The tale of how 2 young American emergency room doctors bought The Willows Inn in Palm Springs, CA, for one million dollars is a long story.
Photography by the authors
The tale of how 2 young American emergency room doctors bought The Willows Inn in Palm Springs, CA, for, according to The New York Times, one million dollars is a long story. Knowing a New Hampshire judge who says, “Long story? Start at the end!” we’ll take his advice.
A couple of young physicians from Los Angeles, Tracy Conrad and Paul Marut finished their emergency room residencies in 1994, took their boards and dragged their way to Palm Springs for a week off before starting their first shift together in Los Angeles. They had no children then. This was going to be a week of fun and relaxation.
Instead, somehow, they bought a run-down Mediterranean villa, one of the city’s most historic and significant landmarks.
Now we have to go to the beginning. The home they bought had been built in 1925 as a desert retreat for one of the wealthiest men in Southern California, businessman William Mead. In 1927, Mead died of pneumonia and within a few years his widow sold the home to the celebrated New York City attorney Samuel Untermeyer, the lawyer who, as all historians report, was the first to charge a million dollar fee for his services.
In the courtroom, against the “giants” he took on for his clients, Untermeyer was called, “the master of dramatic dying.” He would appear old and decrepit then suddenly come alive “and attack with the aggressiveness of a wildcat,” wrote Alva Johnston for The New Yorker, May 17, 1930. A fascinating story of his life as a lawyer in America’s Gilded Age can be read here.
Untermeyer (sometimes spelled Untermyer) died at the age of 82 in 1940. The family rented the villa from 1955 to 1962 to actress Marion Davies, better known, perhaps, as the long-term mistress of William Randolph Davies, but she became a very successful Palm Springs businesswoman. The Willows, however, had a variety of owners in the 1970s and 1980s and by the mid-1990s the inn was significantly in decline.
The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn.
The Willows is in a quiet residential part of the city on a cul-de-sac just around the corner from the Palm Springs Art museum and across the street from—at the time of the doctors’ visit in town—the only AAA Four Diamond Award restaurant in Palm Springs: Le Vallauris. The doctors were celebrating the end of their board exams, so this famous restaurant was an understandable choice. (It is named after the French village in Provence where Pablo Picasso lived for 7 years.)
A Willows breakfast: a grapefruit so beautifully prepared you’d go for it no matter what medications you were taking that might need the same pathway to be metabolized. Fluffy eggs, mini pancakes, blueberries, and sausage flavored with apple.
“As we left the restaurant we noticed the villa across the street had a For Sale sign and we walked across,” says Tracy, chatting to us as we have breakfast.
From the outside it looked interesting. Next day, they went to the Historical Society to see why it was so famous. It had a fat file on the property. And they had 4 more days of vacation!
“The interior was a disgrace,” she says. “The mahogany beams had been painted green! There was a Budweiser lamp hanging like a pool hall light in the living room. There was even a velvet painting on one wall showing dogs playing poker. WE cried out to each other, ‘Look what they’ve done to it!’ but we saw the bones of the house were still there.
“So we did what doctors do: we went to a bookstore and bought a book.” Tracy laughs. “Then we went to the AAA and asked what gets an inn a Four Star Diamond Award?
Tracy took the graveyard shift in their Los Angeles hospital ER and both worked hard as ER doctors and as hands-on carpenters and plumbers in what they had bought, apparently at the right price because the house had not been well maintained. Paul has great mechanical skills. He needed them. He did so much himself to fix the house, says Tracy, who affectionately calls him Pablo.
There’s no elevator but the innkeeper on duty apparently gets your luggage into your room easily. It’s there waiting for you when you finally get your bearings.
It took them 2 years to get it the way they wanted it. They made connections. They asked Le Vallauris if it would do room service if guests asked for it.
“Doctors may be bad with business,” says Tracy, ”But we won Four AAA Diamonds the year we opened!”
The doctors were able to change some of their Los Angeles ER shifts to the Palm Springs hospital to save the long commute but when the children came (Linden, a girl now aged 14 and her brother, Lance, 13) Tracy had to drop a lot of shifts.
“My name became ‘Mommy Taxi’,” she says.
How do they manage to run their inn and still be doctors, we ask.
Tracy smiles. She does that a lot, and laughs, “Innkeepers would say to us, ‘You’ll find a lot of stress running a B&B inn.’ ‘Like what’, we’d reply. ‘Well you might be fixing pancakes and the phone would ring!’ they’d say.’”
We picture the stress in a busy ED these days and share her amusement at the comparison.
Running a B&B may be stressful for some innkeepers, but for the contented guests of a well-run inn it’s complete calm
Much has been preserved of the original villa: The lamps, the wrought iron railings, the mahogany beams (stripped of their green paint) and doors, the sandstone corbels that support the beams and so on. Tracy found the massive Italian beveled mahogany armoire (now in the dining room) in a nearby Temecula antique shop. The Grand Piano was made by Schafer & Sons in the 1950s.
Guests learn to look up. The original ceilings have a 1920s elegance
Two of the bedrooms are named for celebrities. One, the Marion Davies, for the actress who brought many Hollywood luminaries to her rented villa, and one named for the most eminent guest who ever stayed at The Willows: Albert Einstein.
The Einstein room. The inset image shows details of the image on the bathroom side wall. On the other side is the patio where Einstein could have, like today’s guests private breakfast, and later apparently sunbathe in the nude
Untermeyer was a friend of Einstein’s; we’ve read a story that, as a prominent and politically active New York attorney, Untermeyer was actually involved in bringing him to America. Einstein loved The Willows.
Only one of the eight bathrooms could be preserved from the original villa. We’d like to think it was this one in the Einstein Room. When we get our first coffee of the day, we wonder at what is perplexing Albert in the inn’s framed photograph. It’s surely a bit late for him to be re-considering E = mc2
For us it was quite a charge to lie in his bedroom and glance out the French door at his private patio where he famously used to sunbathe in the nude.
The 40-foot waterfall brings a restful “white noise” murmur to breakfast. The Willows closes each July and August when Palm Springs can be unbearably hot.
Tracy and Paul really have brought elegance into the lives of those guests who come simply because it’s expensive and that’s how they live—then, when they come, find it’s also an upscale experience. That’s a little awkward for physician guests who enjoy the pampering as they have breakfast then realize their hosts are probably grabbing a sandwich in a hospital cafeteria!
The brothers Bruggemans planted 40 years ago the huge ficus trees that dominate the patio of Le Vallauris. We chat with Tony Bruggemans, as we always do when we come to Palm Springs.
The Four Diamond Award restaurant in Palm Springs since 1993, Le Vallauris. Tony Bruggemans has been running it for his brother Paul for many years. He has seen all the changes in Palm Springs over that time.
He remembers planting the trees as 6 foot-tall saplings. He employed a professional arborist, now 95 years old, who reassured the brothers that the white fly disease that was ravaging fig trees in Florida was not common in California. The arborist also knew how to prevent the roots of growing ficus trees from displacing paving stones. He created watering pipes distant from the restaurant and watered the trees from afar. The roots spread beyond the patio into nearby land protecting the restaurant which has become a glorious place to have a farewell dinner at the end of a Palm Springs vacation.
“Over the years—as with those trees—have you seen changes in your clientele?” we ask.
“Absolutely,” Tony replies. “Forty years ago 95% of our guests were movie people who had winter properties here. They dined here to get the overall experience. Now our customers are ‘foodies.’ They are much more detail-oriented and none have arguments about taste or color. They are very knowledgeable.”
We feel guilty. We are not foodies. Sometimes a museum or a unique attraction is more important to travel writers who are on a budget and whose palates are less discriminating as they get older. That said, we’re like the guests 40 years ago. We never leave Palm Springs without experiencing what we feel is the best restaurant in the Coachella Valley.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.