It was Jingle Mingle Night at the Marrakesh Country Club. Inside its serpentine pink walls, past the entry gazebo’s cone roof, up the drive flanked by petunia beds and olive trees clipped like standard poodles, a line of cars disgorged guests swathed in Santa suits and stocking caps and sweaters with blinking LED lights.
Inside the clubhouse, waiters in red and green argyle took drink orders, and a couple dozen couples of a certain age grooved to Wild Cherry’s “Play that Funky Music.” But note the table by the dance floor, the one filled with (relatively) young men in sober (by comparison) dark blazers. If their youth and their attire weren’t conspicuous enough, there was the matter of their conversation.
Sawing into a slab of prime rib, Stephen Drucker, the former editor of several lifestyle publications, announced that he had just spruced up the portico of his Marrakesh villa with a pair of white canvas drapes — an Old Hollywood touch, he said, that reminded him of “those birthday parties where ‘Uncle’ Gary Cooper would take little Christina Crawford for a pony ride.”
A recently completed interior renovation by Annie Selke that includes blue paisley print drapes at her home in the Marrakesh community, built in the 1960s and ’70s.
“Exactly the kind of thing I’m excited the committee is making provisions for,” said Steven Price, an architectural historian who wears his silver hair in a bob, referring to the club’s Architecture and Landscape Committee.
Patrick Dragonette, a modern furniture dealer from Los Angeles, concurred. “You’ve seen the house with the pushed-out columns,” he said, his undertone the verbal equivalent of a raised eyebrow. “Nobody is happy about it.”
For 45 years, give or take, the main draw of this private residential community, which sits in the bowl formed by the San Jacinto Mountains and the Santa Rosa Mountains, was its 18-hole executive golf course. But these days it’s as much a mecca for worshippers of high design as it is a destination for those who pray for eagles and birdies. Their god: architect John Elgin Woolf, who created Marrakesh’s 364 pink and white villas and 14 pink and white pool houses in his signature Hollywood Regency style.
“The desert used to be driven by golf,” Drucker said. “Now the big engine of the economy in the desert, certainly Palm Springs, is style. You can’t buy architecture of this quality, at this price, in Palm Springs.”
The glassy, low-slung constructions of Palm Springs and other nearby desert communities have hardly ebbed in popularity, as a recent upswing in short-term rentals there demonstrates. But butterfly roofs and concrete cutout walls aren’t for everyone. In addition to Drucker, Dragonette and Price, those who have instead embraced the mansard roofs and pink stucco walls of Marrakesh include home furnishings magnate Annie Selke (Pine Cone Hill, Dash & Albert), New York designer Joe D’Urso, Los Angeles designer and architect Tim Morrison, and Susie Coelho, a former HGTV host and a former wife of Sonny Bono, who before being elected to Congress served as mayor of Palm Springs.
One of the unique pink buildings of the Marrakesh community, built in the 1960s and ’70s.
In 1967, when Bono was still married to Cher, an amateur golfer and golf course architect named Johnny Dawson (he also developed Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage and Eldorado Country Club in Indian Wells) leased 155 acres in Palm Desert and, inspired by the property’s similarities to the Atlas Mountains-ringed city of Marrakesh, conceived of a new club with a Moroccan theme. The community’s salmon-pink palette was suggested by the rosy sandstone walls, and its hilltop clubhouse, introduced by a Middle Eastern-style water stair, was placed to overlook the villas like a casbah surveying so many riads.
After that, the Moroccan trope kind of trails off. That is because John Woolf, hired to design the club in 1968, had a vernacular all his own. Woolf had come to Los Angeles from Atlanta to become an actor — he hoped his Southern roots would help land him a role in “Gone With the Wind.” But he had also studied architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and when the acting career fizzled, he leveraged his Hollywood ties to become an architect to the stars.
Eventually known as Hollywood Regency, Woolf’s trademark style blended English Regency and French Regency with movie-set glamour and modernist restraint. His houses offered elegant scale and symmetry, dramatic entrances (often a pair of tall Pullman doors puncturing a mansard roof) and perfectly proportioned rooms punctuated by neoclassical columns and elliptical windows. This muted opulence appealed to Hollywood nobility like Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. “They were very theatrical, but understandable” to people in the entertainment industry, said Price, who is writing a book about the architect and who conveys his own air of drama with Peggy Guggenheim sunglasses and a Lagerfeldian fan.
In recent years Woolf’s reputation has resurged. Producer Robert Evans’ book “The Kid Stays in the Picture” (and the film based on it) and a biography and a play about Hollywood agent Sue Mengers brought attention to their Woolf-designed lairs in Beverly Hills. And a Vanity Fair profile of Woolf shed light on his unorthodox personal life: For business purposes, the architect adopted his lover and professional partner, Robert Koch Woolf, as well as Koch’s boyfriend, Gene Oney Woolf. Together they were known as the Woolf Pack.
In the Los Angeles real-estate market, Woolf houses are considered trophies. Recent owners of the designer’s homes include producer John Goldwyn and his husband, hotelier Jeff Klein; designer Nate Berkus and night life impresario Sean MacPherson. Last fall, Jill Tavelman Collins (the former wife of Phil Collins, mother of Lily) bought a Woolf house in Beverly Hills for US$12.5 million, 40 percent more than the asking price.
The one-, two- and three-bedroom duplex villas at Marrakesh, while more modest in both scale and price — units can still be had for less than US$400,000 — do not stint on Woolfian drama. They all have deep courtyards, tiered mansard roofs and tall, skinny front doors that make anyone passing through them feel like Loretta Young (who had a Woolf house). Inside there are 10-foot ceilings, closets the size of bedrooms and airy atriums off the master baths.
“The kitchens were clearly designed for some sort of staff person to slip in every day through a side door,” Drucker said. “Prepare the chicken salad, read a magazine on a little stepladder and then come serve the ladies in the corner of the living room designed for bridge parties.” Originally marketed to the local gentry (specifically members of the Los Angeles Country Club) as well as snowbirds from Canada and Chicago, Marrakesh memberships offered a slice of the good life early-1970s-style. Picture a Cadillac or a Lincoln, a station wagon and a golf cart in every oversize garage.
An undated handout photo of a poodle-cut tree in the Marrakesh residential community.
The promise of that era is enshrined at a bougainvillea-draped condo between the eighth green and the ninth tee. The unit, which Ann Judy, a Santa Ynez Valley resident, inherited from her parents, has remained virtually untouched since it was decorated more than four decades ago. Its original color scheme of white and lime green extends from a white shag rug and floral print drapes to white and green dishes to a Zenith television encased in white lacquer trimmed with the drapery fabric. You can almost hear Karen Carpenter singing “Close to You.”
“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” Judy said. “It’s light, it’s bright, it’s fun. And unique.”
One could argue that, despite the consistency of their exteriors, every residence at Marrakesh is unique. “Woolf designed these clean Hollywood Regency shells that gave every owner the ability to adapt them,” Dragonette said.
He and his partner, Charles Tucker, share a two-bedroom villa that they call Orchid House, after the Tiffany diamond brooch whose sale financed its purchase. After slightly reconfiguring the rooms, the couple added Italian porcelain floors and patent leather wallpaper. Coveted furniture designs by Billy Haines and John Dickinson are well represented here, but the showstopper is a huge canvas from Mike Cockrill’s “Baby Doll/Clown Killer” series depicting three little girls torturing a clown.
Rod Youngson, an architect who knew the Woolf Pack (as well as Loretta Young and her daughter) and his partner, Bill Ruegge, a real estate agent and building contractor (and perhaps most usefully, as far as their business is concerned, a golf pro), have redone eight houses in Marrakesh between them. “They’re just built so much better than anything else on the market,” said Youngson, who likes to “freshen” the condominiums by removing interior walls and putting in floor-to-ceiling doors.
Like most small communities, Marrakesh is not immune to controversy. Usually the disputes involve aesthetics rather than, say, geopolitics. (Youngson would be happy to see the club change its calling-card peach complexion for a tamer beige or taupe.) Not always, though. According to Price and other members, golf course chatter about “too many Modernism Week activities” or “the Palm Springs problem” is code for too many gays.
But such tensions are the exception in this pink Brigadoon. It’s hard to walk or drive down Kasbah Drive or Minzah Way without being waved at, repeatedly. “The common pull of the design makes everybody mix well,” said Daniel Nelms, a single father of two young boys who moved to Marrakesh from Los Angeles a year and a half ago. “One of my sons spent all spring in the pool playing Barbies with our 70-year-old neighbor. I wish I’d had that growing up.”
Price put it this way: “Marrakesh self-selects. How seriously can you take yourself when you live in a pink house?” As he spoke, his partner, Jeffrey Roberts, motioned from the couple’s terrace overlooking the golf course: “The color’s getting really good now!” he shouted. Outside the winter sun was sinking toward the stately San Jacintos, casting a rich glow across the valley below. The effect, much like the play of light in the fabled Moroccan city, was dazzling.
Or as Ann Judy’s father used to say, “Welcome to another damn day in paradise.”
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