As Time Goes By

Merv Griffin’s Morocco-inspired estate — created with his intimate input — looks for a new owner

Ellen Paris. Arts & Entertainment, Real Estate

While some Coachella music festival attendees camped on-site, others paid $80,000 to rent a private estate in La Quinta. Paris Hilton and Snoop Dog are rumored to have partied there. But they were far from the first celebrities to grace the grounds of the 39-acre equestrian estate of the late Merv Griffin.

A well-respected and loved mogul in the entertainment industry, Griffin built his dream home in the desert and raised and trained winning thoroughbreds here, including Stevie Wonder Boy, who won the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile in 2006.

Four years after his death, Griffin’s estate is on the market for $9.5 million.

“If you have $9 million to spend on a third or fourth home, which is the type of buyer this property would likely attract, I’m going to Google you and see who you are,” says Keith Markovitz of Capitis Sotheby’s International. “Then we ask for documentation from banks and attorneys proving you have the means to acquire the property before we will even make an appointment.”

Deirdre Coit of Canavan & Coit Coldwell Banker, which is co-listing the property, likes the property for the equestrian and polo set.

“The buyer can be very creative with this estate. It’s actually set up to run racehorses, which Merv did with the racetrack that you can see beyond the lake,” she says. “You could even take out the racetrack and plant alfalfa and feed your horses. Or the buyer could use the back 20 acres to build a par-three golf course.”

Waldo Fernandez, one of the country’s star interior designers with deep Hollywood connections (he designed this year’s Oscars green room; and his client list includes Elizabeth Taylor, Brad Pitt, and Chevy Chase) worked closely with Griffin for two and a half years on the design. “My vision was simply to create a space where my client could enjoy himself and entertain,” says the Los Angeles-based designer.

“Merv wanted a colorful environment with lots of seating areas to be very comfortable, with a Moroccan flair,” Fernandez says. “From the beginning, we had the idea to bring a Moroccan element to La Quinta. Through the planning process and the details, it evolved.” 

Fernandez imported colored glass, tiles, stone, and wood from Morocco. Moroccan details are especially visible in the bathrooms and hallways, with extensive tile and woodwork handcrafted by artisans. The fixtures on the sink and showers are all handcrafted and hammered.

“We began with furniture plans. After weeks and weeks, Merv approved the furniture layouts. After that, every two weeks I would go up to the property to check on the progress of the project.” 

Working with a large piece of property and incorporating various lifestyle elements presents inherent challenges. “We had plans for the casitas, the main areas, and the equestrian area. We planned it all at once, including the small pavilion in the lake,” Fernandez recalls.

Fernandez and Griffin had worked together on the interiors for Griffin’s Beverly Hilton Hotel and his Atlantic City Resort, as well as his Beverly Hills home, which, according to Fernandez, was “much more traditional and elegant with beautiful antiques and specific colors that Merv loved. Merv and I had a great working relationship. We were good friends. It was a pleasure working for him always.”

During the many hours they spent together, Griffin kept Fernandez entertained with stories of all the people he knew and worked with over the years. “Merv was a storyteller from the start. He met so many people in his lifetime. It was fascinating to hear all his stories — from Doris Day and her Moroccan-styled house in Honolulu to Elizabeth Taylor to Nancy and Ronald Reagan, they were good friends. He told me how he used to go to the White House with Eva Gabor or Bob and Dolores Hope. He lived a truly incredible life. I was so happy to be a part of it.”

The property includes the main house and four freestanding casitas, a 2.5-acre lake with a dock, paddocks, grazing pastures, racetrack, air-conditioned stables, and training area. Extensive exterior covered spaces take in the lake and Santa Rosa Mountain views. A water feature next to the main house spills into an infinity pool, which spills into the lake.   

Though the estate is adjacent to the Griffin Ranch development, for which Griffin sold 200 acres during real estate’s halcyon days, it remains totally private. It also backs up to the Madison Club, though you don’t realize it’s even there. 

“When Merv built it on the original 240 acres he had acquired, we were surrounded by 60-foot-tall tamarisk trees,” recalls Don Rhodes, who has been caretaker of the estate for the last 15 years and managed Griffin’s yacht, “The Griff,” prior to moving to La Quinta. “Visitors would come through the gates and be blown away at what Merv had created here,” Rhodes adds.

“We were totally surprised when we saw it for the first time,” Markovitz says. “It was warm and low key and so private.”

Though there are 14 bedrooms and 12 bathrooms on the estate, the main house is only 5,000 square feet with two bedrooms. One was Griffin’s master suite and the other a guest suite known as “Eva’s Room” for Merv’s dear friend Eva Gabor. Like the rest of the house, the bedrooms are comfortable and casual, with whitewashed walls and unadorned fireplaces. Large doors of glass with Moroccan-blue wrought iron detailing open to covered patios with lake views. “After Eva passed away in 1995, Griffin’s close friend Rose Narva, who did the interiors for the Givenchy Hotel and Spa (now Parker Palm Springs), and her husband, actor Robert Loggia, were frequent guests in Eva’s Room,” Rhodes says.

The main living and entertaining area features a 20-foot vaulted ceiling with an octagon-shaped skylight in the center of the room. One wall of the room comprises all Moroccan-inspired doors overlooking the lake. The flooring is limestone with marble insets, the limestone extending to the exterior.

“Merv loved to spend time here with his son, Tony, and his family, who came for all the holidays,” Rhodes says. “When he first built the property, he was still pretty busy working on all his ventures and would spend maybe six weeks a year here. As he slowed down, he’d be here from October and then leave on Mother’s Day. He’d then go to his homes in either Beverly Hills or Carmel and then spend the summer on his yacht in the Mediterranean.”

When the estate was almost completed in 1987, a faulty switch triggered by a worker started a fire that completely destroyed the estate. Merv was in Atlantic City and got a call from an assistant telling him to turn on CNN. He was shocked to see his labor of love in flames. Undeterred, he and Fernandez went back to work rebuilding the entire estate as before in 18 months.