On the edge of California’s Joshua Tree National Park is a national treasure of another sort: The Bungalows, a testament to optimism and a triumph of desert modernism.
The Bungalows is not a traditional hotel. There’s no restaurant and no check-in. Before your trip, you’ll get instructions for your smart lock and the name of a good grocery store to fill your private kitchen. They’ll leave you the essentials, and some treats, and maybe even some sustainable produce if you request. Then they’ll leave you to it. There’s also a grill outside for guest use.
Does that all sound familiar? The Bungalows takes the best bits of home sharing and combines them with the ease and reliability of a hotel experience. And make no mistake, this is like staying in a home, albeit one that’s an authentic mid-century masterpiece.
The three buildings and fourteen suites of the stylish little Bungalows are set on the campus of the Joshua Tree Retreat Center. Built in large part by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Retreat is among the most celebrated examples of organic modern architecture in the country; it’s also the headquarters of the Institute of Mentalphysics.
Mentalphysics was developed by Edwin Dingle, also known as guru Ding Le Mei, and is a kind of super yoga with a mystic twist. In the spirit of the Bungalows, we’ll leave it to you to investigate any further. We will report, though, that Dingle believed in the power of positive thinking. He dreamed of a utopia, a majestic “City of Joy,” not one “of asphalt, paving and steel” but “of the Desert, spacious, free-sweeping.” This was the promise of his Joshua Tree retreat.
Even if the city didn’t quite materialize on the scale he hoped, his aesthetic desires were actualized.
The first buildings went up in the 1940s, their shapes and colors meant to blend into the desert. To this day, they remain the largest known collection of buildings by the junior Wright. To this day, the Institute of Mentalphysics remains a nonprofit, and upkeep isn’t easy. Enter Homestead Modern. Among Joshua Tree’s preeminent hospitality outfits and known for their skill in thoughtful renovation, they were approached by the Retreat Center for help on rehabbing three underutilized campus buildings.
They could hardly deny the challenge. After all, they had to have been pleased with the location. Those three buildings are now the Bungalows, a retreat within the Retreat that borders 250 acres of land — preserved by the Mojave Desert Land Trust — that rivals the national park next door. It all adds up to explain the hotel’s full, proper name: The Bungalows at Retreat by Homestead Modern.
Given the desirable location, it’s no surprise the Bungalows were originally meant for scholars, students, artists, and teachers flocking to the Retreat. While much of the campus was done by Wright, the Bungalows were built later, by another mid-century master. Harold Zook designed his post-and-beam buildings with a premium on effortless circulation between inside and out. You’ll feel the effects intuitively. The rafter tails that continue through the walls to frame each patio. The floor-to-ceiling glass windows that usher in rocky views of the desert.
When the Bungalows first joined our selection, we noted that the rest of the campus can sometimes show its age. But under the management of Homestead Modern, the three buildings that form this boutique hotel have all been newly restored by Brad Dunning, a renowned designer with a sterling reputation for his knowledge of how to work and source within the time period. “Most of the furniture and all of the finishes were sourced from current producers,” the hotel tells us, right down to the “plumbing fixtures that have been in production continuously since the 1950s and hand-made tile that utilizes old techniques.” Look, too, for Zook’s trademarks; he loved to work with patterned masonry and breezeblock.
Each of the fourteen accommodations has a kitchen, not to mention the private entrance and patio. How you make this experience is up to you. Explore the grounds and you’re bound to run into a guest from the Retreat, whether in the shared pool, the cafe, at an art installation or meditation room. There’s always something happening here — speakers, concerts, classes — and if you’re a guest at the Bungalows, you’re welcome to attend (sometimes for an extra fee). It just depends how mindful you’re feeling, and how much time you want to spend lounging in your sophisticated bungalow, reveling in the national park, or marveling at the scene and scenery of this historic oasis in the desert.
It’s said that in 1941, amid rays of light emanating over the Mojave landscape, Edwin Dingle heard a voice. “The desert will bloom like a rose,” it told him. “Great highways shall lead here as a place of respite.” Sometimes the voices are right.
Nuts & Bolts
A bite-sized breakdown of your most frequently asked questions about the Bungalows.
Who comes here?
Sophisticated appreciators of architecture and design. Revelers in desert landscapes. People who’ve come for the Joshua Tree National Park (and wouldn’t mind a poke around the architectural landmark and spiritual retreat that is the Institute of Mentalphysics). Not children — the hotel is 18+. With self check-in and personal kitchens, you’re well set up for some seclusion.
When’s the best time to visit?
Weather-wise, target March to May and October to November for the most comfortable temps. But the national park — and the Bungalows — are open year-round. The Joshua Tree Music Festival happens each May and October, and you’re only about an hour from Coachella in April. Even closer is Pappy & Harriet’s; be sure to check the schedule at this legendary concert venue and barbecue joint.
What else is there to do in the area?
You can literally walk out your door and into the hillside for acres and acres of preserved land, and that’s just in addition to the Joshua Tree National Park with all its wild rock formations and miles of hikes and lookouts over desert landscapes. Joshua Tree Village has a handful of boutiques and restaurants, and then there’s Pioneertown — a desert village built in the 1940s as a backdrop for Hollywood westerns that survives today as a beguiling small town main street.
Best room for a solo traveler? A couple? A family?
This is a small boutique — 14 rooms and six different room types that range in size — but all have kitchens with refrigerators and stoves, access to semi-private patios, and lovely floor-to-ceiling windows under the post-and-beam construction. The hotel tells us that solo travelers tend to enjoy the studios in the third building that face the undeveloped land beyond the Bungalows, and couples gravitate towards the spacious suites in building two. Nor is it unheard of to book out the entire property and use the executive suite as the gathering place (it has the largest dining room).
What’s there to eat?
There’s no hotel restaurant, although each room is stocked with the essentials (coffee, sugar, cooking oil, etc), and the retreat’s cafe (designed by Lloyd Wright) is open throughout the day for vegetarian food and coffee. Most guests buy groceries or have them delivered, and you’re welcome to use the communal propane BBQs. For eating out, Pappy & Harriet’s is a no-brainer. Another spot is the Copper Room for some classic American fare and cocktails.
Anything to say about sustainability?
It starts with the reuse of existing structures. There’s also a strong focus on electrical efficiency, with electric vehicle chargers available and a move to solar energy planned for this year. Worthy of note too were Homestead Modern’s efforts during renovation to replace non-native plants with native species. Newly planted cactus and succulent plants only add to the desert fantasy.
What’s the final word?
A really cool, really well-designed boutique that lets you dabble in as much of the desert mythos as you’d like, surrounded by one of the more intriguing architectural sites in California. Unless you’re hell-bent on setting up a tent under the stars, this is without a doubt among your top choices in Joshua Tree.
Book The Bungalows on Tablet Hotels.