A day at the oasis

Homes in San Diego's 'playground' are on tour


April 17, 2005

Sandé Lollis
This minimalist International Style house, designed by Henry Hester and built in 1958, will be open to visitors on a home tour on April 30 during Borrego Springs Modern, a day of events organized by Save Our Heritage Organisation.
As surely as spring delivers us brilliant primroses and pansies, tours of private homes for public enlightenment and pleasure will follow.

Each year, it seems, more historic-preservation and neighborhood associations throughout San Diego County are organizing guided or self-guided tours to acquaint their members and the public with our region's outstanding or fabled architecture, antique furnishings, romantic old gardens and generations of multicultural social history.

Some of these tours – such as one on Mother's Day in Escondido and another at artist-designer James Hubbell's home and studios near Santa Ysabel – occur almost like clockwork. The 2003 Cedar fire ravaged Anne and James Hubbell's unique collection of hand-built structures, so no open house was held in 2004. The annual event, which benefits the Ilan-Lael Foundation and ongoing rebuilding of the Hubbell homestead, will resume on June 11.

A much-anticipated newcomer to this year's field of home tours will offer visitors an insider's look at Borrego Springs, the desert town just close enough to San Diego (and Los Angeles) for weekend trips and the gateway to popular Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Five mid-century modern homes in Borrego Springs, some never before available to the public, will be open April 30. They include desert retreats by leading architects and designers, such as Cliff May (a ranch house by the man called father of the suburban ranch house), Sim Bruce Richards (a breezy, adobe "Desert Hacienda") and Henry Hester (a sleek, International Style home more typical of Palm Springs residences of the same era).

A morning lecture by Imperial Valley College anthropology professor Manfred Knaak on Borrego Valley history will kick off the day in Borrego, which is being organized by Save Our Heritage Organisation's Modernism Committee and the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce.

And the day of house touring (from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.) will close with a wine reception at sunset in a home designed in 1958 by La Jolla architect Everett Abrams. (For details and ticket information, see listings.)

Borrego Springs shifted with the times from an agricultural center for lettuce, grapes and grapefruit to a golf resort for celebrities and business leaders. Backers in the 1950s included Robert DiGiorgio of the DiGiorgio Fruit Corp. and the late newspaper publisher James S. Copley, owner of the Union-Tribune Publishing Co. and The Borrego Sun. Building continues to transform this section of desert.

SOHO's Borrego Springs Modern events will focus on the aspirations and lifestyles of this community, as reflected in residential design, a half-century ago.

"It's always been a place about big dreams," said Bill Lawrence, head of SOHO's Modernism Committee, which has presented two well-attended San Diego Modernism Weekends (home tours, lectures, exhibits) and is organizing another for later this year.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, Borrego backers established de Anza Country Club, which included the golf course and a planned subdivision around it. One of the so-called Fairway Cottages, designed by architect Richard Zerbe and built for potential investors to use while they inspected the valley, will be on the SOHO tour. Today these cottages are private homes, some owned by snowbirds who only use them in winter.

"There are lots of 1950s and '60s homes in good condition in Borrego Springs," Lawrence said.

"Borrego is not Palm Springs," he added, referring to the playground of a Hollywood generation that included Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, and the subject of several recent coffee-table books on mid-century modern architecture.

More San Diegans have ties to Borrego, Lawrence suggested. "In a way," he said, "Borrego is San Diego's oasis."