The following article is edited and re-published from California Desert Art, a doorway to the rich bohemian world of early desert artists.
On a springtime night in 2009, Ariel Zepeda and friends enacted a hallowed ritual for Palm Springs high school students. With their flashlights pointed at their feet to avoid detection, they crept below the flying saucer Bob Hope house, steering their way by the city lights below. When four little rock houses came into view, the teenagers shut off their beams, feeling jittery. They recalled the legends they'd heard — tales passed around local schools for 50 years or more — of tiny men with BB guns who chased away trespassers.
They tiptoed on past a broken vacuum cleaner and abandoned dolls, coming to a dwelling that reminded Zepeda of the Shire in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." The house was round, the window was round; everything looked homemade and squat. Then someone turned off a shower inside and the kids scrambled for safety, exclaiming as they charged past a little Volkswagen bus clearly made for a Hobbit.
The teenagers were on a mission to find a mythical town — Munchkinville — supposedly inhabited by little people from the 1930s MGM classic "The Wizard of Oz." What they found was something nearly as magical: A masterwork of organic architecture by a virtually forgotten 1920s Palm Springs architect, R. Lee Miller. While Palm Springs is busy saving everything shiny and mid-century, Miller's earthy dwellings have been neglected and are falling apart. "Miller worked in extremely difficult areas to build on and left us some amazing places that are unlike anything else in the desert," says longtime Palm Springs resident and Miller fan Les Starks. "His incredible work is hidden in plain sight."
In addition to Araby, Miller built some of the homes in the secretive enclave above the Indian Canyons, the Andreas Canyon Club. The private community, founded in 1923, features homes that grow right out of the rock, concealed like reclusive desert animals. "No one knows they exist because of the way Miller built the houses there — they literally disappear on the hillside," Les Starks says.
If there is an architecture native to Palm Springs, I'll vote for Miller's twin creations: the Araby rock houses and the Andreas Canyon Club. (Miller purchased 330 acres above Ramon Road from the photographer Fred Clatworthy and had a plan to build yet another hillside village there, but it was never completed.) Why, then, in an era of unprecedented architecture worship, is the consummate Palm Springs builder forgotten? One reason is that Miller's own story is elusive. Like his hillside dwellings, he was good at disappearing.
Robert Lee Miller was born in Hill, Texas in 1887. He served in World War I and trained in civil engineering, then turned to carpentry when he came to Palm Springs. According to Starks: "Frank Bogert [the late Palm Springs cowboy mayor] described him as an artist who carved and painted the massive beam structures in old Las Palmas digs for Alvah Hicks and other builders."
Miller had no formal training in architecture, yet he built many early Palm Springs residences, including Pearl McManus's 1936 Casablanca Adobe — designated a Class 1 Historic site by the City. He designed the Lawrence Davidson home in the Mesa for the president of US Steel. Miller built an adobe-and-rock home next to present-day Moorten Botanical Garden for the English actor Reginald Owen. The current owner, Karen Braff, grew up in the home and herself heard the Hobbitville legend in school.
Yet Miller's Indian houses, as he called the Araby complex, had to be closest to his heart. This was also his home for many years. The first house was completed by 1925; then in 1929 the Desert Sun announced that Miller was building a Hopi Village on 20 acres of hillside he owned in Araby. Borrowing influences from Hopi and Navajo culture was common in the desert at the time. Many local artists such as Jimmy Swinnerton and R. Brownell McGrew were going off to seek inspiration with the tribes. The legendary homesteader Cabot Yerxa later built his own Hopi-style house in Desert Hot Springs, and may have borrowed ideas from Miller. (Cabot's former home, now Cabot's Pueblo Museum, is open to the public.)
The enigmatic Miller does show up now and then in early society columns. In one entry from 1940, we're told that he wore an ancient hat — "wide and floppy and discolored" — and there was quite a stir around town when he replaced it. "Lee Miller has a new hat...a big and splendidly white new Stetson."
An archival photo shows R. Lee Miller, "noted artist-architect," with Mrs. Jack Pfister of Chicago: "Sun bathers inaugurate the winter season at Palm Springs, America's Sahara." They are seated on Miller's patio, with Miller dressed in crisp resort wear.
Both the photo and the society columns suggest Palm Springs' gentry. Yet Miller's Araby houses were more boho than garden party. They featured native rock, handcrafted doors, windows and shelves; handcrafted ironwork for the door latches, and handmade fireplace tools and anvils. Some of the masonry around the houses was stamped with Hopi designs. There's a parallel equestrian motif, with horseshoes and tie rings embedded in the concrete. The floors were a psychedelic swirl of green, yellow, blue and pink rock. "It's still a mystery as to his method," former rock house resident Toni King once said. The late New York hairstylist who served a celebrity clientele at her salon in downtown Palm Springs, King lived in one of the Araby cottages for more than 30 years.
In a 1992 interview with Margo Mateas, King said R. Lee Miller admired the Indians of California, Arizona and New Mexico. "[He] could leap up the side of the mountain behind the rock houses like a deer or an antelope. Legend has it he could sprint straight up Tahquitz Falls, all the way to Idyllwild."
While I appreciate this Nature Boy portrayal of Miller, it doesn't quite fit the society dandy in the photos. It's possible the flamboyant Toni King was building her own mythology — or it's possible R. Lee Miller was exactly as described: an ecstatic shaman-architect making mad leaps up Tahquitz Falls.
The rock village seemed to have a special draw for women. One of the original residents, Perle Wheeler Martin, lived in the Casa Contenta house for years. Her initials — PWM — are stamped in the patio concrete. After her came the stylish Swedish artist and arts patron Christina Lillian. A friend to the transcendental Cathedral City artist Agnes Pelton, Lillian operated an arts colony at the hillside Shire — renting the homes to artists such as landscape painter Burt Procter. (An exhibit of Agnes Pelton's work is currently on view at the Phoenix Art Museum and is slated for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2020.)
The hairstylist Toni King was an expert horsewoman who threw big parties at the house she called The Cave. Her friend and neighbor Virginia Moore was a Chicago transplant and former fashion model. Both women enjoyed sleeping on the roofs of their rock houses (there's even a built-in rooftop barbecue grill) and waving shotguns to chase away intruders. Toni King would arise from her rooftop boudoir and go galloping down the wash at dawn on her big bay, Abner.
In the years since Toni and Virginia lived there, a variety of equally vivid residents have made their own rockhouse myths. Constance Walsh, a Joshua Tree artist and writer, lived there in the late 1970s. The gun-toting Toni King gave her a horse, Mucho Gusto. "I loved living there in the eight-by-twelve foot little structure that held everything I needed," she says. "When scorpions the size of baby lobsters started trotting into my room, it was time to go."
The current owner of two of the homes, David Levy, is himself somewhat mythical. In the late 1970s, the Los Angeles architect was looking for a Palm Springs pad for his young family. He rode his bike through neighborhoods, leaving notes on doors: Know of anything for sale? Wheeling around Araby one day he came to a locked gate and glimpsed a tiny stone house down the draw. Soon after, he saw an ad in the newspaper: 20 acres and a little rock house. It was destiny.
When Levy moved in, vestiges of the early Araby colony remained. Toni King and Virginia Moore were neighbors. His wife baked them fruitcakes and they all became friends.
Levy himself became a character in the Munchkinville myth. When teenage trespassers encountered the protective homeowner, they took to calling him the Mayor of Midgetville. (The word "midget" is today considered to be derogatory. The preferred terms are "person with dwarfism" or "person with short stature.")
Colonies for little people actually are an archetypal urban legend, sprouting up anywhere small dwellings are found. But this particular legend may have more grounding than most. R. Lee Miller was an acquaintance of Frank Morgan, who played the wizard in the Oz movie; some believe Miller had a hand in designing Morgan's home in Rancho Mirage. It's possible that Miller's wizard friend — as well as other members of The Wizard of Oz team who lived in Palm Springs — were sighted at the rock houses, giving rise to the enduring tale.
Also, of course, the houses do appear Lilliputian. Levy says the structures are built like bunkers tucked into the hillside, with steps leading down to the front doors. "As an architect I saw the significance of the houses right away," he says. "There's just so much work that went into building them — that's what attracted me. I cannot imagine how Lee Miller was able to put these things together."
Like previous residents, Levy was entranced by the details: coves and niches, Hopi symbols and handmade hardware. Levy and his family lived there for decades. His daughter, a Palm Springs high school graduate, grew up in Munchkinville.
Over time, though, the upkeep of the earth-friendly houses became a burden and Levy moved out. King and Moore had long been gone, and after Levy left the houses were abandoned for long periods. The rooms filled up with spiders and snakeskins. They sprang leaks and began to deteriorate. Even with Levy in residence again today, the handmade Hobbitville is slipping away.
If you stand in the center of the huddle, you'll feel like you're at the apex of an abandoned ruin. It looks like boulders tumbled down the hillside and assembled themselves into a hamlet, now being reabsorbed by the earth. The legendary round house, owned by Julie Kay Rupp, has been completely restored, but otherwise the huts appear vacant. Windows are broken and boarded; the rock walls are crumbling and shredded; tarps flap in the wind.
Even if the houses vanish entirely — which seems possible — the legend of Munchkins with BB guns likely will hang around Araby Cove forever. Ariel Zepeda, now a Cal State University San Bernardino student, says the memories of his teenage stealth raid are impervious to time and decay. "We drove home that night with stories that we would keep forever," he says.
Please be advised there is no public access to the rock houses and the local residents are quick to call police on intruders. The best way to get a glimpse of R. Lee Miller's creation is from the Araby wash or the levee behind the Smoke Tree Commons shopping center, which is on Highway 111 east of Palm Springs' downtown.
For a closer look, you can book a stay in Julie Kay Rupp's round house, an R. Lee Miller creation that is now a vacation rental.
More houses by R. Lee Miller can be found in Palm Springs' Citywide Historic Context Statement and Survey.
Top Image: The round house in the 1970s. The other rock houses are to the right outside the frame. | Courtesy of Palm Springs Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.