movie colony palm springs

The Imagineers

A 1930s Movie Colony home constructed over several decades blends Spanish architecture with midcentury influence and an imaginative Disney-trained aesthetic.

Lisa Marie Hart Home & Design, Real Estate

movie colony palm springs
Homeowners John Shields and Darrin Pelkey have pulled off one well-designed Movie Colony Palm Springs home that marries midcentury and Spanish architecture.

I still can’t figure out how they did it. This intriguing home on 1.1 acres of expertly landscaped Movie Colony land is like a magic trick that elicits wonder even after the illusionist describes exactly how he fooled you. Homeowners John Shields and Darrin Pelkey pulled off one well-designed visual feat, and an explanation doesn’t change my awe over their bewitching achievement.

At first sight of the estate, renovated two years ago, I was hooked. Urban Chartreuse doors (nice hue, Sherwin-Williams) are my entry point into this world of confident decisions and enchanting results. Doors harmonize with Heath Ceramics’ tile in the master bathroom. A bold and inspired move, especially in a piecemeal-constructed home with 85 years of patchwork ideas that Shields and Pelkey fused into an interesting, welcoming estate.


A Spanish Revival lantern hangs above a Danish Modern chair; artwork includes a photo Pelkey took in Moscow’s Red Square in 1985 (bottom right).


New handcrafted travertine coffee tables pair with a 1960s painting by a Claremont art professor.

The gentlemen’s balancing act of proportions complements the risky mix of colors that blend into a harmonious palette. In tying the home together, they hit on a creative equation of pairing midcentury architecture with traditional furniture in some rooms and traditional architecture with midcentury furnishings in the others. It all adds up to some kind of otherworldly design math that soars like the pitched ceilings right over my head.

Shields recently retired from 26 years as a hands-on design executive masterminding the creative development of Disney theme parks worldwide. That knowledge colored my perception of their abode like the eye candy of Disneyland’s own Main Street. Instead of overthinking the mechanics of their process, I decided to hop in and enjoy the ride.

“We actually ended up loving the house far more than we ever thought we would,” says Shields. After all, they bought it without the intention of living there.

“The story is,” says Pelkey, “we walked over to the far side of the property, looked up at the mountains, and said, ‘This is where we can build our house.’ We’ll fix this house up, sell it, divide the property, and away we go. Then we got into the renovation and now there are no plans to build.”

“We were just going to do a light flip,” Shields notes. This would have cut their yard substantially, as they would live on the untouched acreage that creates vast panoramic vistas and an indoor-outdoor lifestyle. Should they whip out a set of blueprints now, their friends who have enjoyed many parties at the home would surely stop them.


A Danish walnut table and Saarinen chairs pair with a custom chandelier.


Heath Ceramics tile forms a backsplash in the open, expanded master bath.


In the 1950s bedroom, a walnut-paneled wall conceals new closets.

The storied neighborhood first drew them in with its roster of Old Hollywood ghosts, from Dinah Shore and George Montgomery to Jack Benny, Cary Grant, and Harold Lloyd. Some left openings in their garden walls through which they would carry their cocktails to the next house during parties. Citrus trees were irrigated by a valve fed from the Whitewater Canal. And Shields read that the home’s original owner, prominent civic pioneer A.J.M. Gardiner, rode to the top of the mountain on horseback with Francis Crocker to find a place to put the tram. It’s all terrific party conversation.

Yet it was the home itself that fit their needs so impeccably they decided to buy it.

“Style-wise it was not what we were looking for at all,” says Shields. “We were really looking for an iconic midcentury home.” The floor plans of their favorite 1950s and ’60s homes, however, didn’t offer enough separation for guests or for Pelkey’s home office. “He gets up early and he’s on the phone with the East Coast; I sleep later,” Shields says. “And we have a lot of out-of-town visitors. While Darrin’s far more extroverted, I like a place I can seclude myself away.”

The spacious three-bedroom main home on a double lot surprised them with an additional guest casita, along with some knockout architectural elements representative of its many eras. Almost every room has a beam ceiling, albeit different types. The rustic texture of exposed wood and the softness of curved arches in a hallway play off the clean lines of clerestory windows and the quirky ’60s Mediterranean scrolls of black wrought-iron railings and sconces. These historic exclamation points became elements the men chose to integrate in their design rather than fight.

The original part of the home was built in 1932. From there, it received three new additions, about one every two decades. Each paid little attention to the existing structure. On the upside, so to speak, each add-on was topped or edged in red Spanish roof tiles.

Early Palm Springs resident Alvah Hicks built the 1932 portion. As a master carpenter who moved in the right circles, he constructed some of the city’s most beautiful homes of the 1920s and ’30s.

Early Palm Springs resident Alvah Hicks built the 1932 portion. As a master carpenter who moved in the right circles, he constructed some of the city’s most beautiful homes of the 1920s and ’30s.

A master bedroom addition and an art studio off the garage were added during the 1950s for Chicago socialite Dorothy Johnson. In 1970, Claremont modernist architects Everett Tozier and William Abbott designed an addition that encompassed the kitchen, living, dining, and office areas. The fourth and last piece was the casita, an early ’90s postscript of an office where the former homeowner, a psychiatrist, saw her patients.


The slump stone and glass walls of the 1970 post and beam expansion bring the outside veranda into the living space allowing for great mountain views.

“Yet the whole house is made of block,” enthuses Shields. “The original house is concrete block. The ’70s addition is slump stone. Even the 1950s bedroom has block in it. Everything except the casita. I had thought if we were ever going to build a new house, I loved Donald Wexler’s slump stone with a flat roof and the clerestories. I would have even considered building a house with it. So the fact that this home has block as a material, and it is one of the few things that was done consistently through the house, I just love it. We think it has such a cool texture.”


Following original blueprints from 1970, the men added custom walnut cabinetry throughout the house.

The home was a pocket listing, never advertised for sale. “I credit our real estate agent, Chris Menrad, for even thinking of showing us this house because it has a very odd kind of style to it,” says Shields.

“I think if the Winchester Mystery House was designed by Cliff May this is what it would look like,” offers Pelkey. “Chris warned us that it would not be what we were expecting.”

Now it is. After a six-month renovation, discerning what to keep (granite countertops and Saltillo tile) and what must go (sections of the grass yard and
the disjointed casita layout they reconfigured as a two-bedroom guest suite), their “light flip” was no longer devoid of character or draped in beige and layered with Oriental rugs. It had become both a fantasy home and a functional place for Shields to retire, Pelkey to work, and both to relax, entertain, and enjoy sun-dappled views.

“Darrin’s from Eastern Canada. I’m from Upstate New York,” explains Shields. “We both grew up with a deficit of sunlight. We liked the idea of being away from the mountain a bit so the sun stays later in the afternoon. At the same time, we love living on what feels like a park and yet being a 10-minute walk from some of the best restaurants in town.”

They redid the bathrooms, reimagined the master suite, and privatized two courtyards, including one with an outdoor shower. Walnut unifies the home in the form of custom cabinetry, walls, and sliding barn doors. For a congruent facade, Shields and Pelkey matched exterior doors to the style of the originals from the 1930s, then bolstered the illusion with a coat of Urban Chartreuse.


The 1932 den with block walls and rustic beams is furnished with a combination of antique and midcentury furniture with contemporary art.

“I’m not afraid of using color,” says Shields of the scheme he orchestrated in orange, blue, green, and yellow with touches of red, brown, and black. This is not a man who took the easy approach to accenting with a few bright pillows, a throw, and a lamp. These rooms feel subtly masterful. “You want to balance it out across the room and not put all the same colors together,” he says. “I don’t think this is a crazy house. I think the colors balance out with each other.”


Darrin Pelkey and John Shields relax after lawn games at a holiday party.

The hues were as important as the men’s calculated choices in furnishings. As they moved through the rooms, they brought pieces of modern furniture into the older part of the house and antique pieces, such as those from Shields’ great-grandmother, into the spaces built more recently. “We thought, ‘How do we address this old part and not just fill it with old furniture? Which might go with the architecture, but it would just make the house feel like it was too segregated,” reasons Shields.

He says his initial attraction to the home was its fragmented additions tacked on over time — together, they tell a story of lives lived in different eras. During his tenure with Disney, Shields traveled extensively and worked in Florida, Paris, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Most projects entailed designing evolved places, such as a 500-year-old African village (Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida), settlements on other planets (Avatar, Star Wars), and an ancient underwater fantasy world.


Vintage glassware set the table in the Shields-Pelkey house.


John Shields’ Disney service award.

“Since it’s our home and not a theme park, our first reaction was to combine those stories as one,” he says. “But during our renovation we became interested in revealing the stories as a blend of those styles throughout.” Represented eras are Spanish Colonial Revival from 1932, midcentury post and beam from the 1950s, Mediterranean Modern from 1970, and contemporary from 1990.

The landscape depicts those eras distinctly as well, with huge eucalyptus and carob trees from the earliest period, the pool as an Old Hollywood palm oasis, the midcentury modern bedroom courtyard, and the desert garden with contemporary consideration for water conservation.

“I’m used to doing a themed environment. So there’s a story that holds together in each of these planting areas I’ve tried to do very specifically,” says Shields, offering a tour of the yard. “I like the idea of a concentrated spot where the cactus is here; this is the modern courtyard over there; and that’s the palm and fern area. Now there are seven types of palm trees and cycads and ferns, so I’m trying to make this part into a Jurassic landscape using more primitive types of plants.”

Represented eras are Spanish Colonial Revival from 1932, midcentury post and beam from the 1950s, Mediterranean Modern from 1970, and contemporary from 1990.

Those nuances are savored. Evenings are for eating dinner outdoors, sometimes inviting friends to join them. Shields likes spending time tending to his grove of 12 edible fruit trees. Pelkey’s favorite spot is the hammock on the patio.

“We thought maybe we would justify having all this land by renting it out for events or photo shoots and now we’re ready to pursue that,” Pelkey says of the resort-style lawn and its see-it-to-believe-it views. “There’s a bocce ball court, ping-pong, croquet, and badminton. For Memorial Day, we had all four of those activities going plus the pool. During the summer, we love to have people over, just because it’s a great place to have a pool party and a barbecue.”

It always makes for a happy ending when a home well suited to entertaining falls into the hands of those who entertain. The couple threw a combo housewarming–50th birthday party for Pelkey shortly after moving in and they have hosted the Movie Colony Neighborhood Association with the mayor, police chief, and 100 guests.

During one memorable New Year’s party, they simply slid closed the door between the bedroom and den, then coaxed a wood fire in the fireplace. “It rained and poured and was chilly but it didn’t really matter,” Shields recalls. “There was a potluck lineup of food in the kitchen. We had our heaters on the patio and nobody got wet and nobody was cold.”

While Shields’ talents and career interests span architecture, landscape, urban design, and intensely themed environments, Pelkey is a VP of sales and marketing. His methodical nature and way with numbers came in handy for the renovation budget and project management; his love for playing sports growing up led to the lawn games.

An “Imagineer” is an insider term for Disney’s researchers and developers behind the creation, design, and construction of theme parks and attractions worldwide. Throughout Shields’ career, Disney was his longest-running position.

“Certainly with this house we’re not copying anything. There’s nothing here that we’ve seen before, and that’s exactly what we did at Disney,” Shields says. “It was like, ‘Here’s an idea. Now how do you develop that and make it a complete environment to the point where people want to pay to come in and spend 12 hours there?’ Every detail that goes along with it has been thought about — every little thing. You might not notice it the first time you’re there, but the third, fourth, and fifth times, you’ll start to say, ‘Oh, I never saw that before. Oh, this goes perfectly; now I get that part.’ Everything just works together. I don’t know if we’ve done that here, but that’s the mindset that went into putting this house together.”