Huell Howser is passionate about California. The television host and producer of the PBS program "California's Gold" has made his reputation as an everyman searching for amazing stories of everyday California life, from iconic Clifton's Cafeteria--one of his favorite downtown eateries--to little-known neighborhoods such as historic Angelino Heights. "Our stories set out to reveal the richness of life in California, including its history, people, culture and natural wonders," Howser says.
A Tennessee transplant who arrived in Los Angeles in 1981 to work as a reporter for KCBS-TV, Howser first visited Twentynine Palms a decade ago while exploring for features for his program. "I was covering the relocation of the Old School House--the first public building in Morongo Valley--by the local historical society, and we all had lunch afterward at the Twentynine Palms Inn," Howser says. " I fell in love with the desert and the straight-talking people who live there."
When a 1953 ranch-style home he had admired became available, he bought it the next day. The house, which had belonged to the Dunn family for nearly five decades, had one of the few pools in town and, Howser says, was a gathering place for the community. ''Nearly everyone in the area had been out swimming or to dinner, including me,'' he says. ''I think houses take on the feeling of their owners, and this one had good vibes.''
Howser made a promise to the family to keep up the home and its entertaining tradition. The house was in excellent condition and needed only minor work. ''Mostly I pared away some layers,'' Howser says. He called architect Hagy Belzberg in Santa Monica to help with the renovation and add on a new bedroom suite. They began with a few cosmetic changes, such as removing the Mexican pavers in the foyer, the kitchen linoleum and the wall-to-wall carpeting, and updated the concrete floor by resurfacing it for a more polished appearance. In the living room, they freshened walls with white paint, added new doors and windows and took down all heavy drapery. ''I don't have a single window covering,'' Howser says. ''I want to enjoy my desert views.''
They next turned their attention to opening up a long storage shed adjacent to the house. ''It was probably a former carport that they enclosed,'' Howser says. Belzberg converted the shed into an indoor-outdoor living space, keeping the roof and supports for the structure but gutting everything else. He added a perforated steel wall in the south-facing room that acts as a sun-screening device while allowing breezes to pass through and keep the room cool even on hot desert days. ''The wall is also transparent,'' Belzberg says. ''It acts like a veil so anyone driving into the courtyard gets hints and peeks at what's beyond . . . a sort of teaser for the house.''
A Richard Serra exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary inspired the exterior wall. Howser, who has a fascination for raw industrial objects, found the 8-by-20-foot steel plates--which weigh in at a ton and a half apiece--at a steel plant in Ontario. Belzberg then designed the dramatic wall of tilted, saw-toothed plates that gradually emerges from the desert to encircle the desert compound. ''It took five guys six weeks with a crane to install them. It ended up costing as much as the house,'' Howser says.
Inside the compound, Howser decorated the outdoor room with mid-century furnishings he purchased from secondhand and consignment stores in Palm Springs. ''I don't know the names of any of the pieces,'' Howser says. ''I buy furniture based on how comfortable it is. Besides, I have a PBS pocketbook, not a CBS one.'' Furnishings in sherbet colors--tangerine, citrus, pistachio--mix with industrial pieces that Howser collects and transforms into functional objects. A doughnut-shaped aluminum air duct serves as a coffee table; copper sheets salvaged from a scrap metal yard are organic-shaped light fixtures. Several 100-year-old grinding wheels from Gladding, McBean pottery, a tile factory Howser once featured on his show, provide additional seating when he hosts large groups. "I make my living finding stories that other people pass by. But everyone and everything has a story to tell," he says. "Raw industrial objects have an innate beauty for me. I sometimes wish they could talk."
Sandwiched between the living room and pool, a fire pit with a seating ledge offers warmth on cold desert nights. On summer evenings, the party often moves out to the pool, which Howser and Belzberg extended by 12 feet, creating a shallow shelf six inches deep for dining alfresco. ''I put the dining table and chairs in the water and eat with my feet in the water,'' Howser says. Later, he might carry out a mattress and sleep under the stars. ''I never get tired of looking up at the desert sky. This is what California living is all about .''
HOME, Pages 20-26: Hagy Belzberg, Belzberg Architects, Santa Monica, (310) 453-9611. Page 20: Taschen's ''Case Study Houses,'' $150, at OK, Los Angeles, (323) 653 3501; Jonathan Adler black Moko bowl, $440, at Jonathan Adler, Los Angeles, (323) 658-8930. Page 26: Domino set, $20, at OK; Jonathan Adler pink and orange pillow, $95 each, at Jonathan Adler; vintage yellow uranium glass bowl, $325, at Modernica, Los Angeles, (323) 933-0383.