Borrego Springs emerged in the late 1940s alongside Palm Springs as a desert playground for a newly mobile and affluent postwar American middle class. While Borrego Springs shared some of the flash and glamour of its more famous desert cousin, the development of the smaller desert town manifested the careful planning and slow growth characteristic of an intentional community.

As developer and realtor Robert Ransom put it, “the jazz note will be missing at Borrego Springs. We plan to develop a city which will preserve the beauty and peace of the desert.”

Borrego’s founders extolled the virtue of being surrounded on all sides by the largest state park in the nation, protecting it what was already perceived in the 1950s as the “threatening advance of suburbia.” At its initial founding the town’s self-styled, modern frontiersman envisioned their ecological conquest of the Borrego Valley as a final and absolute mastery of what appeared to the unimaginative American as a veritable wasteland. This “new desert” at Borrego Springs reflects the powerful imaginative forces at work across booming postwar California .

photo of a book with 'story of borrego springs' printed on top

Novelist and journalist Joan Didion, whose 2003 book Where I was From offered a frank and personal an assessment of Californian narratives of frontier and conquest, characterizes these acts of conjuring as embodying a collective drive to forget the past. Such erasures mobilize inert landscapes for new, ambitious experiments in living, dwelling, and growing.

Figure 2.

Unlimited access to an unseen water reservoir of an untold scale served as the fictional premise upon which Borrego’s modern experiment hedged its bets. The agriculturalists at Borrego sought to defy the age-old adage “knee high by the fourth of July,” boasting bumper crops of winter corn along side the nation’s earliest grapes.

Likewise, the venture capitalists interested in cultivating a landscape of leisure would harness the indiscernible quantities of water to produce golf courses, lawns, and even lakes. Populating the desert earth with tidy, green turf and contriving a “sportsman’s paradise” to lure migratory ducks to conjured lakes and ultimately to their doom evidence the desire to offer myriad forms of middle class leisure through the manufactured greening of the valley floor.

Figure 3 Duck hunting

The commodious ranch house with a private backyard pool completed the vision of a comfortable leisure-oriented, suburban life.

Water uci borrego springs ranch house in the sun

As a historian of midcentury American intellectual, popular, visual and material culture, the developmental urges and material and visual manifestations that characterize the desert modernism of the Borrego moment serve as a provocative genesis or case study for the rise of the American Sunbelt and the shape of American suburban development generally. The promise of the ranch house in the sun would, as incisive Californian architectural critic Esther McCoy stated, “insinuate itself across the nation.” Getting a handle of the rhetorical, ecological, and cultural context of the emergence of the ranch house is a critical task in moving towards an understanding of present day uncertainty. It is not just an architectural form, but a vessel for certain kind of American identity.

I am eager to insert the voices of those whose labors afforded the “sheltered” life and agricultural plenty that fueled the local economy as well as facilitating the production of these fantastic visions of the “just add water” good life, as their experiences and knowledge foretell the environmental and social challenges that faced and continue to face the American southwest.

Post by Anna Kryczka, Water UCI Graduate Team Member