Modernism Week is currently in full swing in Palm Springs! The incongruously-named design festival actually comprises 11 days’ worth of activities showcasing all things mid-century, including informational lectures, vintage car shows, swanky soirees and, most importantly, tours of famous local homes. As executive director Lisa Vossler Smith explains to Architectural Digest, “Modernism Week celebrates the unique aspects of the tremendous architectural heritage in Palm Springs and the surrounding Coachella Valley. Through our tours, talks, and other compelling programs, we help educate people about the essential role that design plays in our daily lives.” Initially established in 2006, the affair has grown to become the largest of its kind worldwide, attracting upwards of 160,000 attendees annually. Though it was canceled in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is back with fervor this year, offering over 350 retro-inspired events.
Unfortunately, the Elrod House, arguably the city’s most famous mid-century property, is not available for tours this time around – nor is its location publicly accessible. The iconic structure, which a former real estate listing describes as “literally one of THE most architecturally significant homes in all the world,” sits tucked behind a manned gate at 2175 Southridge Dr. in Palm Springs’ Southridge community. (Please remember this is a private dwelling. Do not trespass or bother the residents or the property in any way.) The exclusive and fiercely private enclave – which boasts signs out front ominously warning, “Cameras, Guards, Gates Ahead – Trespassers will be photographed and may be prosecuted” – consists of a handful of large-scale estates that have been home to such stars as Ali MacGraw, Joan Collins, William Holden, Steve McQueen and Stefanie Powers at different points in time. The Elrod House, though, is, by far, the neighborhood’s most famous property, thanks to both its innovative architecture and its appearance in the 1971 James Bond film “Diamonds Are Forever.”
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé John Lautner in 1968, the monolith structure is one of the landmark architect’s most preeminent creations, a symphony of glass and poured concrete that reads more like a work of art than a residence. Featuring five bedrooms and six baths spread throughout a massive 8,901 square feet, the dwelling was commissioned by Arthur Elrod, a prominent interior designer who studied at Chouinard Art Institute and whose work Palm Springs Life notes “permanently reshaped the design aesthetic of the desert.”
The famed residence sits perched like a mid-century beacon on a 1.22-acre plot of land carved into the San Jacinto Hills overlooking virtually all of the surrounding valley. Somewhat nondescript from the outside, the interior is a masterpiece of materials, both natural and fabricated.
The abode’s unique hillside plot dictated much of its design. Per Howard Johns’ 2004 tome “Palm Springs Confidential: Playground of the Stars!,” Lautner wanted to “make the home’s location seem as natural as possible” and “not a style stuck on a rock.” Wally Niewiadomski, “builder and concrete expert,” was tasked with bringing the architect’s futuristic creation to life.
Boasting rounded motifs throughout, the property is centered around a dazzling circular living room stretching an incredible 60 feet in diameter and capped by a conical ceiling featuring nine concrete spokes interspersed with clerestory windows angled upwards to indirectly welcome natural light.
Lautner incorporated massive stones dotted throughout the lot into the living room’s completed design, as well. Johns writes, “[Niewiadomski] dug eight feet into the ground and constructed the 60-foot black-slate living room floor around existing rocks and boulders.”
The extraordinary space is also lined with curved rosewood and glass walls, the latter of which not only offer unparalleled views of the surrounding valley but are retractable, opening to the adjacent pool terrace, creating the ultimate embodiment of indoor/outdoor living. As explained by Palm Springs Life, the feature was an almost accidental addition to Lautner’s design. The magazine reports, “The pavilion-like living room originally was ringed with floor-to-ceiling glass arranged in a zigzagged curtain wall. Shortly after the house was built, a desert sandstorm broke the panes. Lautner reacted with something even more outrageous: He installed two 25-foot-wide hanging glass curtain walls that retract to open up the living room completely to the outside at the touch of a button.”
Sadly, Elrod didn’t call the place home for long. He was tragically killed in a car accident while driving to his uptown Palm Springs office in early 1974. The designer was only 49. Several other notables owned the property in the ensuing years, including grocery store magnate Ron Burkle, who purchased it in 1995 for $1.3 million. When he parted ways with the estate eight years later, it was snapped up by Michael Kilroy for $5.5 million. The real estate investor acquired several neighboring residences, as well, in the hopes of transforming the conglomerate of dwellings into an exclusive private club. But the lofty venture never came to fruition, leaving the Elrod House to linger in limbo for more than half a decade.
In a June 2016 piece for Variety, our own Mark David reports, “Faced with a financial squeeze, Mister Kilroy hoisted the cinematically idiosyncratic landmark residence up for sale in late 2009 with an in-hindsight sanguine asking price just under $13.9 million. With no takers, several subsequent flirts with foreclosure, and an eleventh-hour effort to unload the place earlier this year with a substantially lower but still significantly too high price tag of just under $10.5 million, ownership of the iconic residence was turned over in mid-May to the property’s primary mortgage holder, Lloyds of London, who quickly re-priced the property at $8 million.” It ultimately sold that September in an all-cash $7.7 million deal to fashion designer and Moschino creative director Jeremy Scott, who still owns the place today.
Deemed “the ultimate bachelor pad” by Playboy Magazine in 1971, the modernist structure currently boasts a long galley kitchen tucked behind the living room, a gymnasium, a guest house situated underneath the pool deck and reached via a rounded set of exterior stairs and, according to Maxim magazine, a vault for storing fine silver – or smuggled diamonds, perhaps?
In “Diamonds Are Forever,” the Elrod House plays the summer residence of billionaire Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean). Said to be located “on the ridge, about 10 miles out of town” in Las Vegas, the abode is where the reclusive industrialist is held against his will at the behest of criminal mastermind/SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Charles Gray) as part of a vast diamond trafficking operation. James Bond (Sean Connery), of course, comes to “Willie’s” rescue, though, infiltrating the pad and ultimately overpowering his two scantily-clad cartwheeling captors, Bambi (Lola Larson) and Thumper (Trina Parks), after a lengthy round of fisticuffs that moves from the living room to the pool.
According to 007.com, Whyte’s female captors were initially written as men, but director Guy Hamilton had a change of heart upon viewing the United States tumbling team, which led him to think, ‘I bet one of these girls flip-flopping would kick Bond before he knew what had hit him, and being a gentleman he’d be rather surprised.’ And surprised, he was! The segment, which can be watched here, makes for one of the most memorable and beloved scenes of the entire 007 franchise!