Living it up, Hollywood-style

A Palm Desert home (above), which still features the original lime-green and white scheme (above) of its 1971 decor; and a room in another home, decorated with blue paisley-print drapes (left). A poodle-cut tree in the Marrakesh residential community
A room in another home, decorated with blue paisley-print drapes.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
A Palm Desert home (above), which still features the original lime-green and white scheme (above) of its 1971 decor; and a room in another home, decorated with blue paisley-print drapes (left). A poodle-cut tree in the Marrakesh residential community
A Palm Desert home, which still features the original lime-green and white scheme of its 1971 decor.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
A Palm Desert home (above), which still features the original lime-green and white scheme (above) of its 1971 decor; and a room in another home, decorated with blue paisley-print drapes (left). A poodle-cut tree in the Marrakesh residential community
A poodle-cut tree in the Marrakesh residential community in Palm Desert.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

Known for his Hollywood Regency style, architect John Elgin Woolf has created homes in Palm Desert that are now drawing design buffs for their 1970s opulence

PALM DESERT (California) • It was Jingle Mingle Night at the Marrakesh Country Club.

Inside its serpentine pink walls, past the entry gazebo's cone roof, up the drive flanked by petunia beds and olive trees clipped like standard poodles, a line of cars disgorged guests swathed in Santa suits, stocking caps and sweaters with blinking LED lights.

Inside the clubhouse, waiters in red and green argyle took drink orders and a couple dozen couples of a certain age grooved to Wild Cherry's Play That Funky Music.

But note the table by the dance floor, the one filled with relatively young men in sober (by comparison) dark blazers. If their youth and their attire were not conspicuous enough, there was the matter of their conversation.

Sawing into a slab of prime rib, Mr Stephen Drucker, former editor of several lifestyle publications, announced that he had just spruced up the portico of his Marrakesh villa with a pair of white canvas drapes - an Old Hollywood touch, he said, that reminded him of "those birthday parties where 'Uncle' Gary Cooper would take little Christina Crawford for a pony ride".

"Exactly the kind of thing I'm excited the committee is making provisions for," said Mr Steven Price, an architectural historian who wears his silver hair in a bob, referring to the club's Architecture and Landscape Committee.

Mr Patrick Dragonette, a modern furniture dealer from Los Angeles, concurred.

"You've seen the house with the pushed-out columns," he said, his undertone the verbal equivalent of a raised eyebrow. "Nobody is happy about it."

For about 45 years, the main draw of this private residential community, which sits in the bowl formed by the San Jacinto Mountains and the Santa Rosa Mountains, was its 18-hole executive golf course.

But these days, it is as much a destination for worshippers of high design as it is for those who pray for eagles and birdies. Their object of worship: architect John Elgin Woolf, who created Marrakesh's 364 pink and white villas and 14 pink and white pool houses in his signature Hollywood Regency style.

In 1967, an amateur golfer and golf course architect named Johnny Dawson leased about 63ha in Palm Desert and, inspired by the property's similarities to the Atlas Mountains-ringed city of Marrakesh, conceived of a new club with a Moroccan theme.

The community's salmon-pink palette was suggested by the rosy sandstone walls and its hilltop clubhouse, introduced by a Middle Eastern-style water stair, was placed to overlook the villas like a casbah surveying so many riads.

After that, the Moroccan trope trails off. That is because Mr Woolf, hired to design the club in 1968, had a vernacular all his own.

He had come to Los Angeles from Atlanta to become an actor - he hoped his Southern roots would help land him a role in Gone With The Wind (1939). But he had also studied architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and when the acting career fizzled, he leveraged his Hollywood ties to become an architect to the stars.

Eventually known as Hollywood Regency, his trademark style blended English Regency and French Regency with movie-set glamour and modernist restraint. His houses offered elegant scale and symmetry, dramatic entrances and perfectly proportioned rooms punctuated by neo-classical columns and elliptical windows.

This muted opulence appealed to Hollywood nobility such as actors Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland and Katharine Hepburn. "They were very theatrical, but understandable" to people in the entertainment industry, said Mr Price, who is writing a book about the architect.

In recent years, Mr Woolf's reputation has resurged. Among other things, producer Robert Evans' book, The Kid Stays In The Picture, and a biography and a play about Hollywood agent Sue Mengers brought attention to their Woolf- designed lairs in Beverly Hills.

In the Los Angeles real-estate market, Woolf houses are considered trophies.

For instance, last autumn, Ms Jill Tavelman Collins, former wife of singer Phil Collins, bought a Woolf house in Beverly Hills for US$12.5 million (S$17.5 million), 40 per cent more than the asking price.

Originally marketed to the local gentry as well as snowbirds from Canada and Chicago, Marrakesh memberships offered a slice of the good life early 1970s-style. Picture a Cadillac or a Lincoln, a station wagon and a golf cart in every oversize garage.

The promise of that era is enshrined at a bougainvillea-draped condominium between the eighth green and the ninth tee.

The unit, which Ms Ann Judy, a Santa Ynez Valley resident, inherited from her parents, has remained untouched since it was decorated more than four decades ago. Its original colour scheme of white and lime green extends from a white shag rug and floral print drapes to white and green dishes to a Zenith television encased in white lacquer trimmed with the drapery fabric.

"If it ain't broken, why fix it?" Ms Judy said. "It's light, it's bright, it's fun. And unique."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2017, with the headline 'Living it up, Hollywood-style'. Print Edition | Subscribe