I’ve been building and renovating homes in the High Desert for a long time, including my most recent effort, Homestead Modern. But until recently, I was the proverbial cobbler without shoes — never having lived in any of my projects.
That changed a little over two years ago when I stumbled upon one of the humblest — and most forlorn — homestead cabins imaginable. But, as they say, it had good bones. Better yet, it sat in one of the most spectacular locations I’d ever laid eyes on.
I come by my interests in deserts and homesteader properties organically. My dad’s parents were part of a homestead program in a High Desert community near Palmdale. They grew pears on acreage they acquired through a government homestead program until the Depression threw them out of business.
I grew up in Southern California, and desert camping trips were always part of my life. In 2003, I was living and working in San Francisco — and missing a connection to the desert. That year, I purchased an incredible boulder-, pinon-, juniper- and oak-studded property in the town of Yucca Valley where I hoped to build a desert getaway. I immediately realized I had a problem: how to build a house on a property with no flat pad and no way to create one without destroying the very attributes that drew me to the property in the first place.
That conundrum led me to work with some very smart people to create a unique light-gauge steel frame system that allowed a home to basically float over the landscape on a minimum number of columns touching the ground.
Dave McAdam took outdoor living to the extreme. The queen bed on the welded tube-steel-and-redwood sleeping platform stays made up year-round (thanks to a waterproof cover). A shaded sitting area below is complete with freshly powder-coated steel gliders that were on the property.
Thus was born my first company, Blue Sky Building Systems, and the prototype home for that system — Rock Reach House (which I still own and make available for short-term rentals). It was completed in 2009 and a story about it was published in Dwell magazine in 2010. Today, there are Blue Sky-framed homes in many places, including Palm Springs, elsewhere throughout California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and Arizona.
But my personal passion remained anchored in the High Desert communities around Joshua Tree National Park. So about five years ago, I founded another company, Homestead Modern, based in Yucca Valley. Homestead Modern offers a number of pre-designed floor plans for simple modern homes, as well as services to help folks renovate existing homes. And we manage a growing portfolio of vacation rental properties — mostly focused on the higher end of the market.
The deck features a hot tub and a “cowboy tub.”
The new homes are modest in size and price, but emphatically modern, with plenty of glass and easy access to the outdoors. They are aimed squarely at the second-home market, just like the earlier homestead cabins were.
Between Blue Sky and Homestead Modern, I was happily consumed doing work that I loved — especially meeting an amazing array of interesting, mostly creative people and helping them find their place in this magical High Desert.
The only problem: I was ignoring my own needs. Initially, I lived in Palm Springs and commuted to the High Desert. Eventually, I rented a very sad little stucco box in a tired tract of houses in Joshua Tree. I was not exactly living the life.
But a little over two years ago, fate grabbed me by the collar and set me on a new path.
Most nights when I get home, I find myself sitting outside, just watching nature be nature.
One morning before dawn, I was minding my own business reading a newspaper online when I got one of those automated emails: “Here’s a property you may be interested in.” It was four 5-acre parcels — one with a cabin and the other three vacant — being sold together. I had been in the High Desert long enough to know the remote location — one of the most magical, if little known, corners of the Mojave Desert near Pioneertown. I was in escrow by 10 o’clock that morning, and I had never even seen the cabin.
Once I laid eyes on it, I knew I was in for a lot of work. It was a simple one-bedroom, one-bath concrete block structure at the end of a long dirt road. It had bars on the windows and a ton of mouse droppings throughout. The older gentleman selling the properties had not been to the cabin in four years. Neglect was everywhere.
I hatched a plan to sell the three empty parcels and use the proceeds to help fund the extensive work the cabin required.
While the work ahead was daunting, the location kept my spirits up. With only a few other cabins nearby, and government land stretching beyond, I would be living in an otherworldly canyon 4,800 feet above sea level featuring enormous weathered boulders, piñon pine, desert oak, Joshua trees, Mojave yucca and cholla.
A large sectional with weatherproof fabric is the centerpiece of the outdoor living room. Nearby, a repurposed Chinese wok is now a propane fire pit. The outdoor dining room is visible beyond.
I discovered that my cabin was built in 1954 as part of the Small Tract Act of 1938. It was bigger than standard cabins of the era, originally measuring 800 square feet, with another 200 square feet added later to create a bedroom. More unusual was its concrete block construction.
If you wanted to homestead property with the government, you typically did the minimum they required to improve the land. And concrete block was expensive. More typically, folks slapped together some boards, met the minimum square footage, and called it good. The concrete blocks of my cabin were obviously laid by weekend warriors — rather crudely done. But, 60 years later, it wasn’t leaning over, either, like most wood-framed homestead cabins that sadly have fallen into decay.
I originally wanted to polish the existing concrete floors, but they were in very bad shape. I elected to cover them with porcelain tile.
The rehab process began with a removal phase. I hauled 42 dump trailers off the property, filling them with a hoarder’s collection of useless things, an ill-conceived stone exterior veneer designed to hide the concrete block, a motley collection of outbuildings, those iron bars on the windows, and tons of imported colored gravel covering the ground all around the cabin.
Then began the reimagining. Saw-cutting into the block to accommodate sliding glass doors. Sandblasting the outside so that the authenticity of the blocks shown through. Running new plumbing and electrical.
Outdoors, I removed dead and non-native vegetation to open up views of the magnificent large boulders on the property. I added an outdoor shower, a built-in barbecue, outdoor eating areas, and an outdoor body-weight gym. A restored wooden boardwalk and stairs now lead to a rehabilitated observation deck high atop the boulders — just like Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland.
Both custom and Ikea cabinetry are seen throughout the cabin, as are exposed galvanized steel heating and air conditioning ducts and the original tongue-in-groove wood ceiling.
Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead book has pride of place on a rough-hewn coffee table.
I love fire pits, so I repurposed a large steel Chinese wok, added a propane emitter, and welded it on three legs. Even in the coldest weather, you can pull a low chair close to the fire, sit under a Mexican blanket, and be comfortable outdoors, transfixed by the night sky.
Uphill from the cabin, closer to the biggest boulders, I poured earth-toned concrete pads. Sun loungers sit between a Jacuzzi hot tub and a “cowboy tub” (a repurposed galvanized steel stock tank for cooling dips in hot weather).
When it’s not too windy, not too cold, and when the moon is not too bright, there’s one place you’ll find me: asleep under a thick blanket of stars. The bed atop my elevated sleeping platform is always made up (seven blankets is the magic number for winter). Fabricated from site-welded heavy tube steel sections and redwood decking, the 16-by-16-foot structure provides unobstructed views of the north side of the canyon’s boulder walls. When you lay down, you are staring at this enormous expanse of weathered boulders that rise steeply above you. I drift off to the sound of owls screeching; they’re very busy at night.
A custom floating bar and shelves services the living area. An oil painting of Clint Eastwood as The High Plains Drifter (a Yucca Valley swap meet find and gift from a friend) keeps careful watch over McAdam and his home.
The upper sleeping deck creates a shaded lower deck for escaping the summer sun. Two steel glider sofas came with the cabin. All I had to do was powder-coat them.
The only landscaping I added were species of plants naturally found in the area: manzanita, creosote, and cholla.
Not everyone in the High Desert encourages wildlife visits. I do. A 10-foot-tall steel column I installed has a steel water bowl on top for hot and thirsty birds, while a shallow in-ground “guzzler” pool serves as an oasis for desert mammals.
Even though I’m miles from civilization, I have both satellite internet and satellite TV services. But honestly, most nights when I get home, I find myself sitting outside, just watching nature be nature.
As both complement and contrast to the concrete block exterior, I chose a more refined rich, gray plaster for the interior. I replaced the old wood-burning heater and decrepit swamp cooler with modern heating and air conditioning equipment.
Building or renovating in a place this sensitive to man-made intrusions needs to be done thoughtfully. My cabin and the land around it give me a profound sense of calm.
The cabin had an exposed tongue-and-groove wood ceiling, but there was no insulation above it. I stripped the thin asphalt shingles off the roof to install rigid foam insulation, topped by a handsome grey standing-seam metal roof. I installed in-ceiling light fixtures in the process.
I originally wanted to polish the existing concrete floors, but they were in very bad shape. Instead, I elected to cover them with a porcelain tile which looks very much like polished concrete.
Three small desert-scene paintings that were in the cabin still hang on the walls, now cleaned and re-framed.
The kitchen features Ikea cabinets with custom Caesarstone countertops, as well as custom floating shelves.
The renovation spanned a year and a half. That’s because I was working with the contractor we prefer for our clients, and their projects always take priority. When the work was finished, a friend who is a chef catered a wonderful open house for friends and
clients. That experience prompted us at Homestead Modern to host a series of outdoor, chef-driven dinners at the property this past spring in support of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, a conservation organization I feel strongly about. Similar events are being held this fall.
The High Desert boomed after World War II when large tracts of land were opened for homestead programs. Then things quieted down for many years as new generations of folks found their amusements and interests elsewhere. Now, there is fresh interest in the High Desert. (I’ll let the sociologists tell us why).
Behind the Eames lounge chair in the living room, McAdam’s Boy and Eagle Scout merit badges are on display
The bedroom features custom bamboo cabinetry — including desk, bookshelf, linen storage box at the foot of the bed, and floating nightstands.
Gestural botanical study in sepia ink is by friend and artist Parnell Corder. A Pendleton blanket provides an extra layer on the steel-framed bed.
I pride myself on helping many of these new folks find a spot to call their own — in a way that is as light on the land as possible. Building or renovating in a place this sensitive to man-made intrusions needs to be done thoughtfully to avoid recreating the worst elements of the Southern California suburbs, for example.
My cabin and the land around it give me a profound sense of calm. I get up and go to work every day with the goal of helping others find something close to that. Not a bad gig.