Owner Thomas P. “Atson” Reeder crafted the futuristic vane on the roof above the red front door.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LANCE GERBER
A rooftop sculpture made of metal hoops and what appears to be an omnidirectional antenna marks the entry of the house on Lot 3 of Little Tuscany Estates in Palm Springs. Here, on North Tuscan Road, a 2,859-square-foot retreat nestles amid a bower of palms and willows that shroud original fountains, a large swimming pool, and a meandering above-ground flume for fish. One of the desert’s most private properties, it also happens to afford an alluring valley view.
Owner Thomas P. “Atson” Reeder calls his sanctuary Koi House. And though it has been an idyllic setting for more than a novel’s worth of far out stories, it is time to sell. Reeder, 74, is slowing down; the Newport Beach resident and his wife no longer travel.
As midcentury homes go, this one is visually unimposing. A volcanic-rock façade and red front door comprise the most distinctive external ornamentations. Reeder created the futuristic vane that looms above the front door — a reproduction emblem of the 1960s spy show The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The spy theme is fitting. Dual identities and counternarratives start at the mouth of the driveway, where a bronze plaque identifies the property as “Whispering Palms.” Why does Reeder call it Koi House?
“That’s part of the security,” he says, disclosing that he installed the plaque and also designed the front gate. “Everything about the place is security-oriented. The name on the plaque is the guy that did all the ponds, [M.H.] Libott. He was the builder for the house. I put his [name] on it, so I’d have something that relates to the house itself.”
According to Reeder, water features may have been used for security purposes, with waterfalls added to prevent neighbors from hearing any outdoor conversation.
Indeed, the estate was built in 1957. Early in 1958, an ad for an open house at the address promised, “Worth trip to Little Tuscany.” It invited people to see the custom-built home with three bedrooms, three baths, a family room, refrigerated cooling, central vacuum, and an intercom. Its first owners were Maurice and Madge Libott. A Dec. 2, 1958, notice in The Desert Sun indicates M.H. Libott received a permit for a $500 swimming pool project, possibly to add rock trim. Through his own advertising, Libott proclaimed himself the “Pioneer Swimming Pool Contractor of Palm Springs.” A year after the permit notice, the newspaper column “Around Town With Hildy Crawford” reported, “It will be a very special Christmas in the Libott household as it is the first one for their 7-month-old daughter Tahzsa Marie.” Orrin and Barbara Gilbert were new owners in 1960, and Florence O. Thompson succeeded them in 1961.
In Reeder’s estimation, the central vacuum, intercom system, and water features would have fit a certain reclusive billionaire’s preferences. Through a series of emails and phone interviews, he lays out his theory. “So the question arises,” Reeder says. “Why is Koi House so high-security, at least by 1950s standards? I believe it is because Koi House belonged to Howard Hughes.” He admits a lack of proof but adds, “Long ago, I was told that Hughes never lived in a home with his name on it for security reasons.” Hughes did own another Palm Springs house, on Rim Road, at the time of his death in 1976.
Reeder had been visiting Palm Springs with his family since the early 1950s. He recalls “massive” parties — in particular, one near the Kaufmann House. “They’d rent monkeys and let them go in the trees. I don’t know if this was to keep the kids interested while the adults partied or what, but it was certainly impressive.”
Decades later, in 1999, he purchased Koi House — his first and only residence in the city — from the Barbara J. Mondo estate for $235,000 and became further immersed in the Hughes legend.
“All my life, I have always heard the house directly behind Koi House has been known as Howard Hughes’ whorehouse. I was told by the people who lived there that they still have the intercom in the wall that Hughes used to call the girls up when it was time to party.”
Varying styles of vintage furnishings and artwork fill each space with unique modernist character.
Perched in the foothills, the home peers out upon treetop views.
Besides the intercom, Reeder finds security applications in the fountains themselves, which would have thwarted eavesdroppers outside the .45-acre lot. The central vacuum system inside the house might have addressed Hughes’ phobia about germs. In Howard Hughes: The Secret Life, author Charles Higham explains how Hughes spent much of 1957 to 1960 living with actress Jean Peters in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. But after selling Trans World Airlines, he took her to a “comfortable but not opulent” cottage in Rancho Santa Fe. At first, he wouldn’t let her vacuum the shag carpet. When she finally did, he couldn’t look at the cleaner’s “ugly fat bag” and made an aide stand outside the room and hold it while Peters used the wand and attachment.
For the generations that have come since Hughes’ death, it is easy to underestimate just how mighty and compelling a figure he was. He set a record by flying around the world in three and a half days in 1938, produced motion picture hits such as Hell’s Angels and Scarface, wooed Katherine Hepburn and many other Hollywood stars, built airplanes for military use, and wielded political clout. The billionaire adventurer-playboy formed the mold for the likes of Elon Musk, if only Musk could fly his own spaceships. Hughes became the subject of many biographies, and Leonardo DiCaprio memorably portrayed him in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator. Hughes was such a household name that, for nearly three decades, Parade, the nationwide Sunday newspaper supplement, carried the “Howard Huge” cartoon, playing on the billionaire’s name with stories about a Saint Bernard dog, the panel’s namesake, and his family.
A sunken bar offers a place to gather.
The stone fireplace anchors the living room.
Hughes left footprints all over Palm Springs, starting with his fly-in arrivals of the late-1920s. A Desert Sun item dated July 25, 1947, documents a party in Palm Springs that occurred as a U.S. Senate committee chaired by Ralph Owen Brewster was investigating Hughes’ wartime profits. Brewster wanted to know about any business transacted at the two-day fête that was hosted at The Racquet Club by Hughes — “a frequent visitor here” — for War Production Board member Julius Krug. One source of entertainment was Judy Cook, known for her swimming and diving exhibitions and “flesh-colored bathing suit.” As Cook told reporters, “Jack Frye, former president of the TWA, senators, congressmen, and a lot of Army brass and Navy braid were among the guests.” The report added that Hughes “made several landings here and at Rancho Mirage.”
In a 1971 news article, Vic Orsatti, the Hollywood agent and producer, recalled how “his friend Howard Hughes” frequently piloted a Sikorsky S-38 amphibious plane — the craft depicted in a beautiful scene in The Aviator — to Palm Springs.
“One jaunt they made together was rather humorous,” the article continues. “After checking in at the Biltmore Hotel, Vic wanted to eat dinner out at The Colony House … but Hughes said, ‘We’d better eat here at the Biltmore — after all, we’ve paid for it!’ ” Orsatti, an original member of The Racquet Club who lived “in a posh penthouse in the center of Palm Springs,” concluded, “That’s why Hughes is a billionaire today. He may have splurged on airplanes, but he was frugal in other ways.”
“The chairs were a gift from the Lerner family of Lerner and Loewe fame,” Reeder shares. A vintage aluminum tripod ashtray stands between them, while colorful glass decorates a midcentury coffee table.
Early in 1961, the Tuscan Road house was offered for sale by owner for $65,000 unfurnished; but all furnishings were available, too. Later that year, it was listed with Charles Lyngaard Realty at the same price. The ad boasted: “Custom-built home in choice neighborhood, with sunken living room, slate rock floors on the entertaining area, wet bar, lava rock fireplace and flower planters, [and] steel center I-beam.” The master bath featured double-opposed basins and a “sunken Roman tub with separate stall shower and Mr. and Mrs. wardrobe and pullman.” The swimming pool had a waterfall, and the grounds were landscaped “with citrus trees, etc.”
The new owners on March 16, 1962, were John and Janet Averna with their son Jim. Two older sons had already reached maturity and lived elsewhere. Jim Averna is now 74 years old, the same age as Atson Reeder, and lives in Seaside, Oregon.
“My parents owned and lived in the house until 1979, when my father passed away, and my mom sold the house shortly after,” Averna says via email. “I never heard any stories of Howard Hughes. The only story I have, and in my personal opinion is as impressive as Howard Hughes, is a story about my parents.” John Averna came to America from Sicily at 14. He and Janet built Averna Realty from scratch. “We all really admired our parents. They accomplished so much. Talk about the American Dream — they lived it!”
In 1953, John Averna and a partner had announced plans to build a hundred-home subdivision called Angel Springs Estates on 140 acres between State Route 111 and the mountains, near today’s Tramway Road. “We believe there is a great future for Palm Springs and the surrounding area,” the partners announced. It was expected that Palm Springs would grow toward Los Angeles, not the center of the valley.
Jim expresses curiosity about the neighboring house, musing about “where Howard’s cache of the party ladies was kept.” He remembers a hard-wired intercom in his family’s house but no connection to a multiunit compound.
Only a handful of Little Tuscany houses were occupied year-round. One day, Jim came home from school to a surprise. “Mom was sitting at the kitchen table having coffee with Zsa Zsa Gabor. Of course, at 14, I had no idea who she was. I’m not sure how they knew each other, but back then, it wasn’t out of the ordinary, since my mom was very active in Palm Springs Woman’s Club and functions [and] events.”
The yard conceals what Reeder refers to as an “atomic dog bunker” painted in bold hues.
Averna counters Reeder’s assertion about the water features as anti-eavesdropping elements, claiming his father finished them. “Other than three or so palm trees in the front of the house, there was no landscaping whatsoever. He brought in and planted every single palm tree and shrub. At that time, the backyard ended shortly after the pool with a sharp incline to the neighboring house below.” Averna remembers his father having the retaining wall built to extend the backyard, and he enclosed the large covered patio.
Reeder likes to refer to the concrete-block doghouse near the pool as “the Howard Hughes atomic dog bunker,” but now Averna tells a monkey tale of his own. In October 1960, his father went to Brazil on business. “While on that trip, he bought a pet monkey, Oscar. He wanted to have a great place for the monkey to live. He built that cinderblock house enclosed in a large cage. On top of the cinderblock house was a wooden house. Oscar lived there and could go into the concrete house when it was warm.” Tarzan, the family’s Great Dane, also used the doghouse.
If the legend about Howard Hughes becomes tattered, Reeder can still emphasize the novelty of Koi House. Although the kitchen was redone in a nondescript contemporary style, the three bathrooms remain original and are quite breathtaking. Listing agent Andy Linsky’s task is to find a buyer who appreciates originality at an asking price of $2.495 million. Otherwise, considering the Koi House’s large and desirable lot — and a recent demolition of a neighborhing property to make way for a new build — even the question of a teardown looms as a nagging thought.
“It’s their house to do with as they wish,” Reeder says of the next owner. “I’ve long supported architectural integrity. … I would be sorry to see that, but it’s the right of everybody to do. And when it does happen, that makes everybody else’s property that is original more valuable because there’s fewer and fewer of them. Anybody can buy a house to tear it down or fix it up, but you can’t build original.”