Mission: Mud House

Coachella Valley Museum surveys the area’s adobe structures


The Coachella Valley once was dotted with hundreds of adobe houses, but most have washed away, collapsed, or been bulldozed. In recent months, some classics were slated for demolition. But economy-wary developers allow us a last chance to see these structural gems.

The best-known local adobes include the La Quinta Resort casitas, Casa Cody in Palm Springs, and the Cavanagh adobe in Indian Wells, dating from 1922. Dozens more hide behind hedges or stucco walls. Researchers and historians from the Coachella Valley Historical Society are on a mission to locate and document the best remaining architecture in the East Valley.

Dating mostly from the late 1920s and 1930s, the dwellings reflect their former owners’ love of organic contours, textures, and earthy comfort — with a big nod to Mexican and Spanish styles. "To live in one automatically makes you an aristocrat," said Harry Oliver, the late humorist who built a sprawling adobe (now leveled) in Thousand Palms.

The West adobe in La Quinta, built in 1928, features 18-inch thick walls and bricks made on the premises. You can still feel the classiness of the living room, but the walls now have holes and sand pours out the breaks: adobe returning to earth. Tiny snail shells in the sand indicate the clay came from the ancient lakebed that once covered the East Valley.

In Indian Wells, the formerly grand Beck adobe, built in 1932, is in better shape. Betty Schleicher grew up there on her father’s date ranch (Bex Date Gardens) and endured frequent reprimands as a child for plucking straw out of the mud walls.

The adobe hunt is the brainchild of Connie Cowan, archivist for the Coachella Valley Museum and Cultural Center who started to appreciate adobes because she works in one: the old Harry Smiley residence. "They’re very solid and substantial," she says. "When you live or work in one, you do feel that you’re connected to the ground."

Pseudo adobes abound and complicate the search. The aesthetic was popular; many building techniques — such as hollow-walled concrete — mimicked the style.

The adobe explorers’ targets include early duck clubs on the Salton Sea and ruins on the Torres-Martinez Indian Reservation, once home to Ramona’s son, Condino Hopkins. (Ramona was a real person who was made the fictional star of a novel by Helen Hunt Jackson). Another near-goner is the burnt-out Coral Mountain adobe, which shows what happens when a mud-based structure "melts."

Building codes made the adobe style less appealing after the 1940s, but hybrid structures are staging a comeback for adobes, which have thermal properties that make them ideal for today’s green-conscious society.

Coachella Valley Museum will take guests on a bus tour of early adobes on March 14, 2009. Call Jesse Siess at (760) 342-6651.

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