Ancient boulder formations loom on all sides of the five-acre property Michael von Wittenau and Bob Bogard purchased near Pioneertown. A poured concrete stairway leads to the original homestead cabin built in 1946, and reimagined as a ’60s-era lounge, “main bar, and social house.”
PHOTOGRAPHS BY KAMI ZELEZIK
You have to draw quickly to net a promising property in the High Desert — even more so now than in April 2019, when Michael von Wittenau and Bob Bogard made an offer for their 5-acre property, Mod West Ranch, in Gamma Gulch, near Pioneertown.
Hunkered among the boulders of a craggy canyon, the three structures they reimagined encourage slowing down and taking a load off. In each, midcentury décor gives the rustic ranch-style setting a bright lift. The Cottage, the main two-bedroom living space, was built in 1965.
The historic homestead structure on the hill dates to 1946. They nicknamed it the Bunny Lounge after the rabbits that hop along through the property and as an homage to the kicky Playboy Clubs, played up with a groovy 1960s ski lodge vibe. A 16-foot-high sloped roof tops the Studio, an open-air recreation zone originally built as an artist’s space.
A 1950s movie camera (repurposed as a lamp) sits atop an old bomb shelter water drum.
Is the refurbished ranch what you had in mind as a second home?
Michael von Wittenau: Our original plan was to find the best property we could and built an ultra-modern house on it. But when we found this, we wanted to bring it back to life.
What was your first purchase?
Bob Bogard: A Jeep four-wheel drive. You do need the right vehicle up here.
How did you kick off the project?
MV: With trash removal, so we could actually see the property. Things had been accumulating since 1946 — things like tires, bathtubs, and old toilets. Then we painted one room and brought in furniture so we could base ourselves in it while we worked on the others.
The main home, built in 1965, helped the midcentury additions in all three structures look like a natural fit. Off the two-bedroom Cottage, patios invite outdoor dining, fireside lounging, and kicking back in a swing or hammock to watch the changing sky.
What was your secret to maintaining quality work standards?
BB: We aligned ourselves with Homestead Modern, and co-owner Dave McAdam, who we had met a few years back. He has been really good about curating the right people to work out there, and the company is very well integrated into the area.
MV: They were able to achieve our vision, which we never could have done by ourselves. There are very few builders and contractors up there, and because they are good, they are always in high demand.
The group gathering aspect of Mod West Ranch is optional; where there’s a view, there’s a chair to reflect from and enjoy it.
How did your expectations for transforming a remote property compare to the realities?
MV: We were certainly up for the challenge. It had great potential and great bones, but it had been neglected for many years. We had to be super organized about receiving deliveries and getting trucks to come down the dirt road.
How long did it take to remodel and spruce up the landscape?
BB: About a year because we didn’t have to do any new construction and we had a focused team. Being on site often and being hands-on helped moved things along. If we were doing it remotely, it wouldn’t have gone as quickly.
How do you use the property?
BB: We go back and forth from Palm Springs, and we launched it as a short-term vacation rental. When we’re not using it, we want other people to enjoy it. It’s a special place, as is the Gamma Gulch area in general. I think the property resonates with people because we designed it for ourselves with all the details we would like.
Was it hard to let go and rent it?
MV: No. We’ve had other rental properties, and we get a lot of joy in sharing them. Our first guests were high profile, and for them to reach out to us afterward and say how much they appreciated the thought we have put into it meant a great deal.
Why does the midcentury vibe translate in the High Desert?
BB: Midcentury modern combines the indoor and outdoor lifestyle, and our property lends itself to that because the main structure was built in 1965. But also, there is a classic minimalism to the furniture and accessories that contrasts beautifully with the rugged and rustic elements of the ranch.
In the Cottage, a flame-colored spaghetti lamp hangs near the newly restored fireplace.
Glass genie bottles peer from a Vintage RCA television cabinet in front of salvaged concrete breeze block.
Here in Palm Springs, you’ll find a house where everything is from 1963. In Joshua Tree, there will be a Navajo blanket and an Eames chair as part of an interesting mix of eras and cultures.
MV: We wanted the look of our place to mirror a real cabin in the 1960s. It’s comfortable. Most furniture is midcentury, but the accessories are localized (to lend a sense of place).
Vintage records, games, and décor are part of the ’60s ski lodge motif in the Bunny Lounge, a spot for casual get-togethers. The mustard fireplace is one of three midcentury Malm showpieces at the ranch.
What’s a typical day like on the ranch?
MV: We usually hang out in an area around the orange fireplace we call “the conversation pit” and work remotely because the view is stunning. Then we go up to the Bunny Lounge, which has the most panoramic views, for cocktails, board games, and a fire. If we have guests, we end up in the Studio for games.
Any favorite memories there?
BB: The big one for me is Christmas of 2019. We were up with some friends and it was a beautiful clear night. When we woke up, the entire area was blanketed in white snow. Over the course of the day, we got 18 inches. We could have had a problem if we hadn’t been fully stocked with food and alcohol because we were socked in for a week. We literally could not get out of our driveway. But we did go sledding with our dog, Joshua. Another favorite is when The Dreamboats, four guys from Canada who are like the early Beatles and often perform during Modernism Week, did an impromptu concert for our guests and filmed a video there.
The real estate market was less competitive in April 2019.
MV: We were lucky because we were just getting in when it exploded. We had been looking for a while and couldn’t find anything. When we saw this one, we jumped in and made an offer, knowing there were people coming behind us to see it. Now, it’s really hard to find the good properties.
The oversized custom dining table was crafted from a wooden blind that was part of a Belgian structure, while the rustic dining bench was made from repurposed wood. A vintage grape drying rack hangs out as wall art.
Banquette seating in the U-shaped “conversation pit” behind the Cottage has a vintage Malm Imperial Carousel Fireplace at its heart.
What does the future hold for you there?
MV: There’s another area on the property that’s private and backs up to Bureau of Land Management land where we could build a very modern glass house. So, we’ve talked about that.
BB: The property is also spacious enough for fundraisers, so we’ve considered hosting a speaker series that would address the geographic and cultural aspects of the area and benefit the Mojave Desert Land Trust once we can do group gatherings again.
Most surrounding properties spread across five acres or more. Do people keep to themselves?
BB: Not at all. We’ve really connected with our neighbors, who are from all walks of life, and that has made our experience with the High Desert community really gratifying. Over the last year or year and a half, many properties in the enclosed Gamma Gulch area have flipped. Many of us are new to the area, and we all have same zeal for making it great place to be. On a side note, because of the remoteness, you want to have a community you can rely on to check on the property for you. We share the bond that we’re all in it together.
MV: I also think we’ve become fast friends because we were all drawn to the same sense of beauty, and we want to preserve that. We have had distanced gatherings; it’s the strongest social group we’ve had in any so-called neighborhood.
Has the “ranch” provided everything you envisioned it would?
BB: Actually, much more. Of our several renovation projects, this has been my favorite. I feel more connected to it than anywhere I’ve ever lived. There is a spiritual aspect to the property with the rocks and the calmness. It has become a core part of our lives.
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