Now I know this isn’t new news, but I just had to share the details of Volcano House, the simply AHMAAZING desert retreat of beloved local television personality Huell Howser that is currently on the market at the AHMAAZING price of $750,000 way out to the northeast of Newberry Springs, which is, as you might wonder, somewhere to the northeast of nowhere. Now, I freely admit that I will not be the first nor will I be the last person, no doubt, to compare this swinging sixties space age dome house to a set from a James Bond film, but quite frankly it simply screams mad scientist or Dr. Evil-type lair, perfect for plotting world domination and launching ICBM missiles conveniently hidden inside the cinder cone beneath the house.
Huell Howser, Volcano House’s current owner, has made quite a career for himself playing up the folksy, gee-wiz type of character that has been so much a part of public broadcasting over the last two decades. But as this house attests, Huell is a much more sophisticated fellow than his carefully cultivated public persona would otherwise indicate. A long time desert dweller, Huell has become as much a part of the high desert community of Twentynine Palms as he has become a fixture on PBS, serving as a sort of goodwill ambassador for the so-called “Poor Man’s Palm Springs.”
Huell’s love affair with the desert country north of Palm Springs began in the early 1990’s when he came up to Twentynine Palms to do a story on the relocation of the community’s old school house. “I fell in love with the desert,” he says, “and the straight-talking people who live there.” In short order, Huell became one of those people, buying a 1953 mid-century modern ranchette, which he furnished and decorated with an eclectic mix of fifties-style furniture and unusual old machine parts, converted into home decor. “Raw industrial objects have an innate beauty for me,” he relates, “I sometimes wish they could talk.”” Among the many interesting pieces in Huell’s Twentynine Palms house are a set of 100-year-old grinding wheels, once used at the historic Gladding McBean tile and pottery works, that now serve as additional seating for large gatherings.
With his love of the high desert combined with unusual mid-century objects, it was quite natural that Huell would take notice when Volcano House came up for sale in 2003. “I make my living finding stories that others pass by,” Huell says. “But everyone and everything has a story to tell.” Clearly, there was a story indeed behind this fascinatingly bizarre property.
Its setting is simply spectacular. Dramatically perched atop the rugged black volcanic cider cone that gives it its name and surrounded by 60 extremely private acres of the Troy Lake Basin (the nearest neighbor is a mile away), Volcano House has the kind of breathtaking 360-degree views best described by Bob Hope in Bachelor in Paradise in 1961 when he declared “All you can see for miles and miles are miles and miles!” (insert canned laughter here) Think what you will of it, but imagine the incredible panorama of sunrises, sunsets and magnificent summer storms that put on a regular show from every one of the sixteen floor-to-ceiling windows of Volcano House. And while the setting might first conjure visions of nefarious doings taking place under the dome, other ideas also come to mind, such as the ultimate party pad. As one local resident has attested, “You have not partied till you have partied here.”
While it was not actually built by a mad scientist, Volcano House was nonetheless the creation of a scientific genius, Vard Wallace. A successful engineer and inventor, Wallace, it is claimed, patented the very first “skateboard.” It was, however, drafting machines and airplane parts that made Wallace his fortune through Vard, Inc. during and after World War II and he had plenty of money to spend on new inventions, homes in Newport Beach and Hawaii and a private yacht. It was Wallace’s personal secretary, Mrs. Iwan who first brought Wallace out to the starkly beautiful desert country near Newberry Springs. On a weekend visit, Wallace became intrigued by the nearby 200-foot high cinder cone, imagining it as the setting for a space age vacation retreat. In short order, he became the owner of the cone and all of the property surrounding it.
To turn his fantasy into reality, Wallace engaged well-known Pasadena architect Harold J. Bissner, Jr. to create a round house similar in style to the innovative 1965 design for the Reception Center of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant, which Wallace had admired on trips back and forth to San Diego. The design turned out to be the easy part. Actual construction, which began in August 1968, was said to be nothing short of a nightmare, bedeviled by the remoteness of the location, the difficulty of hiring and keeping good workers and the worst winter rains in years. The contractor on the project, Jim Miles, who was brought in from Las Cruces, New Mexico, performed a heroic job, after other contractors refused the project or put in prohibitively costly estimates. Although there are no figures readily available, it was believed at the time of the home’s completion in fall 1969 that it was one of the most costly homes ever built in the high desert with estimates ranging from $200,000-$500,000 and in 1969 that was an expensive house.
In the end, however, it was considered worth all the trouble with Wallace, Bissner and Miles creating an instant desert landmark that turns out to be as beguiling as it is at first startling. Bissner’s unique design involved a sleek stucco dome that stretched over the home’s 2,500 square foot interior in such a way that it created an overhang to protect the interior from the merciless desert sun. To provide an additional cooling effect and help cement its destiny as a future home of a super villain, Bissner surrounded Volcano House with a five-foot wide and two-foot deep moat that Wallace intended to fill with water and plants, but which Ernst Stavro Blofeld or Dr. Evil could fill with piranha. Opening out onto the moat underneath the sheltering overhang are eighteen tempered sliding glass doors that provide not only great airflow but awesome views in every direction of the lunar landscape surrounding Volcano House.
Considering how eerie and intimidating it can be from a distance, the inside of Volcano House is surprisingly warm and inviting. The focal point is an enormous central concrete cylinder, faced in cut stone from the nearby Calico Mountains with a V-shaped fireplace in its center. All the rooms of Volcano House surround this central core, which also shields two identical bathrooms, one for each bedroom, within its mass. Before it is a sunken conversation pit with built-in sofas and bookcases and curving along one side is a staircase that leads up to the observation deck on the very pinnacle of Volcano House’s dome. The open loft space of the interior adds to the home’s charms as well as the richness of the wooden circular ceiling, made up of ten linear miles of Douglas fir.
The exterior features a 600 sq. ft. terrace over the car port and down below is a four-acre lake with its own island and a jarringly unattractive guest/caretaker’s house, which once contained Wallace’s workshop, that is something only a bulldozer should love.
Originally, Wallace had even bigger plans for the property with the intention of adding 60 acres to the size of his lake and surrounding the base of the cone with an orchard, which was intended, not for commercial production, but “just to look at,” according to contractor Miles. The orchard, as charming as it may have seemed at first, might have been ultimately nixed because so much greenery might have detracted from the otherworldly moonscape surroundings that give Volcano House its weird appeal.
Wallace retained Volcano House for years before it was sold to British developer Richard Baily in 2000. Baily, however, found that he did not have the time to spend there and put the house on the market in 2003 with an asking price of $795,000. Huell Howser was ultimately the buyer and he has maintained Volcano House, which is approximately equidistant to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, as a retreat for the last seven years. As you might guess, because it is such a unique property its sat on the market for a while now, but there is bound to be someone out there eventually who wants a hideaway in the truest sense of the word, perhaps a desert-loving artist, actor, writer, megalomaniac arch super villain, international man (or woman) of mystery, or just someone who really needs to disappear for a while until the heat’s off. Julian Assange, have you considered Volcano House?