Demolishing Modernism

Deirdre Coit represented the Maslons in the sale. She has never met Richard Rotenberg, but she met his real estate agent. “And his agent represented that they loved the house and they wanted to renovate it.” Enid Maslon Starr kept in contact with Coit from Boston. “I spoke with the broker on several occasions, and she told me that he [Rotenberg] was asking about restoration contractors.”

None of the Maslons has ever met Richard Rotenberg. However, prior to the closing of escrow, James Maslon spoke with him by phone and indicated that he would leave several Neutra-related items for him at the house. Shortly after the closing, Rotenberg called on Edith Nadler, the longtime Maslon friend and Tamarisk member who lived next door on Fairway Drive. “He said he’d bought the house and wanted to introduce himself. I said the house needed a little help, and he agreed.” She pauses. “Was he going to renovate? He implied it by everything he said.” Before leaving Mrs. Nadler, Rotenberg also asked for a favor. “He asked me, ‘Do you think I’ll get into the country club?’ He asked for a recommendation. He said he was a friend of my son’s. That wasn’t true, though I didn’t know it at the time.”

Ultimately, only Richard Rotenberg can speak to his intentions for the house, and he has refused multiple opportunities to do so. Had anybody involved in the sale known that Rotenberg would demolish the house, they would not have sold it to him. Either way, what is indisputably clear is that numerous parties made extraordinary efforts to inform Richard Rotenberg that he was buying an important house by one of the 20th century’s great architects.

Steve Buchanan is the affable bearded building official who issued the demolition permit. “They came in, they applied for the permit,” he says with a shrug from behind the Rancho Mirage permits counter. “Everything was in order, so I gave it to them. I had no reason not to.” And that’s true: In the matter of demolition permits, Rancho Mirage allowed itself no oversight of their issuance prior to August of 2002. But neither Buchanan nor anyone else in Rancho Mirage city government was prepared for the international outrage that resulted from that lack of oversight.

Rancho Mirage City Council member Richard Kite recalls thinking, “Man, what’ve we done?” Rancho Mirage is heavily dependent upon affluent, educated, and cultured tourism, and the international scope of the anger was a matter of real concern. Kite was chosen to devise a historic preservation ordinance that would, in principle at least, prevent the demolition of another property like the Maslon’s.

What resulted was an ordinance that allows for historic designation of properties, but only with an owner’s consent. Stranger still, an owner can choose to have the designation removed at a later date. Anthony Merchell is a historian of Palm Springs architecture and a register with DOCOMOMO, an international organization devoted to the preservation of modernism. A few weeks prior to a final vote on the ordinance, he ranked it “about a zero on a scale of one to ten.” The Rancho Mirage Historic Preservation Ordinance was passed on April 3, 2003, just over a year after the issuance of a demolition permit for 70-900 Fairway Drive.

In the kitchen of his pitch-perfect Palm Springs 1950s house, Pete Moruzzi shakes his head. Moruzzi considers the preservation battle in Rancho Mirage to have been lost, and he is refocusing the Palm Springs Modern Committee’s efforts toward educating the citizens of Rancho Mirage about the benefits of historic preservation.

As for the Maslons, they seem to have resigned themselves to the loss. “It was a wonderful part of our life, but it’s gone,” James Maslon sighs. “Personally, for me, it’s gone.” Meanwhile, more than a year after the demolition, speculation and gossip continues over Rotenberg’s motive for demolishing the house. One possible motive is that he wanted the Maslon’s rare full-acre lot for redevelopment purposes. In that way, his $850,000 overpayment for the property is not a mistake, but a shrewd decision by an experienced developer knowing a good subdivision when he sees one. By developing half the property for someone else, Rotenberg turns his overpayment into a market price, or maybe even a bargain. “I’m sure he’s going to build a new home for himself, too,” Deirdre Coit seethes.

“But I don’t think he’s going to feel that comfortable as a member of the club if they decide to let him in,” speculates Dr. Jaffe. As of April 2003, no building permits or site plans have been submitted to Rancho Mirage.

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Jennifer Carlquist of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts in the research and preparation of this article.

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