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Mr. Nolan Builds His Dream House: Palm Springs' Cary Grant House, The Backstory

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Everybody loves a celebrity home; and Palm Springs has traded on its reputation as a celebrity hideout for decades. Beginning in the 1930s, film stars and other celebrities from Los Angeles - as well as wealthy East Coast dwellers - built winter hideaways in Palm Springs. Today a small cottage industry exists to separate tourists from their money by selling access to some of these celebrity homes. This is sometimes a good thing because the owner of a celebrity home must retain the characteristics that first made it attractive to the celebrity. But in some instances "Washington slept here" puffery infers a celebrity connection that has little or no basis in fact. Occasionally an unscrupulous Realtor will market a so-called celebrity-owned listing without a shred of documentation, seeking to entice buyers by means of a specious celebrity connection. From a preservation perspective, the downside of this scenario is that the actual origins of a property are ignored or disregarded in favor of the reflected glow of a tenuous celebrity association. But Palm Springs was also a popular destination for East Coast titans of industry. The homes they built often reflect personal histories more interesting than those that derive from subsequent tenancies by members of the glitterati.

This is the case with the house known locally as the Cary Grant Residence in the Movie Colony neighborhood. Although Grant always maintained a personal residence in Los Angeles, from 1954 to 1972 he also owned and occupied the Movie Colony house. However, the house had its own pedigree long before it was owned by the former circus performer born Archibald Leach.

A Byers Market

John Winford Byers (1875-1966) was born in and educated in Michigan. He completed a year of graduate work at Harvard before moving to Europe and then South America, where he became fluent in Spanish while teaching in Montevideo, Uruguay. He relocated to Santa Monica in 1910 where he taught Spanish at the high school for many years, but his real passion was architecture. A self-trained designer, Byers completed his first architectural commission in 1916 - a house for W.F. Barnum, the principal of Santa Monica High School. That year he also completed an adobe home for himself and his wife Silvia. This project was followed in 1919 by an adobe house called "Casa Adobe," built in Brentwood by itinerant Mexican laborers for Silvia's Cousin, Harry Johnson. The Johnson House, and others, were published in the San Francisco-based Architect & Engineer. The resulting publicity generated so many commissions that Byers gave up teaching and established an architectural office in a courtyard building he designed to house his practice (246 26th Street, Santa Monica). Today the Byers office and courtyard houses a popular restaurant.

In 1927, Byers was granted a California license to practice architecture. Byers designed and built dozens of homes in Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Victorville and Palm Springs. He was able to blend the Spanish Colonial architecture he studied in South America with native California architecture and its Mexican and Spanish roots. While his style is almost always referred to as Spanish Colonial Revival, some see that as a misnomer. Byers wanted to develop a Southern California architectural style that would incorporate all the Mediterranean styles. He wrote several articles on adobe construction and its influence in California. He established his own workshop, employing Mexican craftsmen who were masters at creating and installing the adobe brick, decorative tile, wrought iron, and woodwork that were signatures of his projects.

Considered a designer of high-end single-family residential properties, he was also called upon to design owners' residences for large ranches. Although uncredited among the "fathers" of the California Ranch style, Byers' original designs represent an important transition from working ranches to a typical California style home. Byers designed ranch houses for Joel McCrae, James W. Johnson, Kemper Campbell, Harold Tuttle, Y. R. Del Valle, and Leigh French. When John Byers died in Santa Monica, at the age of 91, he was still working in the Spanish-style office compound on 26th Street. For almost thirty years, Byers lived nearby in the third house he built for himself and his family at 2034 La Mesa Drive, a designated Santa Monica landmark located on the town's most architecturally significant street.

Byers' many celebrity clients included Constance Talmadge, Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer, Joel McCrea, Lionel Atwill, and George Temple (Shirley's father). In addition to Cary Grant, Byers' unique designs have been owned and/or occupied by Bette Davis, Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffiths, Michelle Pfeiffer and David E. Kelley, Dylan McDermott, Spencer Tracy, Walter Wanger, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, and Frank Sinatra. In a remarkable coincidence, the Byers-designed Talmadge Beach house in Santa Monica was occupied by Cary Grant and Randolph Scott in the 1930s.

A Tale Of Two Siblings

Siblings Julian St. John Nolan and Emily Martha Nolan were born to a well-to-do Chicago Travelers' Insurance Company executive. Julian was an 1895 Yale graduate who followed his father into the insurance business. Nolan's youngest sister, Emily Martha Nolan, was a petit 5'4" blue-eyed blond who was educated in France. In the mid-1920s, Julian moved to Los Angeles where he was soon introduced to the works of emerging Santa Monica architect John Byers. Known for his design and construction of "Latin" houses, Byers designed a home for Nolan in the Hollywood Hills. Byers' signature details were reflected in exterior stairs, recessed bookcases, exposed wood ceilings and rafters, and balconies. Sadly, Nolan's 1927 Hollywood home has been demolished.

In 1930, John Byers designed a second home for Julian Nolan in Palm Springs. Its distinctive elevations recall both Andalusian farmhouses and Swiss chalets. With its asymmetric gable-end roof, projecting overhangs, and outriggers from which a balcony is suspended, the home resembles a snow lodge as much as a Spanish-inspired desert retreat. Its shed-roofed wings with red clay tiles are also commonly found in the Alps. And the numerous chimney stacks suggest a home designed more for a cold climate than a desert. Since those who made the original design decisions are long dead, it is unlikely the design inspiration will ever be precisely determined. But other projects from Byers' portfolio share details with the Nolan/Jordan residence. Examples include the James W. Johnson Residence, the Kemper Campbell Ranch and the Harold Tuttle Ranch House in Las Turas (now Thousand Oaks). Each of these houses uses the end gable and exterior stair details found on the Palm Springs Julian Nolan Residence.

The Nolan family was listed in the Chicago Social Register, which confirms the 1903 marriage of Julian's sister Emily to Edwin Stanton Prieth. Her husband was a wealthy, progressive Princeton-educated journalist and the publisher of a German-oriented newspaper, the New Jersey Free Press. The paper was then the best known and most influential German-language newspaper in the United States. The Prieths had three children of their own: Emily, Benedict, and Richard.

The Prieths resided in New Jersey where they enjoyed a wealthy and privileged existence among the upper strata of Newark society. Extended trips abroad were an ongoing part of the family's lifestyle. An anti-war dissident, Emily's publisher husband was charged with sedition in New Jersey. Eventually the case was dismissed but, disenchanted with America, Prieth moved to Vienna in 1924 and he and Emily divorced. In 1926, Emily married prominent Berlin attorney, Sebastian Jordan. Shortly thereafter, her second husband was killed in an automobile accident, rumored to have been "arranged" by Nazi officials. Emily then returned to the United States. She never remarried and, beginning in the late 1930s, dedicated her life to the United World Federalist movement which sought to create a new world order and prevent future global wars. Her wealth still intact, she continued to travel extensively, completing nine voyages abroad between 1928 and 1939.

In 1930, Julian Nolan built the Palm Springs house designed by John Byers, transferring title to his sister Emily in 1934. After her final trip to Germany in 1939, Emily's fortunes were exhausted. Her son Richard moved into the Palm Springs house with her and she began taking-in borders. Additional accommodations were built by converting an original lath house above the garage to an apartment; other minor alterations include the insertion of two oval windows in the living room. Upon Emily's death the estate was divided evenly among her three children. The February 29, 1952 final accounting of the estate lists cash on hand (+/- $7,000); the house and furnishings; 440 shares of Travelers Insurance stock; and a 1944 Ford Cargo for a total value of $275,000. Photos taken just before the house was sold show an overgrown garden and a somewhat dilapidated building.

Grant's Pass

In 1954, Emily's heirs sold her home to Cary Grant's attorney, Stanley E. Fox. A month later, Fox transferred title to Cary Grant as his "sole and separate property" with the consent of Grant's wife, actress Betsy Drake. At Grant's direction Fox commissioned Grant's friend and architect Wallace Neff to expand the existing garage apartment to 2 bedrooms and 2 baths. Two sets of stairs were removed and a new stair access to the garage apartment was placed on the north side. The earlier garage expansion was redesigned by Neff to replicate the form of the original gabled-roof of the front façade. A swimming pool was also added.

In his book Cary Grant, A Biography, Mark Elliot describes how the Grants used the house: "the outdoor patio had what he referred to as 'the conference table', a large area with a Tamarisk tree in the center of it, around which Grant could read scripts and Drake could read, write and paint. The daily routine they established - what Drake called their excursion into the art of living in simplicity - was to get up early, ride across the desert to see the sun rise, then return to the house and prepare a breakfast of coffee, eggs, and bacon. Most days Grant spent at least an hour swimming. Upon occupying the house, Grant renamed it "Las Palomas" (Spanish for "the doves"). He and Betsy Drake divorced in 1962.

In 1965, Grant married actress Dyan Cannon; their troubled marriage lasted less than three years. Little of that time was spent at the Palm Springs house. Cannon remembered: "At the end of a long driveway, surrounded by beautifully manicured grounds, rested a magnificent Spanish Hacienda. The living room was spacious but cozy, with a floor of burnished red clay tile and a cavernous fireplace with the big white couches artfully arranged in front of it. Solid wooden beams ran the entire length of the high ceiling and wooden stairs led to a book-lined reading loft. " This is Cannon's only observation about the house. Their daughter, Jennifer Grant, revealed in her recent memoir that she was completely unfamiliar with the property.

Subsequent owners of the home include local physician Dr. Lewis Baldwin and his wife Gloria followed by professional body builder Frank Zane. Zane converted the former garage into a private gym that today serves as a family room. In 1998 the house was sold to the current owner who rehabilitated the house, occasionally borrowing details from other Spanish-inspired homes in the neighborhood. In the 2004 Palm Springs Citywide Survey, the house was determined eligible for listing at the local level on the National and State Registries; in 2010 it was designated a Palm Springs Class 1 Historic Site. Although the history of the Julian Nolan house was not well-known when it was designated, the magic of the Cary Grant association was considered sufficient to convey the protections of designation.

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