Villa de Las Palmas Palm Springs

They Call it Home

Villa de las Palmas residents share how the Palm Springs condo property has created a sense of community since its inception in 1962.

JIM POWERS Current Digital, Home & Design, Modernism, Real Estate

Villa de Las Palmas Palm Springs

When it opened in 1962, Villa de las Palmas in Palm Springs featured a putting green and promoted its proximity to the O'Donnell Golf Club. The rendering by Earl Cordrey shows the property is flanked by Via Lola on the north and Hermosa Drive on the south off of Palm Canyon Drive.
COPY OF RENDERING COURTESY CHERIE WHEATLEY

There wasn’t much hesitation once they arrived. Jim McDonald and his younger brother would scoot off to the pool and spend much of the day there, soaking in the sun and enjoying the perks of their grandparents’ residence at Villa de las Palmas.

“All the adults would want to sit around and talk, or my grandmother would say, ‘Oh, I want to take you to go do this.’ We would say, ‘No, we want to go in the pool,’”McDonald recalls. “Now, my wife goes in the hot tub. I never go in the pool anymore. I got that out of my system, I guess, when I was a kid.”

That was 1962. McDonald’s grandparents were among the original owners of the Palm Springs development. Sixty years later, McDonald owns the unit that has been in his family the entire time. After his grandparents, his mother and uncle were the next to own it, and then just his mother until she passed away in 2014. Over time he’s watched generations of kids play in the pool like he did as a teen, and now some of those kids have grown and returned to own at the property.

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The front entrance to Villa de las Palmas, located in the heart of the Uptown Design District in Palm Springs.

“I just think Las Palmas is a very unique community of beautiful homes,” McDonald says about the exclusive residential area just west of the property where movie stars like Kirk Douglas lived. “We love walking and bicycling. It’s peaceful. You can walk downtown. We can walk to the open-air market on Thursday nights. It’s just a very enjoyable location. It always has been.”

When Villa de las Palmas hit the market in 1962, the brochure featured a rendering by Earl Cordrey — the artist whose name is synonymous with a collection of Palm Springs Life covers — and notes each of the 24 units “can be purchased at a surprisingly reasonable price.” The interiors came with a kitchen that “will be a special joy for the housewife, offering her all of the latest modern devices including dishwasher, garbage disposal and a combination washer and dryer.”

Designed by Jo Paul Rognstad, the majority of the L-shaped Villa de Las Palmas faces west, allowing for a front-row seat to the San Jacinto Mountains from the spacious patio areas that are prominent in most units. The patios allow the units to sit back from the sun and make the indoor/outdoor transition feel seamless. The structure is built like a rock, literally. On the exterior of the building and inside each of the units you’ll find a rock facade that connects the two, and Rognstad added a fireplace to the living area that may not be the focal point as it was noted to be in some of his other designs and yet still attracts your attention. Another unique feature much appreciated for desert living is an underground parking garage on the east side of the building where each tenant has their own parking spot and a storage place.

In conversations with Palm Springs Life, McDonald is joined by fellow residents Cherie Wheatley and Phillip Lombardi, who share their stories which have shaped this property for six decades and created a sense of communal living unique to a tourist destination. For many residents at Villa de las Palmas, these are not just second homes. It’s home, period.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY CHERIE WHEATLEY
Cherie and Bill Wheatley, who have owned a unit at Villa de las Palmas since the 1970s, hang this framed brochure dating back to the property's opening in 1962 in their unit. In the bottom right corner is a callout to the property's developer, Franklin Robinson, who was the father-in-law to Bill's law partner, John Jaqua.

Cherie Wheatley admits the first time she and her husband Bill brought their family to Palm Springs, it wasn’t to buy a unit at Villa de Las Palmas. At least as far as she was concerned. They were there to visit an aunt who lived in Indio, driving all the way from Eugene, Oregon. The Wheatleys thought they would stay at a campground area, but upon arrival realized it wasn't what they had expected to find.

What happened next?

So Bill called his office, and John (Jaqua), his partner, said, “Well, where are you?” And he’s describing the place to John, he said, “Well, just, if there's no one in my father-in-law's place (at Villa de las Palmas), you can just go there.” So he checked with the father-in-law (Franklin Robinson) and the father-in-law said, "Nope, no problem. Keys under the mat." Well, it was just like going to paradise. And so Bill happened to meet this realtor when he was there, and he said, “Well, any of these other places come on the market, would you let me know?” Thinking, “Oh, this isn’t going to happen for years.”

And about a week later, he gets a call from this guy and says, “Well, the number five unit is on the market.” And the guy that had just bought it didn't pay any attention to the rules and regulations. At that time, you could not have any pets there, and he had three boxers. And so he put the place on the market. If he couldn't live there with his dogs, he didn't want to live there. So Bill flew down with a friend of his, they owned a little plane. And without me knowing about it Bill bought it. So my husband gave unit 5 at Villa de las Palmas to me for an anniversary present. We’ve owned it since 1976.

So if you didn't have an aunt in Indio, you might not have visited Palm Springs.

If it hadn't been for Aunt Mary, I don't know when we would've ever gone to Palm Springs.

Why is Villa de Las Palmas so special to you?

I mean, it was such a great anniversary present, being given a place in Palm Springs. And I just loved it. I loved it from day one. And I spent so many years there. A group of my friends — we called ourselves the Palm Springs ladies — we came at least twice a year. We would go to the tennis tournaments, to the Bob Hope Classic, to everything and ride our bikes all around back there and look at the movie stars homes that were back in there. In fact, I wrote a little cookbook with little stories of the Palm Springs ladies, and we just had unbelievable fun times. We would go across the street to Don the Beach Comber. Oh, I miss that place so much. And come back with all these gardenias in our hair. Thank God we didn't have to drive. We just had...no one could have had more fun than we did. This was such a special group of ladies.

Is Unit 5 destined to stay in your family?

Our kids will inherit it. They all know they're going to. Especially two of them, they just would be heartbroken if we sold it. So it's just not in the cards. Maybe somewhere down the line, but I think it’ll be a long way down the line.

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PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY JIM MCDONALD
As art director on the set of Bonanza, Earl Hedrick often interacted with the cast and especially actor Michael Landon, who Hedrick said paid attention to every facet of the show, which aired 1959-1971. Hedrick was Jim McDonald's grandfather, and through him McDonald became connected to Villa de las Palmas.

Just a few weeks ago, Jim McDonald was staring at the disarray of his unit at Villa de las Palmas — the result of a broken waterline that pushed water throughout much of the condo. Undeterred, he spent this particular day talking to a rep from a restoration service. There's too much family history for McDonald to let a little water get in the way.

What other first impressions do you recall from visiting Villa de las Palmas as a teen?

Jim McDonald: The first thing I noticed was when you walked in, they had a putting green out on the lawn. And my grandfather loved to golf, so I'd go play on the putting green with my grandfather. We thought it was, of course, a beautiful place, and that whole neighborhood was such a beautiful place to be able to go out walking and bicycling and do all the things that young people like to do, and I’ve been doing that my whole life.

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A. Earl Hedrick

How did your grandparents come to Villa de Las Palmas?

My grandfather had a long career in the movie industry from 1931, and then he retired in 1958, and they were going to sell their big house in Glendale. They bought a condominium at the beach, and then they were looking in Palm Springs, and this is where they bought. And I do remember, in that timeframe, my grandfather was asked if he would come out of retirement and do the pilot for a western that this producer was hoping to turn into a TV series. Well, he said, “Of course. I’d love to,” because he really wasn't enjoying retirement that much, so he loved what he did. And so, it turned out to be the TV series Bonanza.

And Cameron Mitchell, movie star, was in Bonanza, and he owned condo number one at Villa de Las Palmas, and my grandfather owned condo number seven. And I don’t know who influenced who or who told who, but I think they both became alerted to this condo complex, and both ended up buying in it. And Mitchell owned that until he passed away (in 1994). I never met him. He was never there when I was there. But he would come down occasionally. And then eventually, the family sold it.

Prior to the water accident, how much of your unit is original to the 1960s?

The only thing we’ve changed out, of course, is carpet, furniture. And then, we took out some of the carpet around the bar area and put tile down and put a whole new tile hallway in. But the bathrooms are still the same old original tile that is from the beginning. We even had a contractor come in and look at it. My brother was thinking about renovating it, and the contractor says, “Oh no. I won’t touch this. This is classic. You cannot find this anywhere. No, no, don't change this bathroom.” So, we've kept it original.

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PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY VILLA DE LAS PALMAS
Many of the units at Villa de las Palmas have deep, recessed patio areas.

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This stone facade repeats itself inside the units.

Phillip Lombardi bought his unit at Villa de las Palmas in 2003 and rented it for eight years before moving in permanently in 2012. He has worked in real estate since he was 17, and one look at the view from the balcony of his unit and was sold.

“I visited here twice and just knew this was going to be part of my life and it’s the future,” says Lombardi, who lived previously in Los Angeles. “I got a referral to a realtor here from a friend in Los Angeles and he took me around and showed me a lot of things and this one really stood out. It’s interesting because I remember the top three units I was looking at and I know what happened with the other two properties. This one has certainly outperformed them dramatically.”

Even then, Villa de las Palmas was often overlooked because it's tucked away from Palm Canyon Drive. In the last decade, the foot traffic in the area has increased dramatically as the businesses across the street (Ernest's Coffee, The Twist, Bootlegger Tiki, Tailor Shop) have complemented the presence of Trina Turk, which is marking its 20th year on Palm Canyon.

“It was the secret and even as a realtor, selling units in this property, I can’t tell you the number of times I put units on the market and have broker open house and long-time agents from Palm Springs would come and they would say, “We’ve never been here. We had no idea this was here.”

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