Historic Borrego home to become Research Center

BORREGO SPRINGS — The historic Desert Club in Borrego Springs, once envisioned to be the centerpiece of a thriving desert city much like Palm Springs, will soon become a field research center for biologists, astronomers, anthropologists and others.

A large monetary gift from the daughter-in-law of the original developer of the 4,280-square-foot, architecturally stunning Desert Club, has been given to the University of California, Irvine, which plans to open the research center late next year.

Built in 1949 by developer A.A. Burnand, the Desert Club featured a 2,000-square-foot glass enclosed great room with sweeping views in all directions. The university decided to wait until today to announce the gift and purchase to make sure the deal had gone through.

When it opened in February 1950, film stars and other guests from across Southern California gathered. The club’s sunken circular cocktail bar and 85-foot-long swimming pool spoke of the optimism and elegance of post World War II America. Burnand dreamed of creating an ideal desert community in the heart of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Other developers later had the same vision but Borrego Springs never became a major desert vacation mecca.

The gift that will allow the Desert Club to become the Steele Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center has been given by Audrey Steele Burnand. Exactly how generous a gift it is remains a secret, but it will partly fund the purchase, expansion and operation of the property, including dorm rooms for up to 24 graduate students and longer-term housing for professors conducting in-depth research.

The unique architectural features of the club will be preserved.

“I made this gift to give a new life to a beautiful, special place near the state park, one that has deep meaning for my family and will benefit generations of University of California researchers and others who share my love of the desert,” Steele Burnand said in a statement.

Burnand’s father-in-law, Alphonse Burnand Jr., commissioned Streamline Moderne architect William Kesling to design the building as the social hub of a planned new community in the 1940s.

The club was a social hub until the mid-1960s when it was sold and turned into an art gallery, antique and thrift shop called The Galleria. In 2005 it was purchased by artists John Scranton and Lisa Fugard who left New York after 9/11. They married and had a child, and bought and moved into the former Desert Club, which by then had become dilapidated. Scranton spent five years retiling, repainting and replanting the property, mostly by himself. Their marriage has since ended, and Scranton decided to sell the property last year and move on.

The research center’s director will be Diane Pataki, director of UCI’s Center for Environmental Biology, who said she has been trying to set up a research station in Borrego Springs since 2005.

“This building is perfect; it will be our home base for research of all kinds,” she said.

Pataki said plans are to renovate and expand the building, build labs, classrooms and dormitories.

How fast all that can be done will depend on the university’s ability to secure matching funds from the state. No matter what, she said, the center will open in some capacity by winter 2012.