Becoming a City

Becoming a City

Vintage City Hall Rancho Mirage’s original elected leaders promptly rejected the notion that anyone within the newly designated boundaries should try to predict the city’s future. Ordinance No. 13, unanimously passed at the council’s first meeting on August 3, 1973, prohibited the practice of fortune telling and dissemination of devices used in connection therewith.

Verboten crystal balls and tarot cards stand out because everything else on the agenda covered the rudiments of new cityhood: e.g., adopting a city seal, selecting officials for various governing roles, establishing methods for taxing and setting speed limits, setting regular council meetings, and proposing a study of zoning and development of a general plan.

Mayor William J Rawitzer
Mayor William Rawitzer adhered to the spirit of Ordinance No. 13 but asserted that the council was devoted to making Rancho Mirage “a city that would be known nationwide for its gracious living and distinctive development.”

If anyone could appreciate the maxim “Rome was not built in a day,” it was a resident in the center of the Coachella Valley in the early 1970s. By the turn of the decade, only Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, and Palm Desert — among what is now a recognized region of nine cities — had yet to incorporate. The going was tough, as boundaries were disputed (especially in conflicting desires to claim Eisenhower Memorial Hospital and golf course-based country clubs within a jurisdiction) and some advocated for a one-bucket approach to scoop up the unincorporated region under one banner.

In 1972, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) heard arguments for the three cities-to-be. (LAFCOs, located in all 58 counties, oversee the establishment, expansion, governance, and dissolution of local government agencies to meet current and future community needs.)

“[I]t was obvious that the Rancho Mirage Incorporation Committee had gone to the most effort,” The Desert Sun newspaper reported. “An attorney made the presentation and covered the ground thoroughly, presenting numerous maps and results from what he described as polls.”

At the end of 1971, representatives of Thunderbird, Tamarisk, Mission Hills, and Desert Island country clubs, as well as the 200-acre-estate manager for billionaires Walter and Leonore Annenberg, issued a joint press release stating that they were hiring a firm to complete a feasibility study “for the purpose of incorporating a new city in Southern California” to conserve and enhance the area environmentally and to ensure a well-planned and orderly growth of residential and commercial properties.

Residents Choose Incorporation

In July 1973, voters cast 911 ballots in favor of and 169 ballots against incorporation. They simultaneously elected the first city council from a slate of 10 candidates: Leonard Krieger, Harold Pirret, William Rawitzer, Lloyd Tevis, and Edna Warner. According to the petition requesting election for incorporation, approximately 4,600 residents inhabited the “territory” of approximately 15.37 square miles (the city now covers 24.7 square miles) and approximately 1,548 people were registered voters. Residents, whether they voted or not, had until October 13 to change their addresses; after that date, mail addressed “Cathedral City” would be delayed one day.

Lucille Ball early 1960s After a swearing-in ceremony at Desert Island Country Club on August 3, the nascent council elected Rawitzer, a Thunderbird Country Club resident who had chaired the incorporation committee, as mayor and Tevis, a biologist living in the Clancy Lane community, as mayor pro tem. It is worth noting that Rawitzer was preceded in holding the Rancho Mirage mayoral title by actors Lucille Ball and Phil Harris, who served as honorary mayors (a chamber of commerce appointment) prior to incorporation.

The council wasted little time in protecting the vista of its horizon-stretching setting. On May 2, 1974, it created the Underground Utility Advisory Committee and on March 6, 1975, passed an ordinance requiring underground installation of utilities, setting the wheels in motion for an “amenity” unavailable to the vast U.S. populace.

As for the physical manifestation of cityhood operations, Warner helped secure a lease for offices vacated years earlier by a developer. The octagonal building with a center spire sat at a prime location: the intersection of Highway 111 and Frank Sinatra Drive. In 1976, the city acquired title to the property in a grant deed from Federated Development Co. and in 1979 completed construction of an 18,000-square-foot structure behind the octagon. In 1996, the city dedicated a remodeling/expansion that brought City Hall up to date — most notably with the removal of the original “witch’s hat” roof — and added 12,350 square feet to the existing 17,600. Ever cognizant of the natural environment’s fragility, city officials undertook a 2008 relandscaping around City Hall that became a Sustainable Sites Initiative case study as “an example of high-quality, sustainable site development.”

In 1976, the City’s first fire station opened on land donated by Thunderbird Country Club on Highway 111, followed by a second on Gerald Ford Drive in 1992. Sparing no expense for public safety and emergency, the City contracts the services of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and the Riverside County Fire Department.

The City’s first library opened in 1996 in the renovated former Bank of America building in the Rancho Las Palmas shopping center. In 2000, the Annenbergs donated $2 million to build a library on Highway 111. The venue opened on January 8, 2006, one day after the city library’s 10th anniversary. In 2018, Rancho Mirage marked a rarity in public library offerings when it opened an observatory.

RM Library
RM Observatory
Country Club City

In 1974, The Desert Sun ran the headline “Rancho Mirage is Becoming a Country Club City” over an article about enormous changes taking place in land acquisition and development prior to and immediately following the city’s incorporation.

By this time, Desert Island was offering 226 condominiums in three towers arranged on an island, surrounded by the Dennis Muirhead–designed 18-hole golf course and a 25-acre lake. It remains a special oasis, the only high-rise club in the Coachella Valley. Mission Hills Country Club had also opened: 680 acres included 170 acres of golf courses and a grand clubhouse with dramatic views. More than 100 condominiums were built, and hundreds more were underway. The Springs was not yet open, but the land — a former ranch owned by Irwin Schuman, creator of the Chi Chi club and owner of the Riviera Hotel — was being cleared for 862 units and a stylish clubhouse at the center of its 390 acres. Sunrise Country Club was planning 744 homes on 190 acres with all the country club facilities commensurate with its name.

62_desert island country club

Acknowledging the precedent set by Thunderbird and Tamarisk, the Desert Sun article opined that there were “probably more acres of golf courses per capita contained in the boundaries of country clubs in this small desert city than anywhere else in the world,” and concluded that “there is room for more.” Which, of course, turned out to be the case.

Country club lake

In years to come, homebuyers could choose from tennis estates like the Rancho Mirage Racquet Club or Lake Mirage — complete with its own waterway, country clubs like Rancho Mirage Country Club, Sunrise, or the Springs, or numerous planned housing developments with an enticing range of communal and recreational facilities. Homes at Rancho Las Palmas had the added benefit of a hotel and full-scale resort at its center. The City of Rancho Mirage became a popular place to either own a second home or retire in comfort.

In the 1980s, the scale of development was still significant. Most notable was Morningside Country Club. Designed to be one of the most luxurious of the private clubs, it started construction in 1982 with a substantial budget of $240 million to build 420 luxury residences, a $5.5 million, 51,000-square-foot clubhouse, and the Jack Nicklaus–designed 18-hole golf course.

Country club flowers around lake

For much of the 1980s, Mirada Estates on the hillside adjacent to The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage hotel was delayed by legal wrangles. The hotel opened in 1988, and the first home was built in 1989. When development was ultimately approved to include only homes (but no golf course as the developers had planned) on the edge of the Santa Rosa Mountains, then-mayor Jeffrey Bleaman accurately predicted that this would be the last hillside development in the city. The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains were designated as a national monument in 2000, making Mirada even more exclusive. Owners of some of the most imaginative homes in the Coachella Valley not only share their backyard with the protected land and the Peninsular bighorn sheep that roam the area, but they also appreciate the facilities of The Ritz-Carlton and valleywide vistas.

As the new millennium dawned, Rancho Mirage continued to grow. At least 80 percent of residences in Rancho Mirage are now in gated enclaves, providing security and peace of mind to both full- and part-time residents. A city that emerged from agricultural ranches to embrace country club living and resort communities continues to welcome new generations of residents and visitors to enjoy desert living at its best.

The Rise of Restaurant Row

The city’s 1979 amended general plan noted that commercial development ran primarily along Highway 111 and specifically mentioned “the creation of ‘Restaurant Row,’ which should be recognized as an asset to the City.”
Front view of restaurant
Dining establishments gained a foothold in Rancho Mirage as early as 1966, when Ron Fletcher opened the English countryside inn-inspired Lord Fletcher’s with a fascinating collection of authentic art, antique swords and lances, tapestries, beer steins, and bric-a-brac — all selected by Fletcher and shipped from England. A portrait of Sir Winston Churchill — the last of four painted by A. Edgerton Cooper — greets guests and reflects the intimacy and familiarity of the restaurant felt by the guests, who included Rancho Mirage homeowners Lucille Ball, Walter Annenberg, Kirk Douglas, and Gerald Ford. Frank Sinatra, who became a close friend of Fletcher and his son Michael, was perhaps the restaurant’s best known and most loyal customer.

Interior of restaurantEach dining room of the restaurant had its own special appeal. Some guests opted for the lively bar with its collection of English Toby mugs. Others enjoyed the main dining room or the intimate Shakespeare Room, which contained 200-year-old etchings depicting scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. The menu specialties included certified Angus Prime Rib, roasted in the time-proven manner and served with Yorkshire pudding, creamed spinach, and English rice pudding, made fresh daily and served with raspberries or cinnamon and whipped cream. After dinner, guests enjoy Lord Fletcher’s Royal Brandy Ice, an exotic ice cream drink.

Restaurant Row began developing in earnest in the 1970s and came into its own in the ’80s.

Florencio Delgado, founder of the Mexican restaurant Las Casuelas in Palm Springs, purchased 15 acres a half-mile up the road from Lord Fletcher’s in 1971 and opened Las Casuelas Nuevas four months before Rancho Mirage’s incorporation.

Man and woman on patio

“My grandfather always envisioned Restaurant Row,” lifelong local Andres Delgado says of his grandfather, Florencio ‘Del’ Delgado, who, with his wife Mary, launched the Las Casuelas restaurant empire. The success of its first eatery, which opened in Palm Springs in 1958, encouraged them to realize Las Casuelas Nuevas — a more luxurious venue with a focus on architecture and design. “The valley was moving east. I remember hearing him talk, saying the next big spot would be [on] Highway 111.”

Rendering of mission-style restaurant

The Delgados worked with architect Arthur Valdes to design a cozy restaurant inspired by Spanish haciendas less than one mile from Thunderbird Country Club. During construction, they imported a number of materials from across the border, including wrought iron railings, volcanic cantera stone, and the handmade bricks that make up the plaza-style main dining room. “The bricks came from a fallen building in Mexico,” Andres recalls.

The couple added open-air dining in 1983, designing a spacious patio in partnership with architect Raul Sosa and sourcing stone fountains and antique light fixtures from Mexico. (Lalo Guerrero, the Arizona–born singer and guitarist known for his activism and influence on Chicano music, used to strum his guitar beneath those lights.)

Delgado’s son, Joaquin, and his wife, Sharon, represented the second generation of ownership. “One of my earliest memories of my mom in the kitchen was the strong smell of hot chilies cooking for the salsa,” Joaquin told Palm Springs Life. “This particular Las Casuelas restaurant, Nuevas, is the realization of my parents’ life-long dream. Mom was the ‘face’ of the restaurant and Dad made sure everything was just right.”

Today, Andres and his brother, Nicolas, co-own the restaurant, doing their best to maintain the Delgados’ original vision. “It still looks like you’re stepping back into Mexico 50 years ago,” Andres says.

It tastes that way, too. Many of the restaurant’s recipes come from Florencio’s grandmother, Maria Fajardo Delgado, who perfected her enchiladas, salsas, and other dishes in the early 20th century in Mazatlán, Mexico.

“To continue sharing our heritage with family recipes and old-fashioned hospitality makes us very proud,” Andres says.

The similarly iconic Chart House Restaurant made its debut in 1978. Designed by architect Kendrick Bangs Kellogg — whose structures, including the Doolittle House in Joshua Tree, were distinguished by their remarkably alien curvature — the chain’s Rancho Mirage location was an area- and era-defining work of organic modernism. Beneath its low-slung, scalloped roof and amid stately wooden columns, diners enjoyed king crab, mahi mahi, New York strip, and other steak and seafood entrées.

The city designated the structure as a historic landmark in 2004, preserving its appearance even as its dining concept changed under successive restauranteurs. A fire gutted the building in 2012, and a year later, the Rancho Mirage City Council voted to demolish what remained.

One of the early Restaurant Row institutions that has stood the test of time is the white-linen fine-dining establishment Wally’s Desert Turtle. Restauranteur Wally Botello opened the eatery in 1978, dubbing it the Desert Turtle in reference to his popular steakhouse chain, The Velvet Turtle. “He wanted it to be something the desert had never seen,” explains Wally’s granddaughter, Maddy Botello, who now runs the business. Wally’s son, Michael, stewarded the business for a generation before his daughter took over.

Wally envisioned a dining room where good design mattered as much as good food. He tapped a young associate at designer Arthur Elrod’s Palm Springs showroom to help craft the Desert Turtle aesthetic. “He designed my grandfather’s condo for him, and [Wally] loved the way he did it,” Maddy explains. That designer was Steve Chase, who went on to shape the California style in Rancho Mirage, landing clients such as Farrah Fawcett and Johnny Mathis, and gracing the pages of Architectural Digest more frequently than any of his contemporaries.

Chase gave the restaurant a classic Old Hollywood feel but infused Moroccan elements, bringing romance with twinkly lights, chandeliers, and riveting hand-painted murals and comfort with cozy booths. Because everything from the furniture to the fixtures is custom-crafted and one-of-a-kind, and because Wally’s Desert Turtle is the only commercial restaurant to which Chase contributed his talents, Maddy and her family have left the décor at Wally’s largely untouched throughout the eatery’s history.

The design isn’t the only enduring feature at Wally’s. Diners can order the French/continental cuisine that they — or their parents or grandparents — enjoyed in the restaurant’s first year under the original chef, Jean-Louis Jalouneix.

Wally’s has served the A-list over generations, including legends such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. and helped prove that restaurants could be successful following a seasonal model. “One of the reasons the desert took [a while] to develop was because people didn’t think they could run a business for only six or seven months out of the year and survive,” Maddy says. “But Wally’s was so busy. They saw it with us, and I think that’s [part of] what started Restaurant Row.”

Kobe Japanese Steak House, a teppan establishment whose design was inspired by a 17th-century Japanese inn, also opened on Restaurant Row in 1978. Restauranteurs Hy Aisenstat and Rod Gardiner created an environment with charming pagodas and a tranquil koi pond to greet diners, who are then seated among imported Japanese antiques.

The restaurant has changed ownership over the years but continues to see repeat customers. Manager Mariano Garcia says he frequently spots as many as four or five generations seated around the grills at Kobe. “Parents or grandparents brought their little ones when they were 2 or 3 years old,” Garcia says, “and then it became a tradition to come to Kobe every year for celebrations or get-togethers.”

These locales — plus Cask n’ Cleaver, Dominics, La Cave, Fromin’s deli, Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus, and others — placed Rancho Mirage on the culinary map, and over time, other major players made their own mark on the scene. Chef Milan Tojagic began working in restaurants in the United Kingdom in the 1970s. After moving to La Quinta in 1984, he was a maître d at Palm Springs’ Le Vallauris before launching his own restaurant, Shame on the Moon (named for the contemplative 1981 Rodney Crowell tune of the same name) in Cathedral City and relocating it to Restaurant Row in 1995.

Other favorites on Restaurant Row are the tapas-focused Catalan Mediterranean Restaurant, Enzo’s Italian restaurant, Norma’s Italian Kitchen, Talay Thai, and the more casual Palms Café.

Marie Callender’s sliced and served sweet and savory pies for a decade on the Row, and founder Don Callender’s other Rancho Mirage venture, Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewery — the first brewery in the Coachella Valley — remains in business.