July 21, 2007

Dispute over desert house could pit nature against art

Rodrigo Peña / The Press-Enterprise
Jennie Kelly, 57, of North Shore, shows a branding iron with the initials d-p inside the adobe building that she wants to preserve.

The Press-Enterprise

NORTH SHORE - The old adobe building near the oases ringed with shaggy palms welcomed Hollywood, hosted Gen. George Patton and inspired a desert landscape painter.

But if a federal agency prevails, the ranch house where John William Hilton created his masterpieces could be demolished.

The Bureau of Land Management says surveys show that Rancho Dos Palmas -- with its many additions -- lacks historical significance.

A preservationist group disagrees.

"To wipe out all that history ... my jaw just dropped," said Jennie Kelly, a spokeswoman for Friends of Dos Palmas.

"An awful lot of people want to see the ranch house saved.

"It carries a special place in our hearts."

The dispute is playing out on a huge nature preserve near the Salton Sea.

Now, in a twist of fate, Hilton's landscape scenes could help save the beloved building, Kelly said.
Friends of Dos Palmas members said the artist's growing renown could get the ranch house listed on the federal government's National Register of Historic Places.

Panoramic View

Hilton lived and painted at Rancho Dos Palmas between 1938 and 1942. He observed the desert while painting from a rooftop sundeck over the ranch house. The artist captured the landscape's solitary beauty by using a knife instead of a brush and adding beeswax to oil paints.

When he wasn't carving out a canvas masterpiece, Hilton acted as a desert guide for Patton, whose nickname was "Old Blood and Guts."

They scouted out locations for tank training maneuvers carried out at Camp Young during World War II, according to a promotional biography written by Arizona art gallery owner Gary Fillmore.

Hilton, who died in 1983, belonged to a fraternity of about 15 Southern California desert artists active during the 1920s through 1940s, according to Fillmore, owner of the Blue Coyote Gallery.

Today, artists who painted the Southern California desert find their works undervalued compared with the rest of the market, Fillmore said.

A 16 inch by 20 inch desert scene by Hilton fetches about $4,000 to $6,000 and some of his top works command $10,000 to $15,000, experts said.

But over the next decades, Hilton and other desert painters will gain stature and their works will cost more in galleries, Fillmore said.

"He was a great artist, who as time goes on, will be much appreciated," Fillmore said.
Hilton's work will join that of other desert painters at a Sept. 15 exhibition at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Talking It Out

Meanwhile, negotiations continue between Friends of Dos Palmas and the Bureau of Land Management.

"There's no threat of us doing anything to those structures until we work through this process, " said John Kalish, field manager for the agency's office in North Palm Springs. "We've made that commitment."

The aging ranch house may be charming, but the bureau's primary role at the almost 15,000-acre Dos Palmas Preserve involves running a wildlife refuge and restoring habitat for threatened and endangered species, he said.

They include the grouse-sized, endangered Yuma clapper rail, which delights bird watchers with its distinctive "kek kek kek" call at daybreak or sunset. Another is the adaptable desert pupfish, which can survive in an environment almost twice as salty as the ocean or in fresh water.

Because the preserve's main job is to manage and restore wildlife habitat, there's no federal money available for restoring the ranch house, Kalish said.

Long History

For about 80 years, Rancho Dos Palmas has kept a quiet vigil in the midst of nature.
The house features a step-down great room highlighted by a rock fireplace, plank ceiling and an array of artifacts, including a saddle on a wooden table, a branding iron on a window ledge, mounted long horns and a bobcat pelt splayed over the fireplace mantle.

On the wall, there's a cattle brand registration for Rancho Dos Palmas dated 1938.

Nearby, actor Raymond Massey's framed, handwritten letter hangs on the wall -- mailed from Beverly Hills and thanking his hosts for the fresh dates during his last visit.

For now, the ranch house about 13 miles southeast of Mecca can't entertain nature-loving tourists, the federal agency said.

A caretaker lived in the house until his death in December.

Rancho Dos Palmas doesn't meet current building codes, needs major, costly repairs and could be unsafe in an earthquake. Water piped into the house isn't safe for consumption, Kalish said.

The ranch house and a nearby bunkhouse, along with a shop building, won't be removed until at least December, according to agency officials. The marshland beneath would be restored and become a wildlife spot. The ranch house and a bunkhouse occupy about 8 acres.

Today, crews continue working nearby on a new, 4,000-square-foot shop for storing heavy equipment. The facility stores bulldozers and other equipment used to handle Tamarisk trees, which soak up water and create salty soil. A 2,000-square-foot operations center/caretaker's residence could get underway by fall of this year, officials said.

The Future

Meanwhile, Friends of Dos Palmas pursues an offensive aimed at saving the ranch house.

The group submitted an application seeking a county/state historical designation for Rancho Dos Palmas. They had a structural engineer visually inspect the old ranch house. And they're lobbying elected officials, including Congresswoman Mary Bono, R, Palm Springs, and County Supervisor Roy Wilson.

Land management officials say several possibilities could honor Rancho Dos Palmas' legacy while still allowing planned improvements at the preserve.

Those include leaving some adobe walls standing, erecting an interpretive kiosk detailing the history of the ranch house and salvaging period items that could be stored elsewhere in a museum-like setting, Kalish said.