Come Sail Away

A private owner opens the angular Boat House — built for racecar driver James Jeffords in 1989 — to guests seeking a magical escape



Mark Davidson

Architecturally speaking, The Boat House defies its name. There’s nothing remotely nautical about the 1989 house that sits beyond the gates on Southridge Drive in south Palm Springs. The design is all about angles and clean lines. However, when you stand in the great room of the 4,400-square-foot structure, looking beyond massive glass walls that jut out over the valley floor, you may feel as if you were on the bow of a ship, looming over an ocean of diminutive streets, houses, and palm trees. Unobstructed mountain views prevail to the west and northeast.

It was originally called The Triangle House, in a nod to its difficult-to-build, wedge-shaped lot. Some called it The Jeffords House, in honor of its original owner, racecar driver James Jeffords. Others simply called it “a Johnson house,” referring to the home’s architect, Michael P. Johnson, who worked on about a dozen projects for Jeffords before they parted company over design changes made to this structure during construction.

As a paperboy in Milwaukee, Wis., in the 1950s, Johnson passed Jeffords’ modern house with a Jaguar and gull-wing Mercedes in the driveway. Although Johnson followed Jeffords’ racing career in the newspaper and passed his house daily, their paths did not cross until many years later. Johnson was working as an architect when he took his young son to visit the construction site of a house for which Jeffords had commissioned Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural firm. Johnson introduced himself; and shortly thereafter, Jeffords hired him to design a showroom for a Winnebago dealership.

The Boat House lacks the architectural flash of its neighbor, John Lautner’s famed Elrod House. With an austere exterior, the four-bedroom, five-bath house fills the lot to the setback lines. However, the dwelling displays genius inside. The geometric floor plan fits the lot. Thirty-, 60-, and 90-degree turns result in unexpected spaces, and Johnson fitted built-in drawers and cupboards throughout.

It’s a house made for guests, with large, open areas for entertaining and bedrooms sited for maximum privacy. Each bedroom has its own bath, and a first-floor bedroom features a sitting area and private patio. The upstairs bedrooms have private workspaces and lounging areas.

The great room, a quintessential party space enclosed in glass, rises two stories. A sunken bar, a low-slung modular sofa that spans the room, a sleek glass fireplace, and an inspired choice of acrylic furniture by Charles Hollis Jones complete the décor. Clear chairs and tables draw the gaze outside, emphasizing the illusion that the room floats over the valley. Rising slightly behind the room, the kitchen and dining area share the same unencumbered view. With its stone floor and warm wood cabinetry, the kitchen can be part of the party or can be closed off with built-in sliding screens.

An entertainment room on the first floor reflects another feat of geometric wizardry: a triangle that allows separate lighting and sound control for TV and media viewing.

Another triangle — a long expanse of a blue-tiled pool — lies in front of the great room, in plain sight of those inside. A swimmer surely would feel cantilevered over the rest of the city from this point on “the boat’s prow.”

The master bedroom, situated in a loft open to the great room below, is the second-floor beneficiary of the view. Marble — used generously throughout the house — appears here in a massive, pale pink countertop that runs the width of the bedroom, cradling a wet bar and a gas fireplace. More acrylic furniture continues the ’60s theme expressed below. Should the wide-angle view of twinkling lights from the flatlands fall short of a drop-dead view, a hexagonal window above the bed opens at the flick of a switch for bedtime gazing at twinkling stars.

Shortly before the current owner bought it, The Boat House was restored in a manner closer to the architect’s original vision. Monochromatic neutrals replaced the late 1980s garishness inside and out — including a Pepto Bismol pink exterior that fought with copper trim and turquoise tile.

The owner believes that a home’s physical space affects the mood of those inside. Whether the harmony in the house is due to the architect’s original sense of feng shui or the careful renovation, the design of The Boat House is once again gliding on smooth waters.

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