“I was drawn toward all the wacky stuff... the cliché bits. The fun stuff,” Peter Moruzzi says about his first introduction to midcentury modern
Moruzzi is best known as a preservationist, historian and author. He is the founding president of the Palm Springs Modern Committee and was chairman of the Los Angeles Conservancy-- organizations focused on historic building preservation and revitalization. He is also the author of four books-- Havana Before Castro, Palm Springs Holiday, Classic Dining: Discovering America's Finest Mid-Century Restaurants and Palm Springs Paradise: Vintage Photographs from America's Desert Playground.-- all of which are displays of his deep appreciation for the past.
His first glimpse into the wonderful world of fifties design came later, rather than sooner. Born in Massachusetts and raised in Hawaii, his only exposure to the past is when he and his family would take trips to Boston or to Vermont to visit his grandparents.
“I was raised in a home full of run-of-the-mill Ethan Allen furniture. Though my mother was into antiques and architecture, it was all from the Victorian era,” Moruzzi recalls about his childhood.
It wasn't until the 1980s when he was visiting flea markets that he discovered 1950s furniture. He was enamored by the clean lines, fun shapes and vibrant colors that midcentury décor has to offer.
“I immediately started reading up on it. The first furniture designer that I learned about was George Nelson, so that is what I started collecting, and I still collect it today.”
Moruzzi displays a photography by Robert Doisneau, ca. 1960, of the very room he is standing in. In this photograph, local socialtites are attending an art mixer in the home, which was occupied by Palm Springs artist O.E.L. Graves.
Moruzzi moved to Los Angeles from the Bay Area in 1990 after a seven year stint in Silicon Valley, to attend film school. It was shortly thereafter that he met his husband, Lauren LeBaron. They had only been dating for three months when Lauren tried to talk him into a weekend away in Palm Springs.
“I had no interest in the place, I didn't want to go. I figured it was full of a bunch of old, grouchy, boring Republicans.”
LeBaron was able to twist his arm just hard enough and the two spent the weekend at the Waterfall Inn, a now defunct hotel that was just on the border of Cathedral City.
“I was immediately hooked,” says Moruzzi of that first visit. “I loved the casualness, the scenery and just the overall environment. I knew I wanted to come back, and it was the first of many trips.”
It wasn't until subsequent visits were made that he started taking note of the architecture.
“I would just drive around marveling at all the buildings. Then, I immediately wanted to know the back story.”
His initial visits all occurred during in the 1990s economic slump that was plaguing Palm Springs.
“It looked like the town had seen better days, but that was part of the appeal for me.”
Moruzzi found out that his friend and fellow Los Angeles Conservacy member Tony Merchell was quite knowledgable about Palm Springs, and he was keen to preservation issues that were ongoing in the town. In 1995, group came out to visit both the Albert Frey designed Esso gas station on Highway 111, and John Lautner's Elrod house in Southridge. The Frey-designed gas station was designated a class-one historic site in 1998, thanks to their efforts.
Moruzzi's living room is inspired by the Entenza House (Case Study House #9, Pacific Palisades, Calif.) ca. 1960-- famously photographed by Julius Schulman.
Prominent features of the home include full height windows that face the backyard, a wet bar and an indoor barbecue grill. Furnishings in the home include pieces from Harry Bertoia for Knoll and Charles Eames for Herman Miller.
In 1998, Moruzzi and LeBaron toyed with the idea of purchasing a second home in Palm Springs, with the intention of eventually retiring in the city. In March of that year, New Yorker Magazine published an article hailing Palm Springs as a nostalgic, hip destination.
“I read that article and had an 'uh oh!' moment. I knew Palm Springs was being rediscovered and that I had to act quickly on buying a home.”
The couple looked one badly remodeled home after another.
“There were a lot of paver tiles, plantation shutters and bad Southwest-style remodels. We were having a difficult time finding what we were looking for.”
A breath of fresh air appeared in the Tahquitz River Estates-- a neighborhood known for its late 1940s Paul Trousdale homes. However, this one was built later-- in 1956-- by a local builder named Sam Pascal.
The couple initially deemed the home to be too spacious and out of their price range, but found themselves rather smitten with the home's original, unaltered details-- steel casement windows, tiled bathrooms and kitchen, indoor barbecue grill, an unpainted, natural flagstone fireplace and boasted an unaltered floor plan. After much consideration, they seized the opportunity and procured the 2,617 square foot, three bedroom, two bathroom home.
Original appliances in the home include a Western-Holly oven and range, as well as a 1950s Hotpoint refrigerator.
The dining area features a Saarinen 'Tulip' table and chair set.
The home's original owner was Palm Springs attorney, Rabbi Leon Rosenberg-- best known for serving as defense laywer in the 1965 murder case against Golden
Era actor Tom Neal.
O.E.L. Graves, the artist renowned for his lively Palm Springs Villager covers, also lived in the home from 1960 to 1964. The home is pictured in the book Palm Springs 1960 by Robert Doisneau, featuring Graves with a home full of socialites engaging in painting lessons.
Since the purchase of the home in 1998, the couple has implemented only minimal restorations to the property. All of the tile throughout the bathrooms and kitchen are completely original and were in pristine condition upon purchase. The home retains all of the original appliances, which include a 1950s Hotpoint brand refrigerator, a vibrant yellow Western-Holly oven and range, and an indoor barbecue.
All of the natural wood in the home was painted, which included knotty pine beams and paneled walls. Birch cabinets in the bathrooms, hallway and kitchen were also painted white, but have recently been restored to their original finish and were outfitted with period-correct copper handles and pulls.
One of many original O.E.L Graves pieces that adorn the home's walls is proudly displayed above a handsome birch midcentury cabinet.
Once painted birch cabinets in the hallway now shine like new, thanks to a painstaking restoration.
The living room décor was inspired by a famous 1950 photograph by Julius Shulman of the Entenza House/Case Study House #9 in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Illustrated in the photograph was an Eames LCW chair and zinc-base surfboard coffee table, as well as and that is what Moruzzi translated into his home.
The furniture and accessories that are sprinkled about the home came from assorted sources, mainly around Southern California-- including the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, Modernway in Palm Springs and various consignment stores along the way.
Moruzzi has a steadily growing collection of O.E.L. Graves paintings and sculptures, as well as a bountiful display of 1950s transistor radios.
The crown jewel of his collection is a neon sign measuring 6 feet tall, which was acquired from the Arena Bowl bowling alley in South Gate, California. The bowling alley, which was built in 1958, was slated for demolition in 1994. Moruzzi and his preservationist pals rescued several neon signs from the property during a particularly heavy rainstorm that year. He claimed the 'A' for himself. However, it sat in a friend's backyard for nearly 20 years. It was rescued again, restored and placed underneath his backyard orange tree in 2014. Nearly all of the neon tubes are original. The rest of the weather beaten sign was rejuvenated by a neon sign expert.
Moruzzi, far right, with fellow preservationists Chris Nichols, John English and Blake Shane during the rescue of Arena Bowl neon signs, ca. 1994.
The spacious backyard features a remarkable poolside view of the San Jacinto Mountains and plenty of room for their Chow-Chow, Pepper, to lounge about.
Moruzzi's collection is rounded out by a perfectly restored 1965 Buick Riviera.
The couple still lives in Los Angeles, but spend their days off at their perfect little time capsule, basking in the same pleasure that brought them to Palm Springs in the first place.
The "Gold Room" is a heavily 1960s-inspired bedroom that incorporates both French and Asian-style decor of that era.
A custom fringed umbrella adds a nostalgiac element to the expansive backyard, which boasts an amazing view of the San Jacinto Mountains.
Moruzzi's stock 1965 Buick Riviera.
©2016 Tayva Martinez/Tayva Martinez Photography. All rights reserved. Do not copy, duplicate, print or use any part of this article without the express written permission of writer/photographer.