‘The Lime Grows on You’

Gerald and Betty Ford’s Rancho Mirage house, sold in 11 days, mirrors the design of an era and the humble nature of its former residents

Matthew Link Real Estate

Less than a month before his death at his Rancho Mirage home in 2006, Gerald Ford offered these words in his last public statement: “The length of one’s days matters less than the love of one’s family and friends.”

That sentiment echoes the 38th president’s trademark humility and honesty. At the time of his death, Ford had lived longer than any other U.S. president: 93 years and 165 days.

Since 1978, he and wife Betty lived in their custom-built Thunderbird Country Club house. In a real estate world rarity, this private abode of a former president went on the market for $1.7 million on Jan. 23. It sold in only 11 days.

Like a frozen time capsule, the house was left almost perfectly intact, with the Fords’ 1970s furniture, décor, and portraits adorning the walls. Their presence was tangible, as if the long-wed couple had just stepped out for a stroll around the neighborhood and would be right back.

Approaching the residence, IT’S hard to believe a U.S. president ever lived here. It could be considered nondescript. A small driveway ends at a generic cream exterior with dark maroon trim.

Inside, the 6,316-square-foot, six-bedroom house has the feel of a standard 1970s California ranch-style dwelling overlooking a golf course. A small entryway opens to a sunken living room with beige carpet and white brick fireplace. Other fairway houses and a cart lane can be seen through the sliding glass doors. Servants’ quarters are off the sunny kitchen, but they look more like a recreation room than another wing of the house. In the back yard, a small tiered fountain cascades into a rectangular swimming pool, not terribly large by today’s McMansion standards. If it weren’t for the guard post at the end of the gated driveway, you’d hardly guess anyone of importance ever lived here.

Another incongruous aspect of the house is its name designers. Architect Welton Becket was the visionary who worked on famous Los Angeles landmarks like the Capitol Records Building, Pan-Pacific Auditorium, and Cinerama Dome. Laura Mako, a close friend and designer to Bob and Dolores Hope, decorated the single-story structure. Former Palm Springs Mayor Bill Foster served as contractor.

Considering the people involved, one would expect a grand, historic estate. But the Fords were “down to earth, not ostentatious,” explains Nelda Linsk, who sold the property for an undisclosed sum. She would know: Linsk attended more than one intimate dinner party with the Fords and Firestones. (Linsk also is a good friend of Barbara Sinatra and sold the Sinatras’ Rancho Mirage house in 1995 to Canadian billionaire Jim Pattison for $4 million.)

“The lime grows on you,” Nelda states with assurance when discussing the Fords’ gloriously dated décor. Green drapes, corresponding green floral sofas, and wicker chairs rest under a geometric-patterned cedar wood ceiling. The dining room continues the color scheme with a foliage mural painted on the walls and seats with green cushions and faux bamboo legs. In the Fords’ children’s bedrooms, patterned bedspreads and matching curtains can be described as “groovy.” The only thing even vaguely Washingtonian is a tiny presidential seal on an old-fashioned telephone in the yellow-hued guest kitchen.

In 2012, the Brady Bunch-style residence feels more endearing than tacky, like a beloved rerun from another era. Linsk hopes the new buyers “will keep it like it is rather than redecorate. It is a piece of history.”

The buyers — Los Angeles residents John McIlwee, an entertainment business manager, and Bill Damaschke, an executive at DreamWorks — plan to use the property as their second home. They are well known in the restoration world for having saved John Lautner’s futuristic Mulholland Drive structure, the Garcia House.

“We are completely aware of the importance of preserving iconic architecture,” McIlwee explains. “We love Welton Becket’s designs and intend to keep his integrity and vision complete.” They further intend to keep intact most of the Fords’ furnishings and complement them with appropriate pieces to make the house a “showplace.”

The modern history that occurred in the Ford house was significant on an intimate scale. Every U.S. president from Nixon to George W. Bush visited. Betty and Gerald Ford spent time writing their respective memoirs here, while conducting busy post-presidency duties from an office next door, in Ginger Roger’s former residence.

Perhaps the most far-reaching event occurred on April 1, 1978, when the Ford family sat Betty down and confronted her on her destructive alcohol and pill-popping habit. She later recollected what brought her to the point of dangerous substance abuse.

“We were all just destroyed by [losing the 1976 election] … When we came to the desert, we had some very good friends out here who tried their best to make us feel very welcome and very much at home. But deep down inside, there was a deep hurt.”

Betty Ford’s courageous honesty in going public with her substance abuse led to her co-founding (along with Leonard Firestone) the renowned Rancho Mirage recovery center that bears her name.

“She would go to the clinic nearly every day,” remembers her close bodyguard. “She’d go up and hug new arrivals, and some of them were in quite bad shape.”

The ex-Secret Service member’s eyes well up with tears as he recounts his two decades spent with the former First Lady in the desert. “I’d take her to local AA meetings, and she’d just simply stand up and say, ‘My name is Betty, and I’m an alcoholic.’ Most of the people didn’t even realize who she was. She was just so genuine.”

Her death in 2011 marked the end of an era for the house. The Christmas lights she kept in the olive tree by the front door after her husband died (so that he could see them from above) have been taken down. The property’s security cameras and infrared tracking devices have been disassembled. Most of the furniture will stay with the house, as will a historical scrapbook of snapshots illustrating its construction. Other items will be auctioned off next year, with proceeds going to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.

The president’s portrait hanging in the entryway will remain. In the collage of eight expressions, the former Eagle Scout’s loyal character shines. You can almost hear his sincere and straightforward voice repeating one of his famous quotes:

“We are bound together by the most powerful of all ties, our fervent love for freedom and independence, which knows no homeland but the human heart.”