New Modernism at Thunderbird Heights

The footprint of a midcentury original lays an authentic map for a time-traveling home.

Lisa Marie Hart Current Digital, Home & Design, Real Estate


To walk into a home so immaculately well preserved from the mid-1950s resets one’s inner clock, compelling it to take pause and tick off the seconds a bit slower. Hidden away at the top of a cul-de-sac in Thunderbird Heights, a pair of metal gates opens to a gracious yard and a home stretching its arms in a welcoming gesture. Two wide, wafer-thin steps guide the way under a deep overhang that protects a mermaid-blue door. As the door pivots open, terrazzo floors with brass inlays flow in every direction. To the left, a wing of bedrooms lies in wait for the resting hours down a hall lined in glass and brick. To the right, past a decorative metal screen, the fireside living, dining, and kitchen areas connect as one. Straight ahead, an old-time family room looks out across a verdant lawn to the long, languid pool.

But this isn’t that home. Not quite. Though it feels in every sense like a midcentury home harboring decades of collected pieces and family memories, this Rancho Mirage retreat is almost entirely new and designed to instill that very feeling.

“They wanted a house that 
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz would have liked to live in.”

“They wanted a house that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz would have liked to live in,” filled with warmth and vintage charm, says Stuart Silk of Stuart Silk Architects, who designed the 5,600-square-foot home with project manager David Marchetti. Lighthearted nostalgia was the driving force. “The idea was to stay away from the monochromatic notion of modernism as we know it today. They wanted to bring back another era through some of the familiar elements that were popular in the 1950s, including breeze block and decorative screens.” The open, light-filled home was to be modern but not overly so.

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The family’s dream began with the purchase of a 1963 home sited in the middle of a double lot that fans out across 1.3 acres. However, the Thunderbird Heights house proved not only structurally questionable but also dark and compartmentalized. Ultimately, its vintage configuration didn’t fulfill the vintage fantasy. Working off the original footprint, the architects revamped the floor plan along with the exterior elevations. They repurposed most of the existing foundation and flat-roof structure into a classic midcentury modern home that is 90 percent new construction.

Floor-to-ceiling glass walls open the house to gardens, patios, courtyards, and citrus groves, each dotted like pointillism by the exacting hands of Anne Attinger of Attinger Landscape Architecture. Nature in the foreground touches the Thunderbird Heights home’s larger context. “The house has two equally good views: one out across the Coachella Valley to the Chocolate Mountains and the other of the rocky hillside of the Santa Rosa,” Silk notes. During construction, the homeowners and design team determined the original pool in the front courtyard would be less obtrusive and more intimate in the back, leaving the front for a more dramatic approach, enhanced by specimen plants. The pool now sits at the base of the mountains, joined by a concrete deck and spa.


A raised planter dotted with Yucca Blue Boys runs parallel between a walkway to the guest house and a long hallway to the bedrooms. There, art along the brick-faced gallery wall can be appreciated from the front lawn.

As surprising as the reality that the home is a recent build is the fact that the architects are based in Seattle and the interior design firm, Maison Inc., is based in Portland, Oregon. Both firms had worked previously with the owners on the renovation of a historic Portland mansion. They knew the couple would be decisive, but that their personal tastes often diverge.

“He wanted clean and modern, fresh and simple. She wanted granny-chic Old Palm Springs with mixed patterns — more Sunnylands and cocktails at 4 p.m. than Frank Sinatra,” says Maison Inc. president and lead designer Joelle Nesen. “Both have a strong voice. We needed to unify them in comfortable family spaces that are elegant but not pretentious.”

From quintessential terrazzo floors to retro botanical textiles, each voice is represented. The quaint and cozy vintage-modern fairytale penned through its architecture and design seems to leap from the pages of 1955.

The main house provides three bedrooms and 3.5 baths, plus an office that lounges like a den. Vintage lamps, artwork, and accessories add shine and a brush of color — either fun or soothing depending on the space.

The mixed-use family room lives up to its name. A round table for games, a bar for casual entertaining, and a sofa for watching movies mingle under the original post-and-beam wood ceiling. Formality elevates the living room where a floating hearth complements a brick fireplace surround. “The shape and delicate scale of the furniture has that 1950s vibe,” says Nesen, who commissioned most of the furnishings to be custom-made in Portland.

An adjacent dining area sits in the open kitchen. Fifteen can be seated between the stools at the double-waterfall island and the Design Within Reach chairs around the custom brass-base table. The walls favor glass for light and views with the exception of yellow tile for impact. Below eye level, custom oak cabinetry maintains the aesthetic while keeping essentials within easy reach.


A wood inset in the kitchen ceiling ties the space to the original post-and-beam ceiling in the family room.

The walls favor glass for light and views with the exception of yellow tile for impact.

Along the corridor to the bedrooms, the architects replaced one wall with glass. The other, faced with brick, serves as a gallery wall. That hallway from the communal spaces to the private sanctuary creates one of the home’s most remarkable moments, with desert landscape on one side and art on the other.

“We wanted the master to have its own secret universe,” says Silk, referring to its luxurious set of amenities. A floating wall separates a vanity and wood-lined closet from the bed that faces a private patio and Zen garden. From the shower in the master bathroom, one can step out into an outdoor shower secluded by vegetation.

“One of the ideas I had, and Anne really made it happen, was floor-to-ceiling glass in as many places as we could and to have the landscape feel like it was growing right out of the house,” Silk says. “Like you are looking into a desert terrarium.”


In the master bath, a custom vanity with Pental Surfaces quartz countertops draws the eye toward Nesen’s custom shower wall of Bisazza glass mosaic tile. Vintage-
style sconces from 
Visual Comfort & Co.

“We wanted the master to have its own secret universe. The bed faces a private patio and Zen garden.”

In the children’s bedroom, Nesen borrowed a pair of lemon-yellow vintage headboards that were left in the guesthouse and layered them on yellow wallpaper. Down a walkway from the Thunderbird Heights main home, Silk retained the casita’s footprint but added two en suite bathrooms to the mirror-image suites.

“Having warmth in the materials throughout the house was important to the client,” says Marchetti of the home’s overall palette. “Nothing is refrigerator white. We used off-white, bronze metal, and stained oak that looks more like teak for that midcentury feeling. Even the custom terrazzo floor is an off-white base blended with light and dark brown rocks and shells.”

The Thunderbird Heights home's warmth intensifies through Nesen’s art and accessories handpicked locally at Stewart Galleries, Christopher Anthony Ltd., The Shops at Thirteen Forty Five, and Palm Canyon Galleria. “I love the desert. I love the elegance and easy living of it all,” she says of why the project resonated with her. “As designers, it’s a place that’s inspiring for all of us. We spent time on the ground sourcing a mix of old-school oil paintings and other vintage.”

More new than old, it is nonetheless a home that speaks with its architecture, moves with its details, and stays with you like a vivid childhood dream when you reluctantly pass back through those metal gates and time speeds up again.

The pool now sits at the base 
of the mountains, joined by a concrete deck and spa.

An aerial view lends context to Thunderbird Heights home's placement on 1.3 acres.

“He wanted clean and modern. She wanted granny-chic Old Palm Springs with mixed patterns.”

The living area screen echoes the entry gates and front door. Fireside conversation unfolds in a pair of Jan Showers armchairs with Jim Thompson Fabrics and a Kravet wool-blend sofa inspired by William Haines and Edward Wormley. 
The tables are vintage.


Nesen pushed the design with leopard carpet by Stark in the office/den.


Below a vintage Murano glass chandelier from Salvatore Ferrante in York, Pennsylvania, sits a custom brass-base dining table and chairs from Design Within Reach. Stools from Lawson-Fenning. Tile by Bright Popham Design.


A floating wall behind the master bed conceals a vanity and closet behind it.


The master bedroom looks into a Zen garden. A bronze finish on the Arcadia windows and doors from Indian Wells Glass and Mirror adds warmth here and throughout the home.


The backyard welcomed the simple design for a new pool and spa, flanked by mature olive trees and a flagstone path.


Two patios, each covered by a sun-filtering steel trellis, sit off the kitchen and dining areas. Outdoor furniture by Janus et Cie.