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Midnight at The Oasis

A Kitschy Vintage Motel Gets a New Life as a Personal--and Public--Resort in Desert Hot Springs

February 11, 2001|BARBARA THORNBURG

At dusk in the desert, the rusted sign casts a shadow across the low-slung motel, conjuring up the ramshackle lodgings in the film "Bagdad Cafe."

"It's an odd second home," says L.A. designer April Greiman, whose weekend retreat is essentially a room. She was a frequent visitor during the '80s to the motel and spa, which were built in 1948 and dubbed Miracle Manor. Greiman and her significant other, architect Michael Rotondi, purchased it in 1997 and renamed it Miracle Manor Retreat.

The revamped building, which continues to serve as a five-room motel and spa as well as the couple's weekend retreat, is across the street from the historic adobe home of Cabot Yerxa, Desert Hot Springs' founding settler. Yerxa, a homesteader who arrived in 1913, routinely traveled 14 miles on his black burro, Merry Xmas, to the railroad water tank at Garnet to get water. When he discovered the mineral hot springs, he christened the area Miracle Hill.

In Greiman's visiting days, the motel rooms were crowded with kitschy Naugahyde tuck-and-roll thrift-store furniture, pink metal dresser cabinets and manicurist tables that served as night tables. "Absolutely nothing matched," she says. Light blue walls, '60s plastic light fixtures and a brown-and-rust shag carpet finished off the decor.

But what struck the design duo was how disconnected the rooms were from their environment. "You had no idea you were in the middle of the desert," Greiman says. Heavy drapes covered the windows facing the courtyard while an air-conditioning unit jammed the only one with a view.

To open up the space, they punched a 2-by-8-foot-long horizontal window into each room. "I can lie in my bed now and see Mt. San Jacinto," says Rotondi of the snow-capped peak that looms over the desert, which is peppered with cactus, creosote and mesquite. A small bedroom from the original manager's residence combined with one of the motel rooms created the bedroom suite the couple now consider their home-away-from-home. Five-foot-square plywood panels with concrete borders have replaced the shag carpeting. The panels repeat across the floor in the manner of Japanese tatami floor mats.

"It feels very Asian," Greiman says. "We don't wear any shoes in the room. It's a physical acknowledgment that differentiates the public and private." In keeping with an Asian ambience, furnishings are kept to the bare essentials: a bed and desk, a small table and chair. There is no art on the walls.

"It's uncluttered compared to our Franklin Hills home," she says. "We made a decision not to put any personal information into the rooms--both ours and our guests'. Our motto is: 'Put nothing more than you need to be here.' It was important to keep the space visually quiet."

Sometimes, around dusk, the couple hear a coyote howling or the passing of an occasional motorcycle or car. "Otherwise, it's incredibly peaceful," Greiman says.

"The architecture needed to be quiet and the spaces silent in order to let people calm down," Rotondi says. "What we're all after is some peace and quiet."

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