A star's escape

Midcentury modern architecture at its best

Peek Inside: The Kirk Douglas House

Palm Springs is known for its celebrity residents, and many homes have come to be synonymous with their past famous residents. The former home of actor Kirk Douglas (his son Michael or Michael’s wife Catherine Zeta Jones may be the more familiar names today) is a wildly popular home in Palm Springs, but it’s famous for more than just the celebrity family associated with it. It’s also an architecturally significant home. While it’s not open to the public, the kind Canadian owners have at times allowed public access during events like Modernism Week. That’s allowed us a collective peek inside this stunning property.

Along with the city’s population growth and architectural influence came “Desert Modernism” architecture, later becoming known as “Modernist” and “Palm Springs Modern,” with flat roofs, glass interior walls, and wide-open floor plans.

Kirk Douglas, who died at the age of 103, purchased his Palm Springs home in the historic Old Las Palmas neighborhood in 1959 from the movie actor Andrea Leeds, and her husband Robert Howard. Douglas owned the post and beam styled home for 40 years.

Designed by renowned architects Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison and constructed by Master Builder Bob Higgins, the house was designated a Class 1 historic site by the Palm Springs City Council in January of 2020, a month before the actor and philanthropist’s passing. More than one hundred homes in the city have received historic site status with this home being #118, but the former Douglas residence is one of a handful that was occupied by a world-famous celebrity and designed by famous architects.

The official plaque affixed to the stone wall property’s entrance says, “The Kirk Douglas Residence” features “a low gabled roof and indoor/outdoor living with expansive use of glass on the south façade.” Additions that held true to the original Desert Modern style were constructed in 1964 and 1976 by the Wexler Harrison & Morrison architectural firm.

Taking a closer look at the 4,000 square foot residence that the Douglas family used primarily as a vacation home, there are five bedrooms including two master suites – aptly named “Kirk’s Room” and “Anne’s Room”. Anne Buyden, Michael Douglas’s stepmom, and Kirk Douglas were married for 66 years, and as luck would have it, she also lived an incredibly long life, passing away at 102 in 2021.

In 2016, Michael Budman, a long-time friend of Michael Douglas, noticed a newspaper story about the Kirk Douglas home in Palm Springs being for sale. After speaking with Douglas, who had no interest in owning the home himself, Budman decided to make an offer. He and his wife Diane soon became the new owners of the house where Michael Douglas recalls meeting Dean Martin, Liberace, Kitty Carlisle, and Dinah Shore.

The “expansive use of glass on the south façade,” as noted by the plaque, gave the home’s occupants the opportunity to look out at the K-shaped swimming pool, and the tennis pavilion that was added in 1976.

The pavilion’s interior art includes a wide-ranging poster collage of Kirk Douglas films on the walls and ceiling. A plaque installed by Anne pays tribute to the many guests who visited the home over the years including Natalie Wood, Robert Kennedy, and Ladybird Johnson, the wife of President Lyndon Johnson.

Diane Budman, being an architect, quickly knew that the Kirk Douglas residence was worthy of preservation. Budman’s restorations have made the indoor space brighter as might be expected in today’s Palm Springs. They removed a wall in the entryway so that guests could immediately see through to the pool and yard. More light enters the central living area now, too, with the opening of ceiling beams.

The dark Saltillo tile flooring was removed, again making for a brighter interior, with much lighter terrazzo running from the entry to the rear of the house. Other updates include a modernized kitchen with high-end stainless-steel appliances. There is even a custom-made refrigerator door designed by Jim Tyler, a renowned architect in the 1960s.

During the renovation two mosaic tile walls that were covered by layers of paint for many years were discovered. Of course, the paint was carefully removed to expose the feature that Donald Wexler was known for in his time.

The “Katherine Hepburn Guest Room,” where the film star stayed during her numerous visits, now has an outdoor shower nearby, and there is a rosemary garden leading to citrus trees that have long been at one end of the yard.

With the Class 1 historical designation comes benefits and expectations. There is eligibility for reduced property taxes, but the owner must maintain the property for historical integrity and civic beauty. Being a historical landmark, occasional upgrades may also be required.

Want to see homes like this, and many others? Check out one of our self-guided Celebrity Home Tours.