Making an Impact
Replete with imaginative murals and surrounded by desert landscaping, a basic ranch house steals the spotlight.
By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Daniel Chavkin
Drive through Palm Springs’ historic Old Las Palmas neighborhood, and you’ll see an array of architectural eye candy. There are midcentury masterpieces, such as the famed Kaufmann House, designed by Richard Neutra; elaborate Spanish colonial estates, including Liberace’s final casa; and celebrity sanctums once owned by Dinah Shore (and now Leonardo DiCaprio), Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, Samuel Goldwyn and Lena Horne, among others.
But one house stands out among the rest—not for an envy-inducing design pedigree or a long list of famous occupants, but instead for its edgy exterior that is more suited to an urban environment than its lush, manicured surroundings.
Homeowner Tod Mostero’s parents purchased the 1954 ranch home, located just a few doors down from the former residence of Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas, in 1985 for use as a family domicile. As the years passed and more updates needed to be tackled—and following a flood in 2014 caused by the swimming pool—they decided it was time to let it go, and they sold it to their son.
Before Tod could move in, though, he was hit with an unexpected misfortune. The day his parents handed him the keys, the house was burglarized. The suspect was eventually apprehended, and Tod got his belongings back, “but that event really kicked off the renovations,” he explains. “I had to repair the slider door that was broken; instead, I decided to replace it. Then I needed to change all the other doors to match, and it just snowballed from there.”
During planning discussions about the remodel, Tod found himself focusing on a large exterior wall near the front entry. Inspired by the many bas-reliefs seen around Palm Springs and other sculptural wall pieces he enjoyed while growing up, he thought a mural would be an ideal addition. Tod called on San Francisco-based artist Zio Ziegler, who was able to imagine a large-scale, intricately patterned, colorful image that fills that wall. “When Zio was done, he said there was another wall that needed a mural and asked if he could continue painting,” Tod recalls. Ziegler added black-and-white free-flowing line drawings of figures, shapes, skulls and more around the perimeter of the home. “Almost every surface has something really amazing on it now,” says Tod.
We wanted something that was really dramatic and raw.”
—William Kopelk, landscape architect
To frame the images and anchor them to the surface, Tod chose to paint the exterior of the house black—an unusual choice in a town known for its pristine white structures. “I like black houses,”
he adds. “I like the way vegetation looks against a dark background. I’m also very sensitive to light, so if a house is white, the reflection of the sun is blinding to me. Dark homes just feel more peaceful, more serene.”
Once the house itself was complete, it was time to concentrate on the landscape. When Tod purchased the home, the front yard had been a classic, verdant Palm Springs lawn. “My dad had one of the most beautiful lawns. It was perfect,” he recalls. “But I’m allergic to grass, so it went right away.” The backyard was predominately poolscape. And throughout was a smattering of mismatched greenery, ranging from non-native succulents, ailing citrus trees that eventually had to be removed and tattered grapevines, to ficus hedges, palm trees and a few ocotillo.
“I wanted to celebrate local plants and terrain,” says Tod. “I like landscapes that feel like they’re from where they’re located.” Inspired by the aforementioned Kaufmann House, “which I find stunning as a landscape,” Tod notes, the homeowner reached out to William Kopelk, who designed the iconic building’s gardens.
“When I first saw this black house with all these murals, I immediately thought that this could be something really cool,” says the landscape architect of his design inspiration. “I could already see it with boulders in place and indigenous plant material.”
In place of grass, Kopelk incorporated pops of green with a selection of desert-friendly specimens, including brittlebush, creosote bush, teddy bear chollas, agaves and yuccas. He kept the more than a dozen mature palm trees that dotted the property, as well as a large oleander hedge that framed the yard and provided privacy and shade. Dozens of boulders were added, giving the landscape a sense of permanency. “We wanted something that was really dramatic and raw,” Kopelk explains. “But I also had to take into consideration integrating the murals. I had to keep in mind the positioning of the boulders and the different view corridors to the individual artworks. Also, I didn’t want to use plants that would detract from them.”
The backyard was “like a blank slate, which was great,” he adds. Because the budget was limited, Tod chose not to redo the pool. Kopelk was able to remove some of the extensive concrete pool decking, which opened up room for plant beds, walkways and seating areas. More boulders were craned in, and decomposed granite was used for groundcover. Carefully placed vignettes of rock and plants help draw the eye from inside the home out to the yard. “When you’re inside, the interiors appear to merge almost seamlessly with the exterior because of the plantings and the way I situated the boulders. They seem like they’re right in the rooms,” the landscape professional says.
Kopelk also incorporated strategic lighting throughout, which at night creates a magical glow. “William did a lot of work with the plantings and lighting when I wasn’t there,” Tod recalls. “When I returned a few weeks later, it was in the evening, and I was absolutely stunned. It was unbelievable. I felt as though I was entering another world.”
Explains Kopelk, “It’s really unique. The level of quality that Tod executed in making the house hospitable, inside and out, speaks a certain vibe. It captivates you.”
Even the neighbors, who upon seeing the murals for the first time originally thought that the home had been vandalized, now appreciate Tod’s vision. “I had a woman stop by and tell me that the house really invigorated the neighborhood,” he says.
“Looking back, I have to admit that when the murals were first painted, I freaked out. I was still recovering from the break-in, which shook me up, and now I had to figure out how to make it all work with these paintings,” he continues. “Then the other day I was in the pool and looking at the murals. They remind me of gods and goddesses, and the sensation was rather Pantheon-esque. Strangely enough, I feel as though they’re spirits protecting the house. I think they’re some of Zio’s most beautiful pieces. He was truly inspired, and I feel lucky to have a little piece of that elan in my life.”