Demolishing Modernism

In the early 1950s, Sam and Luella were among the founders of the Tamarisk Country Club in unincorporated Rancho Mirage, just five miles down the highway from downtown Palm Springs. In an era of rapid golf-club development, Tamarisk was an important landmark: It was founded with a specifically Jewish membership list. In the process, the Maslons acquired one of the only full-acre residential lots on the course (two half-acre lots for $1,200 each).

The 1950s and 1960s were an exciting time for architecture in Palm Springs and the surrounding Coachella Valley. “People with wealth who could afford interesting architects were arriving,” explains Janice Lyle. Luella Maslon could not only afford an interesting architect, but she had the taste and background necessary to choose and work with the very best. “In the end, there was no choice but Neutra,” claims Maslon’s daughter-in-law, Laura Maslon.

Born in 1892 to an Austrian Jewish family, Richard Neutra was an intellectually formidable young man. He studied architecture in the presence of Europe’s first great modernists, and his early work was influenced by their spare structures. In 1914, he and his contemporaries were astounded by the European publication of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. For Neutra it was an event that would lead him to America, and ten years later, a place at Wright’s celebrated arts colony Taliesin.

Under Wright, Neutra’s harsh European modernism became organic. “Nature was supposed to be the prominent visual feature in his houses,” Barbara Lamprecht, a leading Neutra scholar, explains. “He would invoke that.” A signature post-and-beam construction developed to allow nature into structures, an approach particularly suited to temperate, light-filled Southern California. At the time, Neutra’s most celebrated buildings were built in and around Los Angeles.

As with many artists and their wealthy patrons, the relationship between Neutra and Luella was difficult. They fought over everything: the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and their positions within the house; barbecues and kitchens, golf-cart doorways and plumbing walls; hardware and landscaping. Perhaps the most contentious issue was the intended placement of Luella’s growing art collection. According to Sam and Luella’s son, James, “He thought the house was so beautiful that he didn’t want any art in it.” The unpublished correspondence between client and architect reveals the tension: “I reviewed your contract which follows our form and has a legalistic flair which I, of course, am in no position to judge, I am only an architect.” Although in almost all aspects of her life Luella got what she wanted, Neutra’s rigidity tended to win out in the design of the house.

The result was a 5,000-square-foot U-shaped structure, completed in 1962, which Barbara Lamprecht describes as a floating pavilion. “It showed incredible mastery of its site, that carpet of green.” Within the U was a pool and patio that flowed into the glass. The “social room” was ideal for Luella’s entertaining (replete with indoor barbecue), and the small bedrooms forced guests into the communal life of the house. Despite Neutra’s minimalist intentions, the house’s long interior walls were ideal for the display of the paintings that were Luella’s passion. “I really do believe that it’s one of the very best jobs we have done,” Neutra wrote to his clients at the end of the design.

Luella and Sam loved the house, and they loved sharing it with others. Alex Kaiser, Luella’s Rancho Mirage house manager of 24 years, describes her as “a party girl” (Kaiser met Luella when she was in her early 70s). Dr. Henry Jaffe, a Palm Springs friend for 50 years, remembers her as “a wonderful hostess. If you were in her living room after dinner, she made sure that you talked. She would call on people if they were quiet.” Over the years, that living room would host a range of luminaries, from U.S. senators to ‘Dear Abby,’ pro wrestlers to Walter and Leonore Annenberg. “She was the dowager of Palm Springs,” Kaiser sighs.

Samuel Maslon died in 1988, and Luella Maslon lived a vigorous 13 years after him. She loved art and museums, and the museums loved her. In large part, the reciprocation was based on a growing recognition that aging Luella Maslon had an incomparable collection of contemporary art. “She was courted,” Laura Maslon recalls. But the courting was useless: Those parts of the collection not willed to the estate had been long since willed to museums. (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts waited decades for extraordinary paintings by Modigliani and Leger.) As for the house, the family agrees that Luella always expected it to be sold after her death. When asked whether the family had considered other options, such as donating it to a museum, Enid Maslon Starr, the Maslon’s surviving daughter, sighs. “There was never any discussion about it.” Janice Lyle, when asked whether the nearby Palm Spring Desert Museum would have accepted the house as a gift, leans forward with her answer. “Yes.”

Luella Maslon died in July 2001.

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