PalmSprings.com Spotlight: An Interview with J.R. Roberts of the Palm Springs Art Museum

J.R. Roberts

J.R. Roberts

J.R. Roberts attended UCLA and worked for individual clients before spending 12 years as a partner with Boccardo Roberts Architecture and Design. He currently serves as vice president of PSModCom, an organization dedicated to the preservation of historic architecture. J.R. also serves on the Palm Springs Planning Commission, and was the former chairman of the museum’s Architecture and Design Council. J.R. was recently named Managing Director of the new Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center, Edwards Harris Pavilion (opening November, 2014).

Kate Buckley: J.R., you’re originally from Venice, CA, and lived for quite some time in the Bay Area. What originally brought you to Palm Springs?

J.R. Roberts: The promise of rest and a respite from my very full life in the Bay Area [in addition to J.R.’s architectural career, he served as council member and mayor of Sausalito]. Boy was I kidding myself—I’ve never worked as hard, been as social or been as busy since moving here! So much for small town life! Seriously, I came for the spectacular natural beauty, weather and affordable resort living, much like everyone else.

KB: And you found quite a vacation home as well. Tell me about the Edris House—a historic gem when you found it, and then you launched a full-scale renovation? 

JR:  Ah, yes, the Edris house. The short version of a long romantic story is that I had always loved the house from a distance. In 2000, when deciding to find a vacation home, the Edris house was given as an example to the realtor as the kind of house I liked. Naturally, after I bought another house, the Edris house came on the market. It was being marketed as a tear down or fixer. I was one of the first to see it and my first offer was accepted. The restoration was mostly cosmetic. The house had never been altered and was in a genteel state of decay. The ghost of Marge Edris and I have been on a long journey together ever since.

This class 1 designated house attracts a lot of attention and sometimes I feel like the person who lives in the shadow of a movie star. I recently overheard someone say: “There’s that guy who owns that Edris house.” Maybe I’ll put that on my tomb stone. I love the house and feel very lucky to live in it. Will I live here forever? No, sometimes I have an urge to build or try something new.  I believe that new experiences keep us young, so I try to move every 10 years or so.  

KB: You made the transition to a full-time resident of Palm Springs about six years ago. What prompted that decision?

JR: I remember the exact minute! While flying here every few weeks to oversee a steel and glass house I was building, I found myself on a particular flight looking back, seeing my house, and not wanting to leave. The decision came fast but for many of the obvious reasons—high quality of life, clean air, light population, and natural beauty. But the thing I loved most was the great people I was meeting—happy expats from bigger cities who were grateful to be living in Palm Springs. I never looked back, nor regretted the move for one moment once I got here. And, I’ve made closer friends here in two years than I had made in the 15 previous years elsewhere.

KB: I love that you remember the exact minute when everything changed—seems like it was a pretty magical decision for you. And what happened with the modern steel and glass house you built?

JR: Good question. I decided to rent it out! I always thought I’d live in it if I ever moved here, but I somehow could never bring myself to leave the Edris house. It does very well as a rental, and I’m thinking I’ll sell it next year.

At the Architectural + Design Center construction site with associate manager, Michael Hinkle [left]

At the Architectural + Design Center construction site with associate manager, Michael Hinkle [left]

KB: Tell me how you originally connected with the Palm Springs Art Museum.

JR: After serving as the chair for the museum’s Architecture and Design Council and helping to find the original money to purchase the new building, they came back and wanted to hire  me to help them raise $1.5M to do the renovation. I’m not a fundraiser, so was surprised I was getting asked to take on a major capital campaign. They clearly saw something in me that I did not. Because this is a project and organization that I’m passionate about, I decided that I would donate a large percentage of what they paid me back to the project.

KB: And how much did you eventually raise? 

JR: Quite a lot! They kept raising the amount I needed to raise. Now, almost $4M later, we’re done. It took about 2 years and with the help of a lot of other passionate and generous people, we did it—we open November 9th of this year!

KB: That’s fantastic! And how did you make the leap from fundraiser extraordinaire to Managing Director of the new Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center, Edwards Harris Pavilion?

JR: With the fundraising pretty much done, the project well into construction and having a list of projects and other things I wanted to focus on, I was again very surprised to be asked to take on the directorship. The Palm Springs Art Museum, under the guidance of a great and talented leadership and staff, has remade itself over the past decade and emerged into a great and respected international museum. I know it sounds corny but I feel truly honored to be working with such a great team. And, in retrospect, I can’t imagine not getting up every morning and thinking about the museum.   

KB: After serving as Mayor of Sausalito, do you have political aspirations in Palm Springs?

JR: I get asked that a lot. I’m currently on the Planning Commission, and am Vice-President of a preservation organization.  Add that to my new job and there’s simply no time to think about politics! However, I’m fascinated by municipalities, how they run and the democratic process—not to mention my love of public service—so maybe another time.  

KB: Where do you see Palm Springs in the next 5-10 years? 

JR:  Finally emerging as the arts and cultural center it was always meant to be! It’s happening right before our eyes and we’ve become an international destination. I love that we’re attracting a new and younger demographic. The love and fascination with our architectural heritage and mid century modern style has been a big part of this and is what distinguishes us from the other cities of the Coachella Valley. Palm Springs is so lucky to have a glamorous and interesting past to celebrate, and it’s just now being fully recognized. We’re very lucky as this was the thing that helped rescue us from the tanked national economy. That little film festival thing we do didn’t hurt either!

KB: What do you love most about Palm Springs? 

JR: I always describe Palm Springs as a small town, with small town warmth—but without small minds. Everyone, from every background is welcome to make a great life here. People, by and large, are not judged by their color, age, sexual preference, wealth or origin. Substance seems to be valued, and community involvement is alive and well here. I feel lucky to live among a happy, diverse group of people who are grateful for and dedicated to their city. It just feels like home to me.

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