borrego modern


When you define the architectural design of 1950's and 1960's Borrego Springs, it is the work of architect Richard (Dick) Zerbe that is prominent both in style and number. The architect and builder, created a San Diego mid-century modern design that takes into account the unique nature of the desert. He has helped transform Borrego Springs into a modern oasis.

Dick Zerbe was born in 1913, raised in Pittsburgh and while growing up was fascinated with planes.

Following high school, he studied aeronautical engineering at Carnegie Institute of Technology. At the age of 20 Dick and his brother hitchhiked to California - his brother heading to UCLA to study journalism, and Dick to San Diego where he went to work at Consolidated-Vultee, the forerunner to Convair. Following World War II, Zerbe became disenchanted with aeronautical engineering, feeling that the aircraft industry was a becoming a weapon of war. 1 With his first wife, he purchased 40 acres of land in Del Mar Heights and a couple of horses opening the "Cocktail Springs Dude Ranch". During this time his first marriage ended in divorce with his former wife keeping the Del Mar property. Dick and the horses settled in Julian. A friend in Julian was working in Borrego and suggested a job with George "Bud" Kuhrts at the Desert Lodge (later La Casa del Zorro). In addition to odd jobs around the Lodge, he built stables and became the "wrangler" and horse handler for guests. Dick would take the children of guests on long rides into the desert while the parents would pursue more adult activities at the bar. 2 It was also at the Desert Lodge that he would build a relationship that would last the rest of his life - that of his second wife, Betty.

1 Interview, Betty Zerbe, 2006
2 Interview, Betty Zerbe, 2006

The relationship with Kuhrtz would be critical for Zerbe's career and success. After moving to Julian, Zerbe started his own design firm and construction company to build many of the designs he created. While not formally schooled in architecture, he studied and passed the exams for his state architectural license and was a member of the American Institute of Architects. During the 1950's and 1960's he was one of a handful of architects and builders practicing in the far eastern county, specializing in Borrego and Julian.3

The Borrego Sun in December of 1951 announced:

"New Architect - Mr. Dick Zerbe of Julian will be in Borrego each Friday of the week, offering potential builders a convenient architectural and designing service.
Mr. Zerbe comes with a background of fifteen years' experience in San Diego County and has specialized for many years in full desert design. His main office and studio is in Julian.
He designed the Forman residence on the Grimm Ranch, he is also designer of the proposed American Legion Hall in Borrego Springs, and of Ray Johnson's "Corazon de Borrego" Resort, construction of which is planned at a future date. Mr. Zerbe is working now on the proposed expansion of Tub Canyon Guest Ranch." 4

3 Interview, Betty Zerbe, 2006
4 Borrego Sun, December, 1951

Dick Zerbe designed nearly 50 homes and apartments in the Borrego Valley in addition to a substantial number of commercial projects. Some of his home designs are simple vacation cottages; others are large with expansive floor plans depending on the needs of the client. The majority of his designs are wood frame; however there are examples of construction with slump block. His designs are in line with other mid-century modern architects of the period, embracing clean lines and expansive use of glass. Some of Zerbe's designs also draw on his aeronautical background; The Fairway Cottages at De Anza Country Club (1957-59) is an example, with its tapered "ribbing" that echoes the design of early airplane winds. His designs are particularly well suited for the desert - blurring the boundaries between indoors and out, capturing expansive vistas, while taking into account the extreme nature of the desert climate (both hot and cold).

DeAnza Country Club

De Anza Country Club and the Fairway Cottages was a seminal project for Richard Zerbe and the entire Borrego Valley. As noted by Phil Brigandi in Borrego Beginnings, "One look at Palm Springs, even in the 1940's, showed the developers of Borrego Springs that desert resorts were expected to have a golf course". 5 The Desert Club (with its "dry" course) predated de Anza having been built A.A. Burnand in 1949. While it served as a social center for the community, it did not fully develop. It was in 1953 that the Borrego Valley Golf Improvement Association was formed with major investors including A.A. Burnand, and Robert DiGiorgio and George Kuhrts. In 1955, construction began on the first nine holes at de Anza of the Lawrence Hughes designed course. Newspaper accounts of the period discuss that Kuhrts had originally hired Palm Springs Architect William Cody to produce the Master Plan, Clubhouse and Cottage project designs. 6 Course designer Lawrence Hughes and William Cody had previously worked on the highly successful Thunderbird and El Dorado Country Club projects in Pam Springs. 7 Shortly after those articles appeared in the Borrego Sun, Cody's name disappears and is replaced by Richard Zerbe as designer of the Clubhouse and Cottages. In an interview with Beverly Kuhrts, the widow of George Kuhrts, she was asked about the change. While she does not have a clear idea on why Cody left the de Anza project, she believed that cost may have been a factor (that Zerbe was less expensive than Cody). 8 The Cottages were originally designed as rental units managed by the club, to allow prospective buyers to "stay and play" before purchasing one of the 300+ golf course lots in the subdivision.


5 Brigandi, Borrego Beginnings, page 134
6 Borrego Sun, May, 1956
7 Historic Resources Survey, City of Rancho Mirage
8 Interview, Beverly Kuhrts, 2006

The cottages feature terrazzo floors, shower stalls, and counters in the bathrooms; terrazzo flooring in the kitchen and a terrazzo fireplace outer hearth. Each unit has two bedrooms and baths, and the "master" bedroom can be closed off from the main living area. The requirements to be able to handle multiple sets of prospective buyers led to a design that has 3 sets of doors, 1 leading into the hallway by the guest bedroom - a separate door for master bedroom and a third leading directly from the courtyard patio into the kitchen. This third door was designed to be especially useful for kitchen access to the barbeques in the circular "pit" to handle an electric grill. The majority of these pits today have been changed to planters.

A 4th sliding glass door provides easy access to the patio from the living room and cross ventilation. Each unit is in "L" shape, situated on the lot to take advantage of either golf course or mountain views. Each unit has a fireplace (winter nights can be cold and for ambience) and featured all electric appliances and Youngstown kitchen cabinets. The Cottages were designed in 3 sets of four, each 4 units sharing a common area pool which layout and landscape was also Zerbe's design and remains one of the most valued amenities by Fairway Cottage owners today.