In the Desert With Jackrabbits and Clint Eastwood

The listing for the properties — four five-acre parcels of desert scrub near Pioneertown, Calif. — landed in Dave McAdam’s inbox one morning before dawn. By 10 a.m., he was in contract to buy all the lots, sight unseen, for $320,000. One of the parcels had been planted with a cabin, a low-slung, concrete-block one-bedroom structure clad in swirly patterned pink stone. At 1,000 square feet, it was just right, Mr. McAdam said, for a single man.

Mr. McAdam, now 69, had a long career as a journalist, editing a portfolio of 23 community newspapers in Orange County, and then as a public relations executive, handling crisis management for various industries, before he bought his first desert property in Yucca Valley in 2003.

After he sobered up, as he put it, he researched the best ways to build there without wrecking the xeriscape of native plants and boulders — leave the land alone, take out the junk — and developed, with others, a system for making prefabricated light-gauge steel-frame houses. He built a lovely steel-and-glass prototype on that property in 2009 and continued to investigate the folkways and particularities of his habitat, for what would be his new career as a developer of modernist houses with a small footprint.

He called that company Homestead Modern — acknowledging the area’s history as a D.I.Y. homesteader’s paradise and nodding to the architectural movement that had spread so many glass-and-steel structures throughout the stark lunar landscape at midcentury. He built his second prototype in Pioneertown four years ago.

ImageDave McAdam’s home was built in 1954 under the Small Tract Act of 1938, when nearly half a million acres of public land in the deserts of Southern California were leased to eager homesteaders.
CreditLaure Joliet for The New York Times

Mr. McAdam never planned to live in those prototypes, however — he called them “proof of concept.” At first, he was based in an “awful” stucco house in Palm Springs, after having obscured its awfulness with a thicket of native plants. He tackled his new concrete cabin by stripping away just about everything. The place was filled with refuse, as were the six sheds that peppered the property, and encircled by tons of colored gravel. The weird pink stone cladding came off first — it had to be hand-chipped — after which he sandblasted the concrete twice for good measure. What was left was something sturdy and beautiful.

“Not for one minute did I consider pulling it down,” he said.

CreditLaure Joliet for The New York Times

Mr. McAdam’s new home was an unusual example of a jackrabbit homestead, so named because they provided shade for the jack rabbits and other small animals in areas that mostly had none. It was built in 1954 under the Small Tract Act of 1938, when nearly half a million acres of public land in the deserts of Southern California were leased to eager homesteaders, often for as little as $5 to $20 an acre, before the practice was discontinued in 1976.

More stories about architecture on the edge.

The act caused a land rush that took off after World War II, as D.I.Y.ers and desert pioneers, many of whom were weekenders from Los Angeles, received up to five acres of “useless” land once they “proved up” the property with a structure initially required to be no smaller than 12 by 16 feet, said Kim Stringfellow, an artist whose Jackrabbit Homestead project, and book of the same name, has mapped the odd and endearing vernacular structures that resulted.

Most homestead cabins were built out of wood, not concrete. But the harsh environment is not kind to wood, as Mr. McAdam pointed out, and many jackrabbit homesteads have disintegrated. “Finding a concrete cabin,” he said, “was such a rush for me. Not only was it sitting on one of the most beautiful parcels of land, but it was intact and just needed some updating.”

It was as solid, he said, as the rocks that surrounded it.

CreditLaure Joliet for The New York Times
CreditLaure Joliet for The New York Times

Records note that the house was originally built at 800 square feet, about twice the size of most homesteads. At some point, another 200 square feet were added to make a bedroom. The windows — barricaded behind iron bars — and doors were small; Mr. McAdam opened up the place by slicing through the concrete blocks, adding four large, aluminum-frame windows and sliding glass doors.

The kitchen was already open to the living area, so the place now reads like one of his modernist prototypes (the new kitchen is from Ikea). He got rid of the swamp cooler and the wood-burning stove, and added a forced-air unit for heating (with propane) and cooling (with electricity) through gutsy-looking galvanized steel ducts.

The ceiling was tongue-in-groove, made from Douglas fir. Because there was no insulation, he removed the asphalt shingle roof — which was not so beautiful — added rigid foam insulation and covered it with an elegant gray powder-coated steel roof. With the extra ceiling space, he was able to inset light fixtures. Mr. McAdam had hoped to polish the poured concrete floors, but they were too dinged up. He found a gray porcelain Italian tile that resembles polished concrete and laid it down instead.

CreditLaure Joliet for The New York Times
CreditLaure Joliet for The New York Times

Mr. McAdam spent about $340,000 on the renovation of the house and property. (He sold the remaining three lots for $150,000.) In keeping with desert practices, he built outdoor rooms and deployed outbuildings. These include a sleeping platform made from welded tube steel and redwood decking, which makes a shady living room underneath; two concrete pads set among the boulders with a Jacuzzi and a galvanized steel stock tank, otherwise known as a cowboy tub, as a cold water plunge pool; a 1973 Holiday Rambler trailer; a Tuff Shed; an outdoor kitchen; an outdoor dining room; an outdoor shower; a gym and two observation decks. Also, there is a “guzzler,” a shallow concrete pool that fills automatically with water for wildlife.

Mr. McAdam is a meticulous guy, and he’s decorated the place in a rigorous modernist style. When he was nearly finished, a friend phoned and asked if he had room for one more piece of art, but wouldn’t say why. When the friend arrived later that night, he had a painting under his arm: It was a portrait of Clint Eastwood from “High Plains Drifter,” painted in earnest homage and found at a Yucca Valley swap meet. “My friend had figured out what I had not,” Mr. McAdam said. “Everything was so precious here, and it needed something not precious.”

These days, if you visit Mr. McAdam, you will have your photo taken in front of Clint’s portrait. “People are like, ‘Really, do I have to?’” Mr. McAdam said. “We find our traditions wherever we can.”