Talking and laughing, Suzanne Somers bounces up one of many stone stairways, two steps at a time, with the ease of a sure-footed Bighorn sheep. Her famous blond hair swings to the beat of each ambitious stride. As she scopes the vast surroundings, her passion for the exceptional estate she and husband Alan Hamel have called home for 30 years becomes obvious.
Yet, they’re selling the 65-acre Shangri-La they built (asking price: $35 million) and moving to an adjacent parcel about 50 acres smaller.
“Everyone is asking why we decided to move,” says Somers, patting her stomach as if to settle the butterflies tickling her insides at the thought. “I do feel really sad; but at the same time, the creative part of me wants to go forward and try something new. I think we need a different canvas. I get excited thinking about the prospects of the architectural design of our new place. It is going to be quite spectacular. I think that Alan and I are builders at heart. That’s what this is all about.”
Their plan is to move to a sun-kissed plateau on the other side of the mountain ridge to the north, where a glass and stone “village” designed by architect Bob Easton of Montecito (www.bobeaston.com) is being erected. On the drawing board, the complex boasts three two-bedroom guest pods, a large house wrapped around a swimming pool, an amphitheater naturally built into the rock, and an organic vegetable garden.
Somers recalls their discovery of the Palm Springs mountainside property they will soon be leaving — the place that reminded them of a province they enjoyed in the south of France.
“[Late designer] Steve Chase told us about an old 1920s house on the hill just put on the market,” Somers says. “He warned us that we would either love it or hate it. By the time we got to the property and rode up the slope in a funicular railway carriage to the house, I could not contain my excitement. ‘Oh my god, it’s like being in France. Oh my god, it is so romantic.’”
The couple purchased the estate — isolated and yet mere minutes from downtown Palm Springs — in March 1977, the same year they were married. It included several acres of virgin land, a charming French-style stone house, a small pool, an Albert Frey custom-built guest house, and aerial views of the Coachella Valley. They named it Les Baux de Palm Springs after a favorite French town (Les Baux de Provence) where they often spent summers.
In the mid-1920s, wealthy artist/collector Wright Ludington purchased a large parcel of barren land at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains and took on the daunting task of assembling a European-style dwelling. Somers and Hamel have a photograph of burros hauling building materials up a steep path. Ludington resided in his cherished home for 21 years before moving to Santa Barbara, where he became a founder and officer of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
“Ludington sold the property to Kay and Louis Benoist sometime in the 1950s,” Somers says. “They owned Almaden Vineyards in Napa, as well as properties all over the world. The Benoists always said that this was one of their favorite homes.”
As soon as Somers and Hamel moved in, they felt that they had found their little slice of heaven on earth. Even though the main building at the time was on the diminutive side, it satisfied their craving for French architecture. They lived “in its littleness” for 10 years before deciding to renovate the house and expand the living space — beginning with what was a 4-foot-wide kitchen.
Somers and Hamel expanded the kitchen and added a pantry and wine cellar — kept cool behind a heavy iron door. Surrounded by racks of wine sits a wood table. “It turns out to be a special setting for a special meal,” Somers says. But she admits to favoritism for a second-story original dining room that also serves as an informal entertainment area with panoramic views from a large bay window. A grand piano graces one corner near an intimate sitting area where Somers likes to curl up on a comfy sofa when she isn’t practicing her vocals or serving dinner.
“I love this room,” she says. “It is equipped with the same sound system that I use on stage. I’m a songbird. … The acoustics in this room are perfect for singing. I can also seat 32 people at the dining table. There have been incredible family and Thanksgiving gatherings in here. I love it when the table is set with my beautiful collection of antique linens and crystal and silver. It’s fun to have children sitting around the table. I encourage them to use these fineries. It teaches them to be easy with this stuff. I don’t care if a glass gets broken.”
Below the dining room, on the main level, is a guest room, inviting with its uncluttered, clean design. White linens with chartreuse throw pillows grace the bed. Somers softened bright green drapes by lining them in a French blue fabric. Where the guest room looks quaint and feminine with aged elegance, its bathroom is spacious and updated with modern appointments.
My interior design was greatly influenced by charming inns we stayed in along the Relais/Chateaux trail in France and Italy,” Somers says. “However, they did not have good bathrooms or electronics — so my own Relais/Chateaux guest rooms keep the flavor of old with the convenience of new.
“I do my own decorating and interior design with the help of my friend Sue Balmforth, who owns Bountiful, a luxurious antique shop in Venice.” Somers’ collection of perfectly preserved white lace bed and table linens adorns just about every room in the compound. Yet, the living room décor leans toward the masculine side with leather furnishings, a zebra-print rug, men’s hat collection, tile pavers, wooden chest, fireplace, and handsome antiques. Eclectic items, each with its own story to tell, fill the soft-lighted space fit with small windows.
“The wisdom of old desert homes made of adobe walls imparts that fewer windows keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer,” Somers says. “We like to hang out in the living room and watch movies, read, and relax. I didn’t want this house to be all linens and lace. After all, I do live here with a man.”
Throughout renovations, Somers and Hamel made sure that the integrity of the main house remained intact. “The house was like a sophisticated old lady who needed to be treated with respect,” Somers says.
The regal iron gates dotting the grounds were mostly salvaged from the Gypsy Rose Lee mansion that Somers and Hamel owned in Beverly Hills. At one time, they had homes in Palm Springs, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, and Malibu, but pared down to two: Palm Spring and Malibu. Last year, a wildfire destroyed the Malibu home. Although Somers dearly loved that home, she feels more content on the desert property.
“There is magic here,” she says. “From the town below, no one could ever tell that this place exists, as it is hidden away from the world. There are no city noises, no traffic sounds, just the quiet and stillness of nature.” Somers points to a ravine in the far distance and smiles. What appears to be an apparition of a carousel is a carousel. “I found that at Sue’s shop. It sat in her parking lot for years. My grandchildren love it. And, yes, it works.”
Scattered about the grounds behind the main house are guest cottages, no two alike. Desert gardens and courtyards along endless pathways soften picture-postcard vistas of untouched terrain punctuated with ridges of rock formations.
In a clearing not far from the 80-year-old renovated lap pool is an amphitheater carved from a cropping of enormous rock walls and boulders — spectacular in its natural grandness. Nearby is a fire pit, perfect for chilly nights, and under a jacaranda tree sits a long table elegantly set with rare dinnerware and lace linen — out of place and yet apropos. A crystal chandelier dangles from a tree branch overhead. It too, seems equally misplaced, but delightfully acceptable in a whimsical way.
We have given many parties here, but none like the night in November 2001, two months after the 9/11 tragedy,” says Somers, flipping through an album of photos. Tears well in her eyes as she recalls the event. “It was a belated birthday party that I threw for myself. We had a big band. I set a table for 40. Everyone was dressed beautifully. Four thousand candles against the rocks were all aglow. George Schlatter, the producer of [Rowan & Martin’s] Laugh-In, said that it was a gathering of some of the greatest talent in America. The luminaries included Merv Griffin, Keely Smith, Robert Goulet, Michael Feinstein, Susan Anton, Barry Manilow, and Jack Jones. We all took turns singing on the natural rock stage. At the end of the evening, Merv, Robert, Jack, and Michael surprised everyone by singing ‘God Bless America’ a cappella. All of us stood up and placed our hands over our hearts …. It was chilling to hear their beautiful male voices ricocheting off the rocks.”
Somers leads the way up a flight of stone steps past 150-year-old garden gates from the village of Arrezo, Italy, to what looks like a small chateau. She refers to it as their master bedroom home. Inside, a waterfall of fluid white drapes and layers upon layers of snowy white lace on their enormous bed are juxtaposed with unpainted adobe walls, flagstone floor, and sandblasted wood ceiling. “I wanted the contrast to balance the masculine and feminine,” Somers says. “I wouldn’t want to see a man living in too girly of a setting.”
Both Somers and Hamel have private office space in their master bedroom castle, and each works at a concrete desk. One of the best views is from her quiet corner office, where she writes her books. From one window, she can hand signal her neighbor and best friend, Barry Manilow.
Somers’ dressing room is every woman’s dream: spacious and filled with pretty things and family mementos. A crystal chandelier hangs over a freestanding, custom-made tub facing French doors that lead to a balcony overlook. “At night, I love to open the doors and lie in the tub,” she says almost breathlessly.
Up the hill from the main residence is a guest house built by famed architect Albert Frey. The original structure — in the signature Frey style with glass ceilings and natural rocks protruding into room — caught on fire from a lightning strike years ago when Somers and Hamel were out of town.
"Sonny Bono saved the house," Somers says. “He lived down the street at the time and saw the fire. Until the fire department could get up there, Sonny grabbed men from the back road and they started a bucket brigade with water from my swimming pool and garden hoses and put the fire out. I presented him with a special fire hat.”
Extreme heat from the fire melted the glass ceiling. It was then that Somers and Hamel hired a stonemason to remodel the historic building. Because of their love of natural stone, used for walkways and walls throughout the grounds, they ended up hiring the man full time to continue addressing their stonework needs.
Somers and Hamel spend so much of their time among the terraces, gardens, courtyards, and other outdoor areas (even going from the bedroom to the kitchen to the dining room requires a trip outside) that she says sometimes she is surprised to realize when evening falls that she hasn’t been inside all day.
“We just move with the sun,” Somers says. “I could be up there on that terrace to catch the morning light or way over there later on to catch the afternoon light.”
There’s a harmony to Les Baux de Palm Springs. It is evident in the air, the land, the vegetation, the rocks, the wildlife, the flowers, the original house and additions, and the famous yet down-to-earth couple who dwell here.
“This private sanctary is about keeping the landscape natural. Not even a palm frond is trimmed here,” says Scott Lyle, the Palm Springs Realtor who is handling the sale of the property and who calls Somers and Hamel “stewards” of the mountainside environment. “All the rock walls and structures came from the site itself. … It is not just a home. It is an extraordinary living experience.”
“I do care who buys Les Baux de Palm Springs,” Somers says. “It has to be the right person who will love it like we have loved it and who will appreciate its style and history.”
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