Lisa Marie Hart May 25, 2022 Current PSL, Home & Design, Real Estate
“The ultimate in luxurious desert living,” teased an early advertisement in the December 1960 edition of Palm Springs Life. In 1962, the first Southridge residence was complete. PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID GLOMB
Throughout history, great works of architecture have defied practicality to sit on high. We revere them now — from chapels and temples built atop extinct volcanoes to wonders like Machu Picchu — because someone sized up a mountainside and concluded: “Actually, that steep dirt is just a few engineering feats away from becoming prime real estate.”
Around 1960, that someone was a shrewd developer who stood at the base of what is now Southridge Drive in South Palm Springs. Developers such as Jack Meiselman, Roy Fey, and the Alexander Construction Company gobbled up flat, convenient parcels. Privacy for elite part-timers who had once felt protected by the discrete hideaway that was Palm Springs had become an equally scarce commodity. There was no place to go but up.
The sharp incline may have seemed impractical, but it promised broad views of the Coachella Valley and a return to exclusivity. Large lots soon sculpted into the hillside were born of tenacity, yes, but also necessity, the tough-love mother of invention.
“The ultimate in luxurious desert living,” teased an early advertisement in the December 1960 edition of Palm Springs Life. In 1962, the first Southridge residence was complete.
Luxurious? Absolutely. Post-and-beam construction shaded the house from hillside sun exposure before catapulting into a spectacular vaulted ceiling in the open living area. Heavy stonework on the façade repeated on interior feature walls, contrasting the two transparent glass perimeters, one that sheltered the precipitous pool area and another encasing the home. Photographs show owner Max Stoffel, a Swiss industrialist who was tied to textile production, sitting at his desk, which was pushed against the glass. From here, he could gaze across the pool and over several cities below. An early adopter of the home office, he wears a cream suit jacket and a snappy blue bow tie.
Stoffel had engaged Patten and Wild for the design and build. Architecture was attributed to George MacLean. Stoffel and his wife, Charlotte, were listed among 19 new names in the “Palm Springs Personages” for 1965 — a who’s who of the social scene — in The Desert Sun.
Well-known architects fortified their reputations by placing extraordinary homes on the slope. John Lautner designed for Arthur Elrod (1968) and Bob Hope (1979), and Hugh Kaptur designed for publisher Edwin “Buddy” Morris (1964, purchased by Steve McQueen in 1969) and William Holden (1977). William Cody enclosed an original outdoor patio at the Stoffel House in 1969.
But even Southridge felt the tumult of the 2008 recession. Homes that once splashed across the pages of Architectural Digest and served as party pads for celebrities needed more than a bit of architectural Botox. Disrepair ran rampant, prompting bank repossessions and foreclosures. By early 2013, the Stoffel House had turned a half-century old and was sitting on the market, showing its age and waiting for someone to drive up the hill with the same bright-eyed optimism and vision that enticed the developer.
That’s exactly what happened.
“For us, there was always a mystique about Southridge,” says one of the new owners, a couple who previously renovated two homes in the Old Las Palmas neighborhood in Palm Springs. “As we’d pass by, we looked up the road and wondered about the place that held so much history and so many iconic homes.” A Realtor friend let them know about the home and scheduled a showing. Those Stoffel House views, framed by the 1962 post-and-beam construction, were all they needed to see. “You can’t change the location, but you can change the house. I just figured we could fix it.”
They met architect Mark Rios of Los Angeles–based design firm RIOS through mutual friends. Though the home sat outside the firm’s customary scope, he was drawn to the elevated panoramas and the way the “architecture completely rotates and shifts on this historical site.” Additionally, he says, the house felt as if it were made of materials sourced from the site itself, imbuing it with a keen sense of fit.
“The home is an amazing piece of architecture,” he says. “And our team’s relationship with the homeowners was magic — which set the tone for the project.” Honoring the couple’s desire to keep the integrity of the house intact while upgrading it unobtrusively was top priority. “In addition to restoring portions of the home and transforming new additions as the architect would have done initially, adding and integrating technology and wired systems was a key component of bringing this house into the 21st century.”
Linda Kelly of WW Design and Construction served as contractor. Jose Carlino, a friend and designer from Milwaukee, worked on interior design. Local artist Steve Webster provided steel work and custom furniture.
The team maintained the footprint of the two-bedroom, 3,300-square-foot house but improved its flow. Most significantly, a sunken bar off the living room became the west side of the kitchen, now enlarged to contain a functional lower half and an upper half lined in glass. A new laundry room concealed in the interior of the home and a new walk-in closet for the primary bedroom enhance daily living. The amoeba-shaped spa became an angular one that better relates to the architecture.
As promised by the first advertisements for Southridge, the wraparound patios may very well have “a view of Palm Springs and Coachella Valley unequalled anywhere in the desert.” Particularly after the team slimmed the mullions between the 6-foot-high glass panels along the terrace and cut their number in half by using wider panes. They also replaced a clunky rail that ran across the top with a thin piece of steel.
Few might notice a set of floating concrete stairs along the exterior that leads to a lower level. Two home offices occupy this cool, concrete bunker that offers similar views. Attending to every detail, the owners reinforced the steep bank on this side of the home, resulting in extensive geotechnical work that added time, cost, and effort.
At night, native rock hugging one side of the home is illuminated. On the other side, the fire pit dances and glows. Anyone who steps outside to soak in the lights of the city sees them reflected back, twice as dazzling in the glass.
Southridge wasn’t built, or rebuilt, in a day. At the Stoffel House, workers spent three days laying out a plan for the angled limestone floors. It took two and a half years — a longer timeframe than the original ground-up construction — to recover its trailblazer-of-Southridge standards.
The first significant renewal in roughly a decade initiated a high-profile rebirth. One by one, great homes known by last names such as Elrod, Hope, and McQueen, changed hands, earned new respect, and underwent meticulous renovation or restoration, contributing to the revitalization of the exclusive community. One of the first new houses built in decades occupies the land where the original sales office once welcomed prospective buyers. It was completed in 2017.
Though the steepness of the entry drive still sets some on edge, guests relish a peek past the guard gate. Alas, privacy and security reign. A number of residents keep multiple parcels of land, leaving the 21 residences to spread across 43 lots. Augmenting their prime real estate, many owners enjoy a feeling of stewardship, their role in maintaining what was created, lost, then regained.
“Southridge is an incredible community of architectural heritage,” Rios says. “Projects like the Stoffel House, Hope House, and more have helped set the tone for the long-term growth and value of the community for years to come.”
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