Catch a Wave

An iconic home with a roller-coaster roof, designed by midcentury architect Walter S. White, will be auctioned during Modernism Week.

Lawrence Karol Modernism

In mimicking the profile of the nearby mountain range with the roofline, architect Walter S. White demonstrated his sensitivity to the Palm Desert home’s site and setting.

Palm Springs will buzz with activity throughout Modernism Week 2018, but there’s a special one-time event in Palm Desert that every design enthusiast should add to the must-see list.

The Historical Society of Palm Desert has organized an open house Feb. 17-18 at the singular Miles C. Bates house. (Tickets are free.) Designed in 1955 by Walter S. White, the home’s most striking feature is its wave-shaped roof, which appears to be sailing over the structure and led to the structure to be called the Wave House.

“Echoing the profile of the Santa Rosa Mountains in the distance, White’s patented ‘roller coaster’ wood roof system embodies a high mark in innovative thinking in residential Modern architecture in America,” Dr. Barbara Lamprecht writes in an application for the house to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), which she prepared for the Historical Society of Palm Desert. The State Historical Resource Commission will consider the nomination Feb. 2 in Sacramento. “Seeking a low-tech means to easily facilitate a variety of roof shapes, White’s system defined a new role for wood, helping to expand concepts of Modernism beyond the stereotype of the flat roof or the low slope gable roof.”

The Wave House has been unoccupied for many years and has fallen into disrepair — but that may soon change. Its owner, the Successor Agency to the Palm Desert Redevelopment Agency, will auction the property off Feb. 24. As an incentive to attract a buyer interested in restoring the Wave House, the City of Palm Desert will match approved restoration funds up to $50,000.


This mid-1950s photo was taken when artist Miles C. Bates lived in the home. The painting is one of his works.

While the original floor plan had one bedroom and two bathrooms in approximately 900 square feet, a later owner added two bedrooms to expand the square footage to 1,900. A number of other interior modifications were made over the years — for example, the west patio was enclosed, the west wall of glass removed, and a peninsula was added to the kitchen — but the roof has remained in remarkably good shape.


A period image shows the original design of the living room.

In fact, the NRHP application states, “the craftsmanship of the roof, beams, the extant concrete masonry unit walls, sliding window walls, interior entry, master bathroom, [and] hardscape of circular planters are unchanged. The feeling of the Coachella Valley’s Desert Modern aesthetic [is] intact. Its playful roof evokes the qualities of postwar optimism and the innovative risk-taking by architects practicing in the Palm Springs area such as Albert Frey, White’s onetime employer. The presence of natural, locally available materials that blend in with the geography contribute to this feeling.

“It took a real curious mind at work to come up with such a [roofing] system and having the resourcefulness to patent it,” adds Lamprecht. “It’s not so much a roof but a methodology. It is very modern, very elegant, very expressive, and completely unique.”

The Miles C. Bates house is located at 73697 Santa Rosa Way in Palm Desert. To learn more about the auction and obtain a bid package, contact Cora Gaugush at 760-776-6450 or cgaugush@cityofpalmdesert.org.

Wave House tour during Modernism Week, Feb. 17-18, noon to 3 p.m. Free admission. modernismweek.com