Living With Liberace

A couple pays homage to their home’s flamboyant previous owner, while creating a space of their own

CAROLINE RYDER Interior Design, Real Estate

Even if you don’t spot the plaque by the driveway that reads “Piazza de Liberace,” it’s clear that a showman owned the house on North Kaweah Road in Palm Springs. Musical notes adorn garden fencing. Statues of Roman youths and lions flank the entrance. The mailbox is shaped like a grand piano. A tall iron gateway opens to a black-and-white foyer, where two vintage candelabras illuminate a large photographic portrait of Liberace, posing with an elegant Afghan hound (he had 27 dogs when he died in 1987).  

Liberace, whom Guinness World Records once recognized as the world’s highest-paid pianist, lived in the Old Las Palmas property from 1968 to 1972. Opening the tall black front doors, you half expect to be transported back to the era of cherubs, rhinestones, and Versailles dazzle; of white marble, leopard-print fabric, and bejeweled chandeliers by the dozen. Instead, you’re greeted by the unexpected: a tasteful modern home, presented in shades of black, white, and green and filled with discreet nods to its former owner.

“Yes, we bought this house because it was Liberace’s house,” says Elizabeth Smalley, a doctor who purchased the property with her husband, accountant Garth Gilpin, in May 2010. “But when we moved in and started the remodel, the challenge was how to honor and respect Liberace’s original vision without, you know, recreating it — how to make it feel Liberace without looking Liberace.”

The couple, who owned a condo a half a block away and split their time between Pasadena and Palm Springs, had often walked past the house imagining what the insides looked like. When it was placed on the market, they peeked inside, and what they saw was “unbelievable,” Smalley says. The prior owner was a fan of Liberace and Elvis Presley (who owned a house two doors down). The interior, which reflected those passions, was perhaps even more decadent and colorful than when Liberace lived there.

“There were painted cherubs on the ceiling, a room that was Dalmatian and cow print, fake flowers, red velvet, gold, with Elvis and Liberace everywhere,” Smalley says. “It was the most dysfunctional house we’ve ever seen. Nonetheless, we thought, ‘How can we not do this?’”

Realizing they needed help transforming Mr. Showmanship’s palace into Garth and Elizabeth’s pad, they called in Palm Springs-based designer Christopher Kennedy.

“I was speechless,” says Kennedy of walking into the house for the first time. “I saw the enormous potential to create something modern, but quietly inspired by the great artist who once lived there.”

They started in the kitchen, which was dark and “tiny” and had not been updated since the 1950s. Knocking out a few walls to incorporate two adjoining rooms created a larger kitchen and dining area. White and gray tiling reflected Liberace’s legendary fondness for white marble, and quartz counters added some Liberace sparkle to the space.

On kitchen shelves are copies of Liberace’s cookbooks, including a first edition of Liberace Cooks! Recipes From His Seven Dining Rooms, bearing the performer’s trademark piano signature on the cover. And there is, of course, a chandelier, but “it’s a modern take on a chandelier — a reference done in a contemporary way, which was our goal throughout,” Kennedy says. A reading nook adjoins the kitchen, and on the wall is a framed wallpaper sample with a musical note design. When they moved in, that wallpaper was “everywhere,” Gilpin says. “On the ceilings, on the walls — it looked like musical ants crawling all over the house.” What was unbearable in excess, they realized, was charming when framed for posterity — sample size — on the wall.

Completing the kitchen provided the momentum to take on remodeling the rest of the property. Years of ill-conceived additions had left rooms at different levels. “That’s why it was on the market for so long, some realtors had told me,” Gilpin says. “People would come to look at it and they would be tripping from having to step down here, step up there. So we leveled everything.”

Beneath the flooring in the living area, they discovered 7,000 bricks that Liberace had painted green, turning what used to be an outdoor patio into an indoor living area. Gilpin and Smalley repurposed some of the bricks for walls around the house, swapped some with collectors, and used the green hue as inspiration for accents throughout the house. “We call it ‘Liberace green,’” Kennedy says.

The living area is dominated by a black granite bar built for Liberace, who positioned his baby grand piano next to it and installed lights in the shape of a piano overhead. Gilpin and Smalley centered the bar by moving it 3 feet (making it the focal point of the room) and removed its mirrored and gray marble surface, exposing the granite beneath. The wall behind it was covered with a simple textured wallpaper in “Liberace green.”

Adjoining the living room is “the white room,” whose focal point is a white marble fireplace and striking black Baccarat chandelier. “There aren’t too many references to this house in books, but the one little description we did find was about the white room. It had white carpet, white everything,” Smalley says.

The master bedroom, which was “cathouse red” (Kennedy’s description), velvet, and gold, is now an exercise in understated chic, a large headboard with a swirling design providing the only real “Tony Duquette drama.” Duquette was the interior designer who worked with Liberace on many of his homes, famously living by the motto “More is more.”

The en suite master bathroom was refloored using white marble taken from the living room, and the shower was tiled with neutral gray and white mosaic, echoing Liberace’s love for the Roman bath aesthetic. A large glass wall looks out onto a white Roman sculpture installed by Liberace. On the vanity is a photograph of Liberace, with Gilpin and Smalley grinning on either side of him. “The magic of Photoshop,” Gilpin explains. Next to the photo are matchbooks from Tivoli Gardens, Liberace’s former restaurant in Las Vegas. You don’t have to look too hard to see signs of their affection for Liberace. Homages include coffee-table coasters bearing chandelier motifs and a drain along the piano-shaped patio that they had custom-made to look like
a keyboard.

The guest-room bathroom features a sunken tub with Liberace’s swan-neck plumbing. “We have a photograph of his home in Las Vegas, which had the same gold swan-neck faucets,” Smalley says. “When we first visited this property, we were so excited to see it again. We sat in this bathtub and took a picture.” They had no idea the faucets were gold, until they went to have them professionally cleaned. “We thought they were brass,” Smalley says. “But, of course, Liberace had gold-plated faucets. Why would we imagine he wouldn’t?”

While most of the house is understated, Liberace is fully unleashed in the powder room, whose black walls are covered in gold-framed, black-and-white photos of the star, gifted to Gilpin and Smalley by the previous owner. “Guests at first don’t see too much Liberace. Then when they get in here, there’s this really great surprise,” Smalley says. Around the corner from the powder room is another portrait, of a man in a crown, wearing a king’s robe and holding a scepter. It’s not Liberace; it’s Gilpin, when he was crowned Mardi Gras king in New Orleans two years ago. Smalley painted the portrait herself. “Oh, we’re gregarious too,
in our own way,” she says.

In the back yard are decorative wrought-iron gates with L’s in the swirling design that were brought over from The Cloisters, the Palm Springs house Liberace lived in after this one. The pool area was completely rebuilt and landscaped with a grid of grass and concrete “to soften it and to give more of a sense of a back yard,” Kennedy says.

Remodeling Liberace’s home has made Smalley and Gilpin feel connected to Palm Springs. “When we say we bought one of Liberace’s houses, everybody has a story,” Smalley says. Neighbors have described trick-or-treating on Halloween night in the ’70s — going to Liberace’s house because he gave the kids silver dollars.

Before he died last December, their next-door neighbor shared with them anecdotes from the years when the world’s highest-paid pianist lived in the house.

“He told us how Liberace would come over in the mornings, in his bathrobe, and go into his icebox and chow down on his fried-chicken leftovers. Then at night, he’d hear him playing the piano,” Smalley says. “It’s such a great Palm Springs story, isn’t it? ‘I lived next door and got to hear Liberace playing the piano for free.’”