When people recall their first sight of “the Marrakesh,” the memories are almost universally affectionate. Amid the Coachella Valley’s blocks and tracts of clay tile roofs, earth-hued stucco, and stacked stone, the sudden visage of a serpentine pink brick wall hints at something different. Anyone driving on Portola Avenue toward The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens (“I tell people giraffes live a block away,” marvels Marrakesh resident Jeffrey Roberts) will catch a glimpse of pink villas with white roofs, more Martinique than Morocco and definitely embracing a French accent. And then there’s the guard kiosk, a whimsical, octagonal cupcake of a building, topped with a conical tented roof of patinated copper. It has an immediate and lasting effect on people: When Patrick Dragonette of the eponymous design showroom in Los Angeles first pulled up to the gate, he took one look at the storybook sentry box and the “poodle trees” beyond (clipped olives) and told his real estate agent, “This is the place. Now we have to decide which house.”
By their very nature, country clubs are private places. But all the major ones generate interest, intrigue, gossip, and — in the Coachella Valley — real estate news. So how did one of the desert’s most distinctive and architecturally significant colonies elude the media and homebuyers until only recently?
It’s certainly not due to deficient pedigree. The four men credited with creating Marrakesh were notable figures at the top of their game. John W. Dawson was a golf-champion-turned-developer who built Thunderbird, Eldorado, and Seven Lakes country clubs before leasing 155 acres of Haystack Ranch in south Palm Desert from swimwear designer and manufacturer Elizabeth Stewart in 1968. This is where Dawson would build the Marrakesh.
Joan Hobin, a second-generation resident, followed her parents to Marrakesh in 1996.
The olive trees get a “poodle” cut that’s popular with residents.
He selected architect John Elgin Woolf, master of a theatrical style now known as Hollywood Regency. Designers, studio executives, and celebrities prized Woolf homes, primarily in the hills above Sunset Boulevard from Bel-Air to Hollywood. Their axial floor plans of pitch-perfect proportions were stage sets of French, Greco-Roman, and Georgian elements.
Dawson promised the architect that he’d enjoy creative freedom in designing the 364 residences, 14 pools and pavilions, sales office (now the administration building), clubhouse, and curvaceous garden wall. From Johnny Dawson’s perspective, Woolf’s involvement was guaranteed to set the project apart; it was elegant “city architecture” in the desert designed to appeal to couples more than large families. Featuring his trademark mansard roofs and tall Pullman doors, Marrakesh can lay claim to being the only colony of authentic Hollywood Regency dwellings by Woolf in the world. The first families took occupancy in December 1969.
Golf was the name of the game, as the community was marketed toward members of Los Angeles clubs and to snowbirds. The 18-hole executive course designed by Ted Robinson was an experiment — a shorter course to encourage more time over gin rickeys or horseback riding with the grandkids. It may have placed Marrakesh outside the status of the “majors” — The Vintage Club, The Reserve, Bighorn Golf Club, and Eldorado and Ironwood country clubs — that surround it, but golf director John Birchard calls the course “Little Augusta” and boasts, “Every golf program offered at Marrakesh has increased in participation by more than 50 percent over the last two years.”
However, Woolf never completed the working drawings for the clubhouse, as in 1971 he began a battle with Parkinson’s disease (he died in 1980). With the opening date looming, Dawson reluctantly enlisted another architect, Richard A. Harrison, who had designed the condo units at Seven Lakes. Harrison squared off Woolf’s curving design, creating a handsome pavilion that serves as a neutral counterpoint to the more fanciful villas. Now at its 50-year mark, and with several partial redos smudging the clarity of the original clubhouse building, the community has begun exploring a new look and better functionality.
The 18-hole executive golf course designed by Ted Robinson was an experiment: a shorter course to encourage socializing.
The houses at Marrakesh have patios that look out to the lush greens of the golf course as well as common spaces.
Whatever changes may come, members maintain that certain things are sacrosanct: The service staff is beloved for their exceptional attentiveness and ability to personalize interactions. Courteous almost to a fault, some have worked at the establishment for as long as 20 seasons. The country club’s scholarship fund ensures that several employees have earned college degrees. “Members really care about the staff, and we think it shows in the way the staff cares for the membership,” says second-generation resident Joan Hobin.
Hobin’s parents bought at Marrakesh in the 1970s. Joan and her husband, Bill, followed in 1996. Joan remembers that the early crowd was largely seasonal. “They came to be outdoors: golfing, swimming, tennis, socializing,” she says. “The houses didn’t need to be large and self-contained. Social events were heavily calendared and elaborately planned. Sometimes the neighborhood clusters would throw a ‘welcome back’ party at the closest pool” under one of the Woolf-designed pavilions.
Any club risks skepticism when promoted as the “friendliest in the valley,” but Eula Robertson’s experience reflects a key indicator of an early and enduring Marrakesh custom. “When I was in escrow on my house, I was in the office, and a woman who lived two doors down came in,” she recalls. “Well, she greeted me as an old friend, had me over, and introduced me around. Soon, I was part of this community, and two years later I was elected to the [homeowners association] board.” The following year she was elected president, a double milestone as Marrakesh’s first African-American member.
Still, the target of the affection and attention is the Woolf experience. Designer Brad Dunning started his career on one of Woolf’s bread-and-butter remodels in West Hollywood. After more than 30 years of creating environments for design and fashion mandarins such as Tom Ford and Steven Meisel, “that look” and all it signifies still pulls at his psyche. “Marrakesh is an enduring architectural confection of fantasy and ‘fabulism,’ ” he beams. “The Palm Beach–meets–West Hollywood Regency stylings — all that in the middle of the desert! It boggles my haboob-swept mind, and it is immensely, decadently, surreally appealing.”
In her villa, Donna Tuttle has curated a collection of California golden age furnishings.
Some interiors take their color inspiration from the exterior motif.
Some Marrakesh residents have been here since the beginning. Their parents were residents, and now, in some cases, their grand-children are buying in.
Donna Tuttle and her sisters, Debbie and Diane, grew up with the pink houses and green fairways and remember a time before fences surrounded everyone’s pools (Diane occupies their mother’s former home). Following her marriage to sports magnate David Elmore, a wave of family from Texas has been coming to roost at Marrakesh. A former deputy secretary of commerce in the Reagan administration, Donna finds the scale of the Woolf villas perfect for her rigorously curated furnishings by California golden age masters such as Tony Duquette and Billy Haines. “From the front it looks like the other houses on the street, and inside, it’s this,” she says, indicating the double-fairway-deep vista through the back of the house, which like all others at Marrakesh is almost entirely sliding glass. “If you view the house from the green side, it’s like a gallery, with both the back patio and the interior floored in poured terrazzo for a true indoor-outdoor experience.”
Current club president Nelson Reid, who had a distinguished academic and administrative career, lives four doors down the street (or up the green) with his wife, Gisela, an artist and former educator. His strategic-planning leadership at University of North Carolina, Wilmington proved useful at Marrakesh when members began the process of buying the land lease from the Stewart Trust to give the club better control over its infrastructure and enhancements.
The club’s original 1969 mission statement and values look similar to those of today. “We say, in essence, this club was established as a mutual benefit society,” Reid explains. “We all must work together for the good of the club, which will contribute to the good of each other. This is what the membership has told us — and demonstrated — that they believe, and we are committed to conducting our operation and our relations in that way. Marrakesh is all about scale and style and a shared sense of aesthetic and social values.”
Marrakesh boasts 14 pools and pavilions, many of which host “welcome back” parties and other social occasions.
New residents not previously acquainted with the club through friends or family typically trace back directly to 2013, when Marrakesh opened its gates during Modernism Week. Former marketing executive Gena Corbett worked with homeowners, designers, and management to produce a tour of six houses during the 10-day run, which kicked off with a clubhouse gala for 450 guests. In all, about 5,000 visitors came through. Immediately after the event, the club’s showcase houses went on the market. Eula Robertson was starting to look for a desert retreat for weekends outside L.A., and the Marrakesh listings took hold of her imagination. “How was it possible,” she wondered, “that this level of architecture — and service — could be had at these prices?” The design, she says, was irresistible. She bought her weekend home in 2014, but within a year, she had left Los Angeles to live at Marrakesh full-time.
There is an uptick in the number of full-time, year-round residents (currently at about 35 percent), and it’s not limited to retirees. Cullen and Michelle Jowitt bought a home in 2015 thinking it would be a nice family getaway from their busy tech-sector lives in Northern California; 18 months later, the couple gave up Oakland Hills as the place to raise their two children (Nicole, 10, and Sean, 7), citing the beauty, security, amenities, and neighborliness of Palm Desert.
The community’s charter requires architecture to remain as intact as it is viable; thus the Jowitts find themselves part of a cadre of tech-oriented residents who have begun mapping out ways to create better systems for power, water, and internet to benefit Marrakesh and neighboring communities. Fredric Fletcher led power supply operations for Burbank Water & Power, where he created renewable energy, smart grid, and fiber optic technologies that have been duplicated worldwide. Here, he determined he could lend his knowledge in irrigation management, energy reduction, and solar strategy.
The bell-bottomed-type font of the original Marrakesh signage at the main entrance reflects the tenor of the time — a year whose Billboard Top 100 singles saw musical history being made by The Beatles (four entries), Elvis Presley (two), and Motown artists (nine), and the No. 1 record of the year was “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies.
Marrakesh fêted its 50th with a clubhouse event informed by the classic anthem (and No. 2 song on the Top 100 list) “Age of Aquarius,” though it’s unlikely any of the members had attended Woodstock. As guests arrived on that November evening, they were greeted by a line of “protesters” blocking the doorway (actually board members welcoming the revelers) and a phalanx in the lobby holding signs sporting sayings decidedly more Laugh-In than Abbie Hoffman: “Feeling Groovy” and “Your Vibe Attracts Your Tribe.” It’s fun when you can’t tell the parents, or grandparents, from the kids for all the fringe and love beads and granny glasses.
“Marrakesh is an enduring architectural confection of fantasy and ‘fabulism.’ The Palm Beach–meets–West Hollywood Regency stylings — all that in the middle of the desert! It boggles my haboob-swept mind, and it is immensely, decadently, surreally appealing.”
— Brad Dunning
Social committee chair Lynne Upton was in her element as the DJ segued from “Good Morning Starshine” (Oliver, at No. 43) to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” (Tommy James & The Shondells, No. 12). She took advantage of the decibel drop to outline some of the activities planned for the Marrakesh Golden Jubilee: “What we’re most excited about are programs throughout to build a deeper connection to history and each other. Golf tournaments, a house tour, talks given by the members, and an archiving project will draw together residents of all interests and ages.”
A survey of recent homebuyers saw most of them favoring a refresh of clubhouse interiors to reflect and respect the Hollywood Regency swank with casual dining options and social activities throughout the day during high season. It’s the gravitational pull of a younger crowd wanting more out of the club rather than passively accepting what the club already offers.
“This sort of tectonic shift usually takes a generation,” says general manager Mark Goldman, who arrived in May 2018. “Where five years ago, the age range most represented was the 65 to 75 bloc, today the majority of new residents are 55 to 65.”
“Any architect or designer who takes this [clubhouse renovation] on has to be aware they’re walking in a long shadow,” says Robertson, outfitted at the gala in a big curly wig and bell-bottom slacks. “To shine, they can’t be timid, safe, only look back. We shouldn’t be shy about expecting the best they have, and we can’t shy away from what it will take to make that happen.”
“Have you ever heard of a small, boutique country club?” longtime resident Bill Young asks, rhetorically. He came to Marrakesh as a young man, marrying Tish, the widowed daughter-in-law of the couple next door; when their combined family gathers it’s always still at the starter house on the eighth tee. His affable nature and sunny countenance are exemplars of the values the club and its culture encourage. “Well, that’s what we’ve got, and it’s in a class of one. Whether it was by design or by chance, the club had to develop something extra, and that was our friendliness. That’s a thing that is so rare and valuable, and once people experience it, they often want to be part of it. We have to protect and grow that, and we’ll be fine.”