Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Rachel deBrabant Residence

Rachel deBrabant Residence (1929, Architect Unknown)
982 Avenida de las Palmas
Palm Springs

I have been working on a new book project for the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation to be published in conjunction with Desert Spanish Weekensd,March 23, entitled Desert Spanish, the Early Architecture of Palm Springs. It will feature this large Spanish Colonial Revival estate that was built for Rachel de Brabant on land she purchased in 1927 from physician-turned-real estate developer Jacob John Kocher. The house was built in a barren desert-scape on a large through-lot that extended from Avenida de las Palmas to Via Miraleste. The rear one-third of the parcel was sold off in the 1980s to provide lots for two new homes. The property is located in the Las Hacenditas (“Little Haciendas”) Tract in the Movie Colony neighborhood and bears evidence of having been architect-designed, although the designer has not been identified. When the house was built, the deBrabants were living in Alhambra, California near Pasadena. With their interest in the arts, they are likely to have commissioned one of the prominent Pasadena architects to design their Spanish Colonial Revival-style home.

Paul Grimm Painting of the deBrabant Courtyard

The deBrabant's interest and involvement in the arts community is documented by artist biographer Edan Hughes who refers to Marius’ sketching trips to Palm Springs. Additionally a painting of the house by Paul Grimm reinforces the connection to the arts community as does an image of painter Hanson Duvall Puthuff (1875-1972) in the deBrabant living room. Puthuff is known to have painted in Palm Springs, although he best-known for the paintings that were done near the hills and mountains of his home. The walls of the deBrabant home were hung with images of the desert and the California coastline. Smoketree school painter Sam Hyde Harris also made desert trips with fellow painter Hanson Puthuff and may have encountered the deBrabants.

Hansen Puthuff in the deBrabant Living Room

In this 5,000 sq. ft. Spanish Colonial Revival home, an L-shaped floor plan is laid out around a forecourt that recalls the layout of a Spanish Hacienda. A short east-west axis leads the visitor directly through the Foyer to the rear garden. North of the Foyer are the Dining and Kitchen areas. South of the Foyer, the Living Room features a tall cathedral ceiling with exposed and stenciled wooden trusses. Continuing on from the Living Room, the “foot” of the L-shape contains a single-loaded corridor that functions as a Gallery that provides access to several en-suite bedrooms, each with a private bath. The Gallery may have been designed in response to Rachel’s program requirement for a space to exhibit the deBrabant’s collection of plein air paintings. A second floor suite with exterior access surmounts the Dining Room and provides an isolated guest suite.

The entire complex is roofed with hand-made red clay roof tiles with broad protective roof overhangs. In a unique and picturesque architectural expression, the exterior walls of cement plaster are studded with native rock. Originally painted white, today the home is a warm sand color, and most of the original features of the house survive intact or have been restored. In 1956 a shed-roofed addition and a carport (later enclosed as a garage) were added. Today the deBrabant residence is surrounded by mature landscaping. In the rear of the property a rectangular pool, patio and large sheltered porch were built to add to the indoor/outdoor usability of the home.

Immigration:The de Brabants Arrive in New York
The reasons for manufacturer Alphonse deBrabant’s (1847-1901) immigration from Belgium to the United States with his children are lost to time, but in 1886 the 37-year old father of two arrived in New York along with his 17-year old daughter Rachel (1869-1943) and 14-year old son Marius (1872 - 1936). The small family initially resided on West 58th Street. No mention of a wife has been recorded, so it is likely that Alphonse was a widower. It is possible that a third child, Adrian (b. 1876) remained in Belgium with other family members. Marius and Rachel became naturalized citizens in 1894. The family were reputedly members of Belgian aristocracy - Marius is sometimes referred to as “Baron deBrabant.”

Within a few years, Marius, then in his early twenties, had begun a successful career as a Railroad Agent in New York. Rachel remained single throughout her life, but the two shared homes in both New York and California and traveled abroad extensively during the years 1916-1936. Passports listed Marius as the head of the household with Rachel listed as his sister. In a Passport Application in 1894, Marius also listed himself as a manufacturer with a business address of 63 Wall Street. On that trip he was to be traveling for about 6 months. Rachel’s travels: After her arrival in the U.S. in 1886, she completed her next Atlantic crossing returning in 1897 with her brothers Marius and Adrian. Rachel did not travel outside the U.S. again until 1923; between the years 1923 and 1930, Rachel made six trips abroad. Construction of her home and the Great Depression may have curtailed Rachel’s travel; her next European trip was in 1936, and her last in 1938.

The deBrabants in California
According to a newspaper article, the deBrabants made their first trip to California in 1906 and by 1920 were living near Los Angeles at No 4 Halsted Circle in the town of Alhambra in a modest home that still exists and was maintained by the deBrabants until Rachel’s death in 1943. According to artist’s biographer Edan Hughes Marius was known to have made “painting trips to Palm Springs,” but was not considered a professional artist. By 1929 the siblings were living in Palm Springs. Here, the deBrabants moved in artistic circles with such California landscape painters as Paul Grimm and Hansen Puthuff. Known primarily for his landscapes, Grimm created an unusual painting of the deBrabant courtyard in the early 1930s. A Gayle Thompson Archive photo shows Puthuff, seemingly very much at home, in a smock standing before an easel in the deBrabant Living Room.

William Andrews Clark Residence (1907, Lord, Hewlett & Hull, and others); called "the most ostentatious Beau-Arts Baroque" house on Fifth Avenue.

In 1925, at 53, and seemingly a confirmed bachelor, Marius and Rachel were living a quietly domestic life at their home in Alhambra. The “budding railroad magnate” was at that time a Vice-President with the Union Pacific Railroad Co. in Los Angeles. Then, on February 1925 in a private ceremony, unknown to their friends, Marius became the third husband of Mary Joaquina Clark of Glendale and New York City. The ceremony took place in the enormous 926 Fifth Avenue mansion (see above) that was home to Mary’s 86-year old father, William Andrews Clark.

He was a U.S. copper industrialist and former Senator for Montana, and one of the world’s wealthiest men. Clark had successively been a miner, teamster, merchant, railway builder, capitalist, and late in life, an art collector. Clark died a week after Mary’s wedding making Mary and each of her siblings very wealthy. Although previously married to two wealthy husbands, Mary had also received an annual income of $200,000 from her father; upon his demise, his $200 million was divided among his six children. As it turns out, her wealth did not assure her happiness; it appears that she continued to live a somewhat solitary social life in New York, while Marius continued to share quarters with his sister.

In addition to her Glendale home, the new Mrs. deBrabant also maintained an enormous apartment in one of New York’s most prestigious apartment buildings of the day at No. 7 East 51st, located across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. She also resided at her 80-acre turn-of-the-century Gold Coast estate, a Tudor-style mansion called "Plaisance" on Long Island. With her well-documented social life, Mary Clark deBrabant doings were often mentioned in New York newspapers, but Marius was rarely mentioned. After Mary’s death, "Plaisance" fell into disrepair and was demolished. The land was eventually sold and subdivided in the 1950s. Remains of the estate’s reflection pool, sunken garden and brick walls on the property survive on the property.

The Clark’s biographer William Mangum sheds some light on the deBrabant marriage: “Marius de Brabant, a distant relative of the King of Belgium, was somewhat younger than his wife. He had a particularly gracious personality, was good looking, public-spirited, and efficient. He was best-known in Los Angeles for his activities in the development of the city, his efforts being largely devoted to the improvement of the harbour. He occupied important honorary positions in many organizations in the city, and did much for artistic interests.

Marius at the Palm Springs Home

“Within six months following his [August 1925] marriage, deBrabant became afflicted with a mental ailment, from which he never fully recovered. He was sent to Palm Springs, California, some three hours from Los Angeles; only a few months before he had been so active and prominent. In Palm Springs he was to be seen, carelessly dressed, strolling around in his garden in a listless fashion. It was rumored at one time that Mary Clark deBrabant contemplated a divorce, but she never actually instituted proceedings.”

This is the first mention of the deBrabant’s arrival in the desert. In light of Marius’ health issues, the assumption that Marius was the “good brother” who protected his spinster sister, must be re-examined. It appears that her brother’s illness required Rachel to assume the role of head of the household, and it was she who commissioned the Palm Springs house, completed four years after the onset of Marius’ illness. Although no images of Rachel have been located, several images of Marius strolling he grounds of the Palm Springs home with his dogs have survived. The last European trip that Rachel and Marius would share returned from LeHavre to NYC to on August 3, 1936. The ship’s manifest lists the siblings as residing in Palm Springs. Marius died in his wife’s home in Glendale six weeks later on September 16, 1936.

The marriage notwithstanding, following with the completion of Rachel’s Palm Springs home in 1929, the siblings listed their residence as the “unincorporated Palm Springs Village.” The deBrabants were never very well-known in Palm Springs. The 1987 HSPB list refers to Rachel as “Madame De Berbont (sic), which continues to perpetuate the inaccurate local myth that Rachel was the wife of a French diplomat. Although never married, Rachel continued to maintain the homes in Alhambra and Palm Springs until her death in 1943; she continued to be listed in the Palm Springs Telephone Directory until 1947. She willed her Palm Springs property to her friend Susanne Schambach who inexplicably occasionally listed herself as “Susanne Schambach deBrabant.” Subsequent owners of Rachel’s Palm Springs home include Adam and Ruth Hitchner; Abram and Rose Simon; and Essaness Pictures Corporation in 1952.

Before Marius’ death, Rachel persuaded Marius to create a scholarship fund at the University of California / Riverside. This fund, the Marius deBrabant Fund, also known as the Chancellor's Performance Award was established in July of 1967 with a gift of $77,678.63 from DeBrabant’s estate. The benefactor deBrabant was described as the Vice President of the Los Angeles-Pacific Navigation Company and is considered a noteworthy figure in early 20th century in California History. Income from his gift was to be used to fund scholarships for incoming freshman in the Fine Arts.

Another bequest from Marius’ estate was reported in the June 24, 1947, Long Beach Independent. The estate donated a check in the amount of $287,670.15 earmarked for the development of a stroke center at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, California. Mrs. Edith Haubrichs, assistant trust officer Bank of America and former State Senator Leonard J Difani of Riverside County were trustees of the estate. The funds were to be used in the development of a stroke center for the care and treatment of elderly patients at Rancho Los Amigos suffering from stroke and providing a facility for the improvement of the knowledge of the disease, its related disabilities and the development of new treatment techniques.

Upon application by the current owners, who are also collectors of California art, the deBrabant Residence was designated a Class One Historic Site in 2009. Today, the deBrabant Residence has been beautifully restored and filled with the sort of early California art that would make Rachel and Marius feel right at home.

Traffic World, An Independent National Transportation Newsmagazine, Vol. 25
International Railway Journal, Vol. 26
American Contractor, Vol. 42
Who’s Who in Railroading in North America, Issue 8.
MacKay, Robert B.(ed.) with Anthony Baker and Carol Traynor, Long Island Country Houses and their Architects, 1880-1940. New York, W. W. Norton & Co.: 1997
Hughes, Edan Milton, Artists in California 1786 – 1940. Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum: 2002.
Mangam, William D., The Clarks, An American Phenomenon. New York: Silver Bow Press, 1941.

Historic images courtesy The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn.


  1. What a wonderful article, full of detail and drama... great research, and wonderful photos. I can't wait to see the house now!

  2. Marius de Brabant had also kept a residence at the Gaylord Apartments in Los Angeles, as noted in our "Gaylord Glimpses" magazine, issue published June 1926.