California’s Rock Legend

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California's Rock Legend
A view of Joshua Tree National Park from Kendrick Bangs Kellogg-designed organic modern house

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California's Rock Legend
A view of Joshua Tree National Park from Kendrick Bangs Kellogg-designed organic modern house

The five-page note came by mail, unbidden, in March 1986, handwritten on plain paper in a pleasant scrawl:

“Dear Mr. Kellogg,

My wife and I recently purchased a very interesting, though unconventional, building site in the California desert. . . .”

Sent by a pair of artists, Jay and Bev Doolittle, the letter was the beginning of a relationship that would result in perhaps the most unsung great residence in America by one of architecture’s least-known major talents. While it was John Lautner, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, who gained international fame for his works in the California modern organic style during its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, Kendrick Bangs Kellogg, now 80 and still practicing, has championed the style and pushed it beyond what even Lautner, who died in 1994, might have imagined. The house Kellogg built for the Doolittles on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, an hour from Palm Springs, is arguably his apotheosis: a nearly 5,000-square-foot marvel of engineering in which every inch, inside and out, including the furnishings, is hand-hewn from natural materials using soaring, twisting, curvilinear forms that are at once trippy and ambitious and — perhaps surprisingly — serene.

The house appears suddenly, atop a sprawling five-story-high pile of rounded boulders, perched like an alien spaceship or a giant armadillo. Seen up close at the end of a winding path beyond the spiky Brutalist fence welded by John Vugrin, the craftsman who labored for two decades on the house’s interiors, the structure seems both part of the ancient landscape and otherworldly. Technically wall-less, it is formed of 26 enormous cantilevered concrete columns sunk seven feet into the bedrock. Each column, which Kellogg bathed in molasses to achieve a natural texture, fans out like an airplane wing at the top, overlapping the next to form a roof line. Between the columns, virtually invisible from many vantage points, is thick tempered glass that lets wide stripes of light fall into the house during the day; at night, from the dining table or the curved leather built-in sofa in front of the copper-hooded fireplace, the stars are visible in the vast desert sky. []

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