Movie Colony Makeover

A dedicated preservationist restores Cary Grant’s estate and seeks historic site status



Las Palomas as captured by midcentury modern photographer Leland

PHOTOGRAPHY BY LELAND LEE

When the big iron gate of Las Palomas swings open, it does so without a hitch or a groan, as quietly and smoothly as if on hinges of oiled air, giving no hint of its advanced age.

It’s almost as if, as sentry for the Avenida Palmas retreat surrounded by original slump-stone block walls, it requires visitors to reset some internal clock, wound tightly by the hum and buzz of busy Palm Springs.

In 1954, screen idol Cary Grant and his wife, Betsy Drake, walked through the gate into lush greenery, expansive lawns, palms, citrus trees, rose gardens, and cacti surrounding a 1930s copy of a Spanish Andalusian farmhouse. Grant remained at the estate until 1972, after his divorce from Drake and his marriage to and divorce from Dyan Cannon.

The classic, two-story courtyard design encompasses two wings that form a protective “U” around trellised patios, arbors, and a fountain, steps away from the swimming pool. The 6,000-square-foot house includes a living room with massive redwood beams, six bedrooms, five and one-half bathrooms, five stucco fireplaces, a 40-by-50-foot great room, and an art studio, hidden from view on 1.5 acres.

The whitewashed stucco walls meet a second-floor master bedroom gable with original Gladding McBean, double-barrel red clay roof tiles. The trim and wooden window shutters are painted a shade of blue true to the architectural heritage of Spanish villages and churches.

STARS IN THE SUN

Jean Farrar (an early Palm Springs resident, healthcare activist, and yoga instructor to the stars) worked with Grant and Drake when they attended her health and yoga classes at the Racquet Club in the late 1950s.

“Cary fell in love with the house and estate the minute he saw it,” Farrar says. “He said the hundreds of towering trees, palms, and gardens made him feel that he was in a cathedral. ... He was very connected to nature and felt that nature renewed his spirit. Nature allowed him to be himself, and he spent time nurturing his trees and was happiest in the simple stucco house, which had a view of the trees and mountains he loved from every window.”

More than the compound itself lured Grant to establish a home in Palm Springs. His autobiography, Archie Leach, describes the dismal, cold surroundings of his very early years in Bristol, England, when small coal fires were the only source of heat.

“Ever since,” he writes, “I’ve persistently arranged to spend every possible moment where the sun shines warmest.”

Grant and Drake named the estate Las Palomas.

Grant was 50 years old and had announced his retirement from acting. He hired his best friend, architect Wallace Neff, to add two bedrooms and two baths above the large garage. 

Although Grant considered the estate his retreat, it was a magnet for show-business friends, as reported in Palm Springs Villager magazine and by dozens of worldwide media who followed his every move. Friends and co-stars Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, and the reclusive Howard Hughes (best man at Grant and Drake’s wedding) are only a few famous guests who relaxed within the secluded grounds. Katharine Hepburn frequently inhabited the guest wing for rejuvenation. In 1954, Alfred Hitchcock brought Grant out of retirement, handing him the script of To Catch a Thief during lunch by the pool.

Not all friends and guests were the glitterati, however. Known for his support of U.S. Armed Forces during the Korean War, Grant also welcomed Marines from the Twentynine Palms base to several events at the estate.

PURSUIT OF A DREAM
Dr. Jane Cowles Smith first drove through the gate of Las Palomas on July 4, 1998, with a real estate agent who had run a small ad reading “Palm Springs Movie Colony House for sale.”

“What I saw was a jungle of dead, brown overgrowth; a house that was in shambles of neglect and disrepair; loose balconies; chimneys with metal caps filled with dirt — lots of dirt,” Smith says. “However, most of the ‘great bones’ of the house were intact.” She also recognized the house from a dream she had just before moving here from the East Coast. 

“I was in this romantic estate in a foreign country, but could not understand why everyone was speaking English when it seemed that they should be speaking Italian or Spanish,” she recalls. “As dreams sometimes do, this one came true — with
a bonus.”

When she learned that Cary Grant owned the house for 18 years, Smith considered it kismet. It influenced decisions over her 11 years of restoring the property.

“I feel Grant’s spirit in the house,” she says. “Sometimes when I was uncertain about how to resolve one issue or the other, I asked myself ‘What would Cary do?’ It took a lot of patience to be true to the materials and workmanship of the house, as well as find period furnishings.”

Smith designed a 30-by-40-foot indoor/outdoor great room in the garage below Neff’s second-floor addition. The room has floor-to-ceiling period glass and wood mullion doors that open on three sides to garden, courtyard, and pool views. (The garage once served as a weight room for the previous owner: bodybuilder and former “Mr. Olympia” Frank Zane.)

Smith so cared about accurate restoration that, because it had shutter holders but no shutters, she searched Movie Colony estates with the “S” wrought iron shutter holder in hand to find a matching blacksmith signature. She found the holders at the nearby historic Invernada Estate and copied its shutters. “It takes endless patience to be historically correct,” Smith says.

Hardly a novice to restoration, Smith restored a Rudolph Schindler house in
La Jolla and two circa-1800 “captain houses” in Maine. “No matter what condition I find a historic house, there isn’t one that can’t be restored to period,” she says. “We must preserve our history and stop the relentless destruction, which erases the character of our community. Additionally, it costs more money to tear down and rebuild than it does to restore the original structures using sustainable methods.”

Smith’s 11-year effort led Palm Springs’ Historic Site Preservation Board to recommend the city council grant Las Palomas Class 1 Historic Site designation. She also is applying for national historic site status.

It’s what Cary would have done.
 

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