Frank Zappa Ate Here: Famed 1972 Palm Springs Modern is Where Elvis Meets Kuwait

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Where do you find a 1972 Palm Springs modern, erected by original owner and international opera singer Willa Stewart, that is both relevant and alluring in 2017 with an “Elvis meets Kuwait” styling and hosted the likes of American musical and cultural icon Frank Zappa? Only in Austin.

The magnificent wonder that is bubbling over with titillating Westlake-Austin lore sits on a rare-for-the-area, private, flat lot at 1405 Ridgecrest Drive located in the capital city’s wealthiest zip code: 78746.

“I’ve toyed with the idea of a brass plaque by the front door that says, ‘Frank Zappa ate here,’ says current owner Cindy Bell Morgan, also owner of the deliciously humorous, Unusual Occasion Cards. “Apparently a lobbyist rented my house in the 70s at one point, and Frank Zappa was invited to dinner.”

After several painstaking renovations over the years, all done to look original, and in keeping with the architecture, Cindy Morgan says it’s time to sell. (She plans to build and retire in Wimberley where their children now have property.)

This presents a rare opportunity for Austin buyers who are drawn to the eclectic architecture and panache of Westlake Highlands. And of course, a home of such grandeur can only be represented by an agent of equal esteem and regard. Diane Dillard of Kuper Sotheby’s International Realty fits the bill. She is currently listing the three-bedroom, three-bath, 3,547-square-foot masterpiece for a cool $1.765 million.

“This home leaves a lot open for interpretation by the owner as far as décor,” says Morgan. “Austere, modern, eclectic, great Feng Shui. It brings the outside in as it opens up, and the inside out with the transparency of so much glass. There are vistas from every room.”

And what of the hood? Morgan shares her take on it, saying Emmett Shelton’s vision to build in the hills west of the lake dismayed a lot people at the time. He forged ahead, and Westlake, just across the river, affords enchanting vistas, good schools, and enduring lure.

“Civilized, yet country-fied” was a thing, she says. “Building codes perpetuated a Westlake look in stone facade and lifestyle choice. Austin’s culture wars found harmony as Willie Nelson united the hippies and cowboys … the legendary Soap Creek Saloon; and the outskirts, ‘far out’ in every way, sat at a busy intersection in what is today’s Westlake.”

Truly, 1405 Ridgecrest Drive in Westlake Highlands is one of the first offspring of the era. “It seemed kinda happening,” Morgan adds. “Harvey Lane, another prominent builder/developer of the time, lived at the corner of Ridgecrest and The High Road. Stories tell of wild parties and Rock Hudson as a frequent guest! There are many things to love about the neighborhood. It’s Bohemian mix of people, walking the hills, quiet with lots of nature, yet not too far out of downtown these days. The drive home gives me pause, and I love that! Taking The High Road to the very top, then turning the only way one can, to the right, and knowing you are on the street where you live, is amazingly profound, an affirmation of sorts.”

Mesmerized by the retelling of this austere Austin wonder, one can only imagine what the Morgans – Cindy, and former husband Clayton, a design consultant – were thinking when they first laid eyes on it.

Lucky for you, we dug up a little excerpt from “Ranch House Modern” by Katherine Ann Simon, that touts the residence as “Elvis Meets Kuwait” – and presently, as so eloquently written by the authority on ranch house moderns, only further peaks our curiosities. The passage reads as follows:

It sits like a dare on the highest hill very, very sexy, and very strong. If it were a person, it would have its hands on its hips, defying time and place.

The flat roof suggests southern California’s Case Study houses as much as it does the Palm Springs Modern movement and the Sarasota School of Architecture (Florida’s modernist movement). But the house is located outside Austin, Texas, with commanding views of lakes, hills, and downtown.

Before its current splendor, it was orphaned for four years. Described as “International Style Ranch” on the real estate sheet, it had drawbacks beyond that questionable characterization: the property was rimmed by a dark wooden fence resembling tall louvered shutters; it had only two bedrooms, and the inside color scheme, says owner Cindy Morgan, a graphic designer, “was classic eleganza – avocado and gold with brocade drapes everywhere.” But what she and husband Clayton, a design consultant, recognized were some of the same qualities that international opera singer Willa Steward desired when she built the house in 1972.

Two decades later, standing with their daughters and two sons, the Morgans were entranced instead of baffled by the house’s interior arches and front pool. It’s ten years of rough living as a rental could free them to think creatively rather than simply repair it, and living on one level seemed liberating. Taking in the quiet street in front and the diva views in back, they were convinced.

The arches and flat roof held sway over Clayton. “It has aspects of the guest house on architect Philip Johnson’s estate in New Canaan, Connecticut, which I love,” he says. The Morgans’ house does evoke many of the International Style’s 1920s and 1930s hallmarks: generous use of glass, strong geometric shapes, asymmetry, and simple unadorned lines. Additions to the house were made to reinforce that influence. Although the Morgans added two bedrooms for their sons, the more unusual enlargement was a private front courtyard that nearly doubles the living space. Clayton and Cindy enhanced the Mediterranean mood by bringing in twelve palm trees and building the tall, arched brick fence on two sides of the property for privacy.

The house has acquired a new drama, leading Clayton to call the sum total “Elvis Meets Kuwait.” “Although today,” he adds slyly, “he would be dressed in Prada.”

If that doesn’t make you want to get on the phone with your Realtor right now, and schedule a tour, I don’t know what will. For those of you on the edge of your seats, Diane Dillard is hosting an open house this Sunday, November 12, from 2 to 4 p.m.

If you happen to pop by, let them know you heard from us, and don’t forget to recap your experience in the comments. We are dying to know what you think.