The postwar consumer boom increased tourism southeast of Palm Springs, and the lifestyle focused on outdoor recreation encouraged many visitors to put down roots in the area that would become Rancho Mirage. The shift began in the late 1940s, when several agricultural ranches were converted into guest ranches.

Aerial of Tamarisk Country Club

The creation and success of a city is usually based on geography or economy or a combination of the two. San Francisco flourished due to its proximity to the gold rush; Los Angeles had a major international port as well as the movie industry. Fort Worth grew from the stockyards, New York from the stock exchange. Rancho Mirage owes its growth to the rapid success of two country clubs created in the early 1950s: Thunderbird and Tamarisk.

The clubs introduced a lifestyle that was previously untested in the United States, with custom houses built alongside manicured fairways. Course-adjacent sites with panoramic views and mountainous backdrops encouraged the architectural experimentation that became known as “desert modern.”

First, in 1946, horseman Frank Bogert paid $34,000 for 663 acres to open Thunderbird Ranch away from the desert’s social center to the west and closer to the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains. Among its first investors were Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, Phil Harris and Alice Faye, and tire company titan Leonard Firestone. The dude ranch had a focus on horse riding, chuckwagon breakfasts, and Western-style activity.

Thunderbird and Tamarisk Country Clubs

Four years later, as the popularity of golf eclipsed other activities, the guest ranch became Thunderbird Country Club. It gained fame in 1951 as the desert’s first 18-hole golf course. Amateur golfer-turned-developer Johnny Dawson was surveying the Coachella Valley for a location to create a course when Bogert suggested Thunderbird Ranch as the ideal site.

Country Club home w/poolTamarisk Country Club quickly followed, with Ben Hogan as its golf pro. The February 1952 opening garnered nine pages of articles and congratulatory ads in The Desert Sun. Bogert welcomed a second 18-hole course, stating that it would “mean more to putting Palm Springs on the map as a winter golf center than anyone can anticipate.”

Thunderbird and Tamarisk Country Club were the first clubs built in a desert environment — where entertainment celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and the Marx Brothers rubbed shoulders with politicians, sports figures, and titans of industry. U.S. presidents were regular visitors, starting in 1954 with Eisenhower, who played both courses during his historic visit. The presidential parade continued through the decades with Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Ford, both Bushes, Clinton, and Obama, earning Rancho Mirage its nickname “Playground of Presidents.” Gerald and Betty Ford retired to an elegant late-modern home in Thunderbird, next door to their friend Leonard Firestone, who by then had served as U.S. Ambassador to Belgium.

Frank Sinatra w/caddy on golf course

In 1955, the Thunderbird course hosted the prestigious Ryder Cup. By 1958, the club’s members hailed from 31 states and Canada and included Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Leonard Firestone, Clark Gable, Edgar Bergen, Dean Martin, Hoagy Carmichael, composer Jimmy Van Heusen, aviators Reuben H. Fleet and Jacqueline Cochran, and architect William F. Cody. Now honored as an icon of midcentury modern design, Cody adapted existing ranch buildings and designed a new clubhouse and cottages. Cody also designed the original clubhouse at Tamarisk.

Bing Crosby was one of the first to build at Thunderbird Heights, once known as Thunderbird Ranch Estates. Homes spread up the hill until 1970; one of the final home sites, at the very top, was sold to socialite and scratch golfer Maxine and Howard Cook. They built a sprawling, 20,000-square-foot, Mayan-style compound. Named Ichpa Mayapan, the home appeared on the cover of and in a 12-page article in Palm Springs Life in 1973. Its dimensions and location make it easily visible from almost any point in the city. Painstakingly restored in recent years by the current owners, interior designer Michael S. Smith and former U.S. Ambassador to Spain James Costos, it has received President Obama on several occasions.

Men golfing
Blue Skies Trailer Village

A March 1955 article in The Desert Sun reported that Bing Crosby was flipping blueberry pancakes at a Sunday brunch in the Blue Skies Village trailer park that opened New Year’s Day “right next door to beautiful Thunderbird Country Club.”

Villager magazine 1957

Realizing that not everyone wanted or could afford a luxury custom residence alongside the country club fairways, property developers purchased nearby land to build smaller homes. An early planned development was Crosby’s Blue Skies Village. Trailer parks were popular in postwar Palm Springs as an inexpensive, low-maintenance alternative to a vacation home, with resort facilities on tap. At the peak of his career with White Christmas, Crosby had confidence soliciting investment from his entertainment friends. Forty-eight signed up, among them Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Humphrey Bogart, Claudette Colbert, Danny Kaye, Sam Goldwyn, Greer Garson, and Ira Gershwin.

Crosby purchased 22 acres of land adjoining Highway 111 and hired architect William F. Cody to master plan the village. Each space was angled to avoid any sense of crowding and to maximize views. Lots included a 10-by-30-foot patio, parking space, and storage. Winding streets named for the entertainers who invested, hundreds of palm trees, and underground utilities added to the village feel.

When it opened, Blue Skies Trailer Village, named in honor of the 1946 musical starring Crosby and Fred Astaire, featured a dance hall and clubhouse, a 65-foot swimming pool, landscaped grounds, shuffleboard courts, a nine-hole pitch and putt course, and laundry facilities. To this day, entrance to the village is via Bing Crosby Road and the gate that features Crosby’s instantly recognizable silhouette, complete with pipe. Life and Look magazines ran enthusiastic stories about Blue Skies, fueling its success. In time, mobile homes replaced trailers with fanciful “set designs” that mimicked Tara from Gone with the Wind, pyramids, or Japanese tea houses.

Developments, Co-Ops, and Condos

Planned developments also took the form of small communities of individual homes — either communal tracts like Tamarisk Ranchos, where Groucho Marx had his weekend home, or custom homes like Thunderbird North, where homeowners shared a community pool, gardens, and maintenance. Valley of the Sun, near Tamarisk, was a tract of 15 single-family homes, each with its own swimming pool, designed by Palmer & Krisel, Los Angeles architects known for their modernist designs and attention to detail that gave tract homes individuality.1957 diagram of house

Always, the primary selling point was proximity to Tamarisk, Thunderbird, or both. Desert Braemar was no exception. One of the first co-operative communities built in the area, it was the creation of the Braemar Corporation, which had succeeded with this style of multifamily housing elsewhere in Southern California. Designed by Los Angeles architect John C. Lindsay, Desert Braemar included 100 apartments, townhouses, and one-bedroom “efficiency” units in single- and two-story buildings spread over 12 acres, offering views of mountains and communal gardens. Resort facilities included a clubhouse, swimming pool, bowling green, and horseshoes.

Co-ops were a novelty in the desert, but before condominium laws were passed in the early 1960s, it was the only way to obtain insurance on multiple housing. It was a timely solution for those who wanted maintenance-free home ownership in a resort setting. Second-story apartments were accessed via attractive open stairwells; decorative metal railings for upper-level balconies created a visual divide between stories. Low rooflines allowed mountain views from ground floor apartments, pink-tiled Bermuda roofs — not seen elsewhere in the desert — enhanced the resort character.

Desert Braemar is a successful cooperative to this day, with seasonal and permanent residents enjoying the original facilities — although it no longer offers “luxury services,” and the resident manager’s station wagon is no longer required for trips to Palm Springs. The expansive and imaginative gardens and grounds are still exceptional by any standard. Desert Braemar’s pioneering success encouraged other cooperative communities, like Da Vall Estates and Palms & Sands, although no other desert cooperative was ever built on this scale.

From 1964 onward, condominiums became the preferred choice for developers and homeowners, making vacation homes an affordable investment that could also grow in value. One of the last of the small-scale condominium communities became the city of Rancho Mirage’s first historic district: Cody Court, designed by William F. Cody and originally known as the 10th Fairway Condominiums. Completed in 1970, this group of eight homes was built around a community pool and overlooked Tamarisk Country Club. Each property had the same footprint, more than 3,000 square feet, with a central, covered courtyard/atrium, sunken bar, and array of sun courts and patios to compensate for the lack of private gardens. With a late-modern design, it also referenced the Spanish or Mediterranean style that was back in fashion and soon to be adopted by other condominium communities at Thunderbird Villas, next to Thunderbird Heights, the Rancho Mirage Racquet Club, and Los Cocos — all dating from the early 1970s. 

In historical terms, 1973 not only marked the year of incorporation for the City of Rancho Mirage, it also signaled the end of the country club era, defined by the creation of Thunderbird and Tamarisk with the associated “desert modern” house styles and midcentury communities. The concept of building homes on golf courses began to be adopted on a different scale, with multiple planned housing units offering second homes and numerous recreational facilities.

The Annenbergs and Sunnylands

In 1964, The Desert Sun announced, “A landmark of the future will be built near Tamarisk Country Club soon, the site being a $540,875 residence at 71-800 Wonder Palms Road. … This single-family home will be built by Walter Annenberg, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, president of Triangle Publications, and such well-known periodicals as TV Guide, Daily Racing Form, and Seventeen Magazine.”Walter & Leanore Annenberg

The newspaper based its declaration on its physical scale, exceeding 25,000 square feet (“larger than the Market Basket supermarket being built in Palm Desert”). When Walter and Leonore Annenberg purchased 200 acres from First American Title Insurance & Trust Company under Trust No. P-76 (the prior owner, since 1942, was Louis E. Golan) and hired A. Quincy Jones to design their estate, which they called Sunnylands, no one could have fathomed the upper echelon of guests they would host or the role the property would assume after their deaths as a venue for substantive dialog on world issues, a cultural community resource, and a tourist attraction.

Sunnylands stands out as a prime example of the way in which the Coachella Valley benefits from its natural treasures of sunshine, stunning mountain and desert vistas, and warm winters, because those are the attributes that brought the Annenbergs to the area.

While living in Philadelphia, the couple escaped the cold season by visiting their friends Harriet and Armand Deutsch in La Quinta and others in Tamarisk Country Club. While golfing at the club, they noted an adjacent area of open desert and thought it would make an ideal site for their personal residence and golf course.

Walter Annenberg’s success in publishing made him a businesss icon, and Leonore’s unsurpassed skills as a hostess made them a force in social circles. Business titans, celebrities in the entertainment industry, and high-ranking government officials — presidents, prime ministers, and royalty — visited Sunnylands.

President Reagan_Nancy_Walter_Leonore AnnenbergThe Annenbergs’ annual New Year’s Eve dinner parties filled the house with a who’s who of attendees. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were among guests staying at Sunnylands over the extended holiday. They also welcomed their friends Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. They especially enjoyed relaxing on the private grounds and playing golf on Sunnylands’ private course (see “Pros and Presidents Tee Off at Sunnylands,” page 118). Eisenhower and Bush also loved fishing in Sunnylands’ lakes.

For a couple to propose their property could be used to “promote world peace” (as stated in the Declaration of Trust) would seem grandiose and impractical but for the Annenbergs’ standing as ambassadors — he to the Court of St. James (United Kingdom) and she as U.S. chief of protocol — on top of their hosting people in a position to significantly impact the world.

In 1969, when the Annenbergs would be taking up residence in London for his ambassadorship, The Desert Sun reported that he had messaged friends as follows: “The desert is our great love. We love it even in the summer. I don’t know just how much time off I will have from my work in London, but we’ll be headed for Palm Springs every chance we get. We are keeping Sunnylands open with full staff [of 42]. The golf course will be kept in good shape and the house in order.”

The Annenbergs also opened their home to benefit the community. In 1974, they hosted major contributors to Palm Springs Desert Museum (now Palm Springs Art Museum), where Leonore was president of the board of trustees. The museum was raising money through the sale of seats in its auditorium, the Annenberg Theater. In 1985, they welcomed sponsors of Eisenhower Medical Center’s $30 million capital-improvement campaign tied to a gala, headlined by George Burns, down the street at Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa.

In 1983, The Desert Sun reported that Walter Annenberg intended to “someday” make Sunnylands “a museum that will be open to the public so it could view his art collection.” The couple were astute collectors of fine and decorative arts and had purchased works by impressionist and post-impressionist icons. In 1991, The New York Times reported that Walter Annenberg had bequeathed to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art more than 50 paintings — valued in excess of $1 billion — that included masterpieces by Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Latrec, Cezanne, van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, and Braque. Fortunately, the Annenbergs had digital reproductions made so that visitors to Sunnylands can appreciate the role famous paintings played in their daily life. Original sculptures remain on the property, including the 1881 bronze “Eve” by Auguste Rodin on a pedestal in the atrium’s flower-surrounded pool.

Interior of atrium at Sunnylands

The couple’s graciousness extended beyond their property. They gave hundreds of millions of dollars in the Coachella Valley, and their impact is felt even today. In Rancho Mirage alone, they donated almost $125 million to fund the creation and operation of Eisenhower Medical Center (now Eisenhower Health), donated 6.25 acres and money to Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert, and contributed $2 million for building the Rancho Mirage Public Library on Highway 111. They also served on boards and committees of entities that served the public.

In 2012, following the Annenbergs’ deaths, Sunnylands Center & Gardens opened to the public, offering tours of the estate as well as exhibitions from their vast collections and a variety of programming. (See “Sunnylands Center & Gardens,” page 92.)

Up With Eisenhower

In 1961, comedian Bob Hope and his wife, Dolores, purchased the 300-acre Anderson Rancho from Henry L. Gogerty and, five years later, donated 80 ofDwight D. Eisenhower Portrait those acres for construction of a hospital. Meanwhile, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, had become residents at nearby Eldorado Country Club, showed great interest in the hospital, and proudly lent the Eisenhower name to the future facility.

The idea for a mid-Coachella Valley hospital was prompted that same year by an unfortunate incident on the sixth tee at Thunderbird Country Club. Food company executive W. Clarke Swanson, a name synonymous with frozen TV dinners, was playing golf as part of a foursome that included Eisenhower. Swanson suffered a massive stroke that day and died. He was unable to receive immediate treatment because the closest medical facility, Desert Hospital in Palm Springs, was 11 miles away.

Grieving family, led by Clarke’s widow, Florence, and friends, including Dolores Hope, rallied to build a centrally located hospital, and the idea took flight. Many of its chief advocates traveled in monied and influential circles, helping to accelerate the effort.

Renowned architect Edward Durrell Stone (Museum of Modern Art in New York City’s and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C.) was hired to design the hospital. More than 4,000 people attended the groundbreaking ceremony on November 26, 1969, including dignitaries such as then California Governor Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy.

Fundraising picked up in earnest with the Hopes devoting much time and energy to securing pledges for the hospital’s construction and operating costs. Dolores worked to establish the Eisenhower Auxiliary, which became a fundraising powerhouse. There were star-studded fundraising dinners held on both the East and West coasts, as well as generous contributions from the Bob Hope Desert Classic golf tournament.

Nixon at podiumTwo years and a day after its groundbreaking, President Richard M. Nixon dedicated the $7.5 million, 138-bed Eisenhower Memorial Hospital on November 27, 1971. Almost 15,000 people gathered for the event. A month later, the hospital, with its staff of 20 physicians and 225 employees, admitted its first patient.

Fueled by philanthropy, the hospital grew at a rapid pace. The Probst Professional Building donated by Mr. and Mrs. Walter F. Probst opened in 1972 followed by the Kiewit Professional Building donated by Mr. and Mrs. Peter Kiewit in 1975. During the same period, Thunderbird, Eldorado, Tamarisk, and Desert Island country clubs actively fundraised as well, contributing $7.2 million. By 1976, the hospital’s admission rate topped 5,000.

In 1978, the 47-bed Mamie Eisenhower East Wing was added, and in 1979, the Wright Professional Building funded primarily by Mrs. Harold (Hazel) Wright opened. Close on its heels, movie producer Hal. B. Wallis donated $1.2 million to support a new building bearing his name. Before the decade ended, Walter and Leonore Annenberg donated $4 million to build the Annenberg Center for Health Sciences, the hospital’s largest single donation at the time.

Vintage aerial of Eisenhower Medical Center

Clinically speaking, the hospital’s first decade was marked by such milestones as the opening of Eisenhower’s nuclear medicine department, an arthritis clinic, and a diabetes program. Some of the new technology acquired included ultrasound and the Coachella Valley’s first whole-body CT scanner. Notably, open-heart surgery commenced, and a cardiac rehabilitation program was launched.

Dolores HopeAs a new decade dawned, the Betty Ford Center broke ground at Eisenhower. The addiction treatment center was dedicated in 1982 and is now known as the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Contributions from donors continued to accrue, including $5 million from Gene and Jackie Autry to fund the 100-bed Autry Tower, $1.2 million from philanthropist Marvin David for construction of the valley’s first MRI building, and $1.5 million from a fundraising dinner honoring the Hopes for the construction of the Dolores Hope Outpatient Center.

The 1980s also saw the opening of the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center at Eisenhower funded in part by annual proceeds from the Frank SinatraBarbara Sinatra at ribbon cutting Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament founded the same decade. As healthcare delivery began to shift from inpatient to outpatient settings, Eisenhower opened its Immediate Care Centers in La Quinta and Cathedral City in 1985 and 1985, respectively.

In 1989, the Board of Trustees announced a $5 million challenge grant by the Annenbergs to build a $15 million emergency medical services complex. Philanthropy grew increasingly more critical for operations and growth as the ’90s drew near.

Eisenhower Medical Center, as it was later known, reached yet another milestone in 1990, when it performed its 3,000th open-heart surgery. Today, Eisenhower Health asserts the largest cardiology practice between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Short of cardiac transplants, the Eisenhower Desert Cardiology Center offers every available modality of cardiology.

The Eisenhower Auxiliary celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1994, having proved its mettle by contributing more than 2 million volunteer hours and raising more than $14 million for the hospital. The Bob Hope Chrysler Classic has raised almost $18 million for Eisenhower over 35 years.

The new century signaled a transition period for Eisenhower. The new president and CEO, G. Aubrey Serfling, built a new management team and instituted an organization-wide Performance Excellence program to banish any sense of complacency and rededicate efforts toward what the founders had originally envisioned. In response, the Board approved a $250 million capital expansion and renovation plan to meet the Coachella Valley’s growing needs. Ensuing fundraising surpassed a staggering $300 million, an amount jump-started by a $25 million gift from the Annenberg Foundation to build what is now called the Annenberg Pavilion, a five-story, 240-bed inpatient building. Completed in 2010, it featured an intensive care unit as well as dedicated floors for orthopedics and neurology.

The infusion of cash enabled Eisenhower to establish the Lucy Curci Cancer Center by 2008. It also built a new imaging center and cardiac cath lab, doubled the size of its emergency department, completed the all-suites Renker Pavilion, expanded the orthopedics practice, and built a self-generating energy plant.

The accolades started rolling in for the newly reenergized medical center including being named among the country’s top 100 hospitals for its quality of care, operational efficacy, and financial performance. It was also designated a Magnet® hospital for its nursing excellence and outstanding patient care, a distinction only 7 percent of U.S. hospitals achieve.

In 2008, Eisenhower began its transition from community to teaching hospital. Assisted by philanthropy, it is the first Coachella Valley hospital to offer accredited residencies in family, internal, and emergency medicine. Notably, it is also the largest employer in the City of Rancho Mirage.

A new generation of benefactors has stepped up to assist Eisenhower Health meet the demands of the 21st century. Three more country clubs — Bighorn Golf Club, The Reserve, and The Vintage Club — have become involved in raising money for the hospital, and more than 11 golf tournaments around the valley contribute proceeds.

Charitable contributions are the lifeblood of Eisenhower Health, given its status as the only nonprofit hospital in the Coachella Valley. More than 400 couples and individuals have donated $250,000 or more; of these, more than 112 are members of the prestigious Ambassador Society of donors who’ve cumulatively given Eisenhower $1 million or more.

Aerial of Eisenhower Hopsital

Millionaires and billionaires aren’t the only ones who contribute. More than 1,300 families donate $1,000 or more a year through Eisenhower’s annual fund, and the Auxiliary continues to raise millions. There is also an army of volunteers who donate countless hours of time.

The 2010s were notable for Eisenhower’s expansion into surrounding communities, including the opening of two new health centers in Palm Springs: Eisenhower Health Center at Rimrock and Eisenhower Health Center at Sunrise. The three-story, 90,000-square-foot Eisenhower George and Julia Argyros Health Center opened in La Quinta in 2010, made possible by a $20 million gift from its namesake couple.

The hospital launched a $256 million capital campaign in November 2021. Of those funds, $156 million will go toward the creation of the Eisenhower Cardiovascular Institute, which includes construction of a four-story outpatient cardiology ambulatory center, expansion of an inpatient cardiovascular pavilion, and the new Renker Wellness Center. “The heart incident that almost took me from my family came without warning,” says donor and namesake Greg Renker. “After the dedicated staff at Eisenhower saved my life, I vowed to do all I could to help prevent another incident. In retrospect, I should have done all I could to prevent the first one. I owed it to my family and myself. That’s why we founded the Renker Wellness Center — to help heart attack victims get well, and healthy people stay well.”

Rendering of Eisenhower Hopspital

Thanks to its founders who envisioned a future for a formerly windswept plain in the heart of yet-to-be incorporated Rancho Mirage, Eisenhower Health stands tall today. Its four centers of Excellence — Cancer, Cardiology, Neuroscience, Orthopedics — and expansive, state-of-the-art health system anchor the valley with a wealth of lifesaving services.

Rancho Mirage Woman’s Club

A social and philanthropic beacon for 60 years and counting.

4 women

In October 1963, a group of civic-minded women gathered at the Desert Air Hotel for the first meeting of the Rancho Mirage Woman’s Club. They formed the group as a social club that would engage in community service projects for the residents, including the young people, of the area.

In its early years, the RMWC organized picnics, barbecues, and family activities, and in 1966, the group sponsored a community-wide clean-up as part of the Operation Pride Desert Beautification Project as well as the first Miss Rancho Mirage contest. The same year, when Rancho Mirage Elementary was about to break ground, RMWC was there with financial support, and that commitment has never wavered over six decades. In 1968, the club helped to establish the Branch Library in Rancho Mirage and in 1983 donated $9,500 for playground equipment for the brand-new Whitewater Park.

As a social hub for women, the RMWC hosts a wide range of activities and events, including luncheons, fashion shows, and cultural outings.

In 1989, the Rancho Mirage City Council issued a resolution commending the club’s 25 years of civic mindedness, noting contributions to a wide range of philanthropic interests.

Today, the RMWC remains a vital part of the community, providing support and resources to those in need and fostering a sense of camaraderie among its members. The club has also been a strong advocate for environmental conservation and has worked to promote awareness of issues related to climate change and sustainability.

Most recently, the powerhouse of giving has offered its support to Pegasus Riding Academy, Shelter From the Storm, Safe House of the Desert, COD Child Development Center, Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert, Coachella Valley History Museum, Father’s Heart Ranch, Grandparents Love, Olive Crest, Variety of the Desert, Cathedral City Boys and Girls Club, Debbie Chisolm Memorial Foundation, and Rancho Mirage elementary and high schools.