place where you want a spacious house that lets the outdoors in.
Illustration of John Lautner from Architectural Review.
There is a Las Vegas to Malibu connection in John Lautner (1911 - 1994). Again with the Wikipedia, one more time:
John Edward Lautner (16 July 1911 – 24 October 1994) was an American architect. Following an apprenticeship in the mid-1930s with the Taliesin Fellowship led by Frank Lloyd Wright, Lautner opened his own practice in 1938, where he worked for the remainder of his career. Lautner practiced primarily in California, and the majority of his works were residential. Lautner is perhaps best remembered for his contribution to the development of the Googie style, as well as for several Atomic Age houses he designed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which include the Leonard Malin House, Paul Sheats House, and Russ Garcia House.
It is ironic that, although famous Lautner works like the Carling and Harpel houses, the Chemosphere and the Sheats Goldstein Residence have become inextricably linked with Los Angeles in the public imagination, Lautner repeatedly expressed his dislike of California. In his oral history interviews he was highly critical of the standard of architecture in Los Angeles, and idealized the rural Michigan environment of his youth, as he recalled in 1986:
“My childhood, I had a hundred miles of beaches, private beaches, you know: no people, no nothing. I mean, just go swimming anywhere you want, and no problem. The coast here to me is just ugly, you know, it's crazy. Malibu is nothing to me, it's just crazy." ... Oh it was depressing. I mean, when I first drove down Santa Monica Boulevard, it was so ugly I was physically sick for the first year I was here. Because after living in Arizona and Michigan and Wisconsin, mostly out in the country, and mostly with good architecture ... this was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen ... If you tried to figure out how to make a row of buildings ugly, you couldn't do it any better than it's been done [here]. I mean they're just ugly, naturally ugly, all the way. There isn't a single, legitimate, good-looking thing anywhere.
TALES OF TWO HOUSES: STEVENS AND SEGAL
John Lautner’s Mid Century Modern Stevens House in the Malibu Colony and the Segel House on Carbon/Billionaire Beach. Photos from the Internet.
John Lautner designed two homes in Malibu that I admire. Beach-front homes that spin my propeller. Open homes with “ample windows and open floor plans, with the intention of opening up interior spaces and bringing the outdoors in.”
The Lautner Segel House is along Carbon Beach - aka Billionaire Beach. Moving away from Wikipedia, a story on the house in Architectural Digest details and describes the allure of this house nicely nicely.
Anyone who has ever delighted in a love affair with their home can appreciate the impulse to break into swooning rhapsodies that might otherwise seem hyperbolic or saccharine. Chalk it up to the power of place. So when Jamie McCourt, former CEO and co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, describes her dazzling John Lautner beach house in Malibu as “a living organism” and “one of my closest friends,” she can hardly be faulted. After all, most disciples of great design would give their eyeteeth to have such a friend.
“This house breathes with me,” muses the high-octane entrepreneur, whose career has encompassed real-estate development, investing in tech start-ups, and tending the Napa Valley vineyard she purchased in 2013. “The trees, the boulders, the water—they keep me grounded,” she continues. “You look out at the ocean and hear the waves, and you understand your own insignificance in a bigger world.”
McCourt bought the cedar-clad, copper-roofed residence on tony Carbon Beach in 2006 from Courteney Cox and David Arquette. Built in 1980, the nearly 7,000-square-foot structure bears all the hallmarks of Lautner’s most acclaimed projects: striking spatial adagios, avant-garde engineering, sculptural applications of wood and concrete, and a kind of organic spirit that feels at once primitive and futuristic.
Yes, please! John Lautner's Stevens House letting in some Golden Hour light on a classic Malibu winter setting sun scenario.
Striking spatial adagios indeed, and the same is true for the Stevens House, which was built in 1968 - quite possibly on or near the bones of Clara Bow’s house.
In July of 2017, Neal J Leiterer for The Los Angeles Times wrote about the latest caretaker of the Stevens House:
Ed Norton, who last year lent his voice to the animated comedy “Sausage Party,” has spent some serious mustard on an oceanfront home in Malibu.
Set on 37 feet of sandy beachfront, the modernist triumph draws inspiration for its curved form from the shape of waves. Built in 1968, the wood-and-concrete residence features retractable walls of glass, herringbone-patterned floors and wood slats that filter natural light. An open-air section shelters a swimming pool.
A step-down living room, an eat-in kitchen, five bedrooms and five bathrooms also lie within nearly 3,400 square feet of interior space. Rear decking and a front courtyard create additional living space outside.
The property was offered four years ago for $22 million, about double what it sold for, records show. More recently it was listed for $13.75 million.
The Stevens House, from the inside looking out. Lovely.
Words don’t really do this house justice, but photos do. Like in this story on the Lautner House from ForsythArt.com:
Built in Malibu Colony in 1968 by the famed California architect, the design of the Stevens House was inspired by the waves that wash up on the sand. Dan Stevens interviewed many famous architects to design a 5 bedroom, 5 bath house with a pool on a 90 x 37 foot lot. All of them said it was impossible. Not Lautner. The first house Lautner built in Malibu, he designed the structure with 14 I-steel beams that support two half catenary curves that became the concrete wall and ceiling. From the outside, it resembled the ocean waves while the interior evoked a nautical boat-like ambience. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
MID CENTURY MOBSTER
Light and space, all for the guy who inspired Ace Rothstein, the Robert Deniro character in Casino. The house was designed to let light in, but keep bullets out. Photo from online.
While researching all of this, I saw a notation for a house Lautner designed for “Rosenthal, Las Vegas - unbuilt.”
I wondered if that was for Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the connected gambling genius portrayed by Robert Deniro in Casino.
Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal and Geri McGee circa 1969.
Casino: Robert Deniro as Sam "Ace" Rothstein with Sharon Stone as Ginger McKenna
Unbuilt, I guess we’ll never know. But the actual house Lefty Rosenthal lived in is one of the more interesting/infamous Mid Century Mobster…. Sorry Modern houses in Las Vegas.
This house like all Mid Century Modern was built to let the light and outdoors in, but also to keep bullets and bombs out. According to The Las Vegas Advisor:
During the height of his Las Vegas career, Lefty resided with his wife Geri, portrayed by the inimitable Sharon Stone, and their children, at 972 Vegas Valley Drive. It's on the east side of the Strip, just south of Karen Avenue between Joe W. Brown Drive and Maryland Parkway and, yes, it's located on the grounds of the Las Vegas Country Club in the city's original guard-gated community, featuring views of the fairway on which federal agents once landed that small plane.
The failed assassination attempt took place just a few blocks away in the parking lot of Lefty's favorite restaurant, the (now-gone) Tony Roma's located at 620 E. Sahara Avenue.
It's still there, a 3,300-square-foot three-bedroom three-bath and it has quite a history. In addition to the great view, when Lefty's two-story former residence came up for sale in 2011, some of the more unusual particulars of the home included bulletproof doors and picture windows, a gun hiding place, evidence of a former safe in a closet floorboard, state-of-the-art (for the time) surveillance equipment, and a possible bullet hole.
Following a fire in the late '70s, Rosenthal hired celebrated interior designer Steven Chase to completely redesign the home, so there were many more conventional period touches, including the intercom system, fabric-lined closets (to protect Geri's furs), mirrored ceilings, marble bathrooms, and "casino-style" lighting. One report we've seen called it "wiseguy chic."
Construction workers from the Stardust carried out the rebuild after the fire, so there are also other casino-esque features, like the steel floating staircase and industrial-strength stone work and framing. Subsequent owners commented that when a phone engineer saw the electrical room, he observed, "You guys could tap the whole neighborhood with this." (A former phone box by the swimming pool allowed the justifiably paranoid oddsmaker to switch lines multiple times if he suspected a wire tap.) One of the few amenities the property didn't have in common with its neighbors was a second-floor balcony, which was considered too much of a security risk.
The house has been sold numerous times since the Rosenthals occupied it, so it's been upgraded numerous times. Still, you can see photos on Zillow from the last time it was sold, in December of last year, for $835,000, here. It also changed hands in 2017 ($697,500) and 2011 ($615k). When Frank and Geri Rosenthal purchased the property in the early '70s, it cost them $15,000 plus change.
The McNeil Estates to The Malibu. La Concha to the Colony. Lautner to Lefty. Mid Century Modern moves me. Letting the outside in turns me inside out.