Western Living Magazine
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Just as he completed a renovation on his first Palm Springs home, a design-loving writer accidentally falls in love with another house.
It was an exceptionally awkward start to a love affair.
My wife, Amanda Ross, and I were in Palm Springs celebrating the photo shoot of our newly renovated house, which was slated to run in this very magazine in January 2019. If you recall that story, I mention a few times that the renovation had been a major challenge: exponentially over budget, nowhere near the proposed three-month time estimate (try a year and a half), and complete with the need to threaten shady contractors with lawsuits and the like. On the plus side, Amanda earned Platinum status on WestJet thanks to flying down bi-monthly to act as stand-in contractor and push the house to the finish line. (It so happens that 20-some years as a contributing editor to this magazine has shown her a thing or two about design.)
In the end, it looked pretty great, with its modern Moroccan take layered onto an old California hacienda frame. And far from the financial ruin that I feared, our fantastic realtors, Dan and Debi Valentino—who I had called in to assess just how big a financial hole we had created—actually gave us a much higher valuation than we both expected. After 18 months of grinding it out, it was time to take a victory lap.
“I’m going to be setting up shots for a few hours,” said desert photographer Lance Gerber, “so feel free to go get some chores done.” For the first time in over a year, we had no need to spend our time racing to Home Depot in abject panic, so we set out on a leisurely drive. But, mere blocks from our house, we stumbled across an open house sign for a property I’d actually previously written about for the Western Living website when I saw it come on the market (when you’re a relentless real estate addict, you’re always in the loop). Coincidentally, this home had also once appeared on the cover of Western Living—in January 2018, a mere year before ours—and, while it was only two minutes from us in the Mesa neighbourhood of Palm Springs, I had never actually seen it in real life.
I did know that the home’s interiors had been designed by Calgary’s James McIntyre for an Alberta family, so we opted to play looky-loo and drove up the winding street, past a “private road” sign and onto a somewhat precarious gravel driveway, seemingly cut straight into the steep mountain. We were the only car at the house as we angled into the parking area. We were both looking at each other in disbelief.
Even now I can recall the feeling as the house’s siting revealed itself. With no disrespect to this magazine’s initial story on the property, nowhere in the words or pictures does it mention that the structure is planted literally on the side of the mountain, creating soaring views of the valley below. I should have been revelling in our own newly finished gem of a home, but all I could think was, “This house is so much nicer than ours!” It was younger, better-looking and had ‘trophy house’ written all over it. Despite the fact that the property had been languishing on the market for months, it was still listed significantly higher than our recent valuation, so any dream of ownership we were having at that point was a strictly academic reverie. But why then did I feel like I was cheating on my own Moroccan Modern?
“The homeowners are getting a divorce and they are motivated,” said the agent as we crossed the threshold to the house. We didn’t have the heart to tell him we weren’t in the market, but we were the only people there, so we made like buyers and had a leisurely stroll through its two levels. Expert griping has always been my superpower, and so I set out to list the home’s Achilles’ heels. The bathtub in the primary bedroom was square and dated. Bedrooms two and three shared one Jack-and-Jill bathroom—perfect for a Brady Bunch reunion, but terrible for hosting guests. The dark floors, while adding some drama, showed every speck of dust, which is a problem for a house located in the middle of the desert.
But that was about all. The view from the front was the best I’d ever seen in Palm Springs, where valley-floor construction is the order of the day. And the backyard was almost better: no neighbours for 180 degrees… just miles of steep San Jacinto mountains. Even the one obvious flaw—that the house, built in a hacienda “style,” was actually from the early 1990s—was a positive for me given how laborious the reno of our actual 1930s hacienda had been. It felt solid under my feet. On leaving, the realtor encouraged us to bring an offer. Did it sound more like a plea than a statement? Either way, it felt like an illicit invitation.
“Oh my god, that house is amazing,” we said almost in unison as we climbed back into the car. To kill more time, we called Dan and Debi to ask for more information. Yes, they knew it; yes, they liked it; and no, they couldn’t really account for why it had been sitting on the market—other than perhaps it had been listed too high from the outset, which tends to scare people off. My other superpower is extreme frugality and so, off the cuff, I asked whether there was any way we could sell our house and buy that one without outlaying any more money. There was a long pause on the other end. “Well, you never know,” said Dan diplomatically.
By day’s end we had hatched a plan, if only just to flirt with such a beauty: we’d make an offer subject to the sale of our house, then we’d list our house for two weeks only. And, much to my surprise, the gambit worked. We had precisely one offer on our house, they had precisely one offer on theirs (that is, our offer) and before the photos for the story were even finished, we had sold the subject of the article.
In a normal world, we would have started planning the renovation of our new house, but Amanda was exhausted from the last renovation, which had literally just wrapped. Plus, I’m cheap. And, because we had the good luck to be moving from one Moroccan Modern spot to another, most of the furnishings Amanda had collected over the last two years would find a ready place. But even with that benefit of stasis, there were still a few projects we wanted to tackle.
The first one came to me—hard—during our first week in the house when, while I was rounding the corner into the living room, the lights suddenly went out. Do I mean the electricity? No, I mean my own lights, which got knocked out when I walked straight into one of the decorative arches that had been built in to lend the place “character.” (They had not been designed to accommodate a six-foot-four human, obviously.) Matt, our contractor, assured us that the arches weren’t structural—even if they had felt seriously solid—and so out they came. While Matt was in hammer-swinging mode, we also commissioned him to help lighten the palette by creating a wall of floating white bookshelves to flank the fireplace.
For the most part, though, making changes was hard. The previous owners had spent lavishly on the place, and no sooner had we decided to install a more modern dining-room chandelier than we discovered that the existing one had been purchased for $30,000 just a few years before. So, we figured we could live with it until we had the bandwidth to fully renovate the kitchen.
On the other hand, the travertine—Amanda’s Kryptonite—that had been lavished throughout the basement had to go in favour of a modern concrete hex tile in charcoal grey. And while there was no getting away from the hacienda colour scheme without ripping out every floorboard, baseboard and window trim, we opted to edge toward a more modern take by repainting the charcoal brown exterior trim in a black navy. Finally, we brought in art from Josef Albers, Eric Fischl and Diana Thater to continue the march toward a more contemporary vibe.
But really, it’s much the same house as the one we first fell in love with. The blowing out of the kitchen is scheduled for next year—I look forward to writing about it again then.