Palm Springs is a perfect fit for this Kiwi’s lifestyle

Palm Springs is a perfect fit for this Kiwi’s lifestyle

If you’d asked a young Philip Roche where he would one day spend his winters, he definitely wouldn’t have said in California’s Palm Springs. Or that his main residence would be a sprawling 14ha property and farmhouse on the other side of the United States in rural New Jersey.

But that’s how life has turned out for the Wellingtonian whose love of gardening started when he was 14. “I’d mow people’s lawns after school, which eventually led to a four-year landscaping apprenticeship at the Wellington City Council’s parks department,” says Philip.

New Zealander Philip Roche planted the street entrance of his Palm Springs home with hardy native Californian palms; he was attracted to the home's concrete block construction – different sizes and patterns using concrete blocks are a common feature in mid-century architecture.

Brian Dillon/NZ House & Garden

New Zealander Philip Roche planted the street entrance of his Palm Springs home with hardy native Californian palms; he was attracted to the home’s concrete block construction – different sizes and patterns using concrete blocks are a common feature in mid-century architecture.

In 1996, Philip’s itchy feet took him to New York where he stayed with friends who owned a landscaping business. They suggested he help them out and before he knew it, his three-week vacation had turned into 25 years.

“I bought the company from my friends after 10 years and sold it three years ago when we had 60 staff and 12 trucks working for some very demanding clients all across New York.”

Philip Roche enjoys a cold drink – a must when the summer temperatures regularly reach 40C.

Brian Dillon/NZ House & Garden

Philip Roche enjoys a cold drink – a must when the summer temperatures regularly reach 40C.

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Philip’s talents weren’t only confined to the garden; he’d always loved renovating old houses, starting with an 1860s cottage in Newtown, Wellington, that he bought and renovated when he was 21 and still owns.

“I’ve probably renovated more than 12 houses in my life. It doesn’t matter what the style of house is, I love a bargain and a project!”

In fact Philip loves a project so much, he recently launched a property concierge business, Roche Design, helping clients with their home renovations.

The original decorative concrete block wall is a feature in the newly enlarged garden; Philip installed LED lighting throughout the garden to light the paths, as well as adding uplights for the palms and some hanging lights; the natural gas corten steel fire pit is a great spot for friends to sit with a drink on chilly Californian winter nights.

Brian Dillon/NZ House & Garden

The original decorative concrete block wall is a feature in the newly enlarged garden; Philip installed LED lighting throughout the garden to light the paths, as well as adding uplights for the palms and some hanging lights; the natural gas corten steel fire pit is a great spot for friends to sit with a drink on chilly Californian winter nights.

In 2019, he and his American husband, medical administrator Doug Brito, moved from their Manhattan apartment to a lifestyle block in New Jersey. They’ve now renovated five homes in the region, including one built in 1740 and their current 1950s farmhouse, which they completely gutted.

Keen to get away from the often brutal east coast winters, in 2015 they started visiting friends in Palm Springs. “We fell in love with the laid-back, liberal Californian lifestyle,” says Philip.

Colourful wallpaper brings a cheerful holiday feel to another guest bedroom, and the lamp adds a touch of whimsy.

Brian Dillon/NZ House & Garden

Colourful wallpaper brings a cheerful holiday feel to another guest bedroom, and the lamp adds a touch of whimsy.

Four years later, they bought this three-bedroom house five minutes’ drive from the city centre. “Palm Springs is so different from anywhere I’ve ever visited because it’s a desert surrounded by mountains. Much of Palm Springs was built in the 50s and 60s by people from Hollywood who wanted a weekend away but needed to be within an hour and a half commute from work. They tended to build simple, smaller houses, often with flat roofs and often out of utilitarian materials such as breeze-block bricks.”

Their home was built in 1959 and had been owned by the same couple for 40 years. “It was tired and in need of a complete overhaul, but we could see the beauty in its bones.”

Philip opened up the kitchen, which involved strengthening the roof and walls; he opted for a single style of floor tile throughout the house to create a consistent feel and there are no prizes for guessing his favourite colour is blue; the backrests on the bar stools make them comfortable to sit in for long periods and Philip made sure there are plenty of powerpoints and USB charging stations under the island top; he calls the cow Michelle and found her in an estate sale.

Brian Dillon/NZ House & Garden

Philip opened up the kitchen, which involved strengthening the roof and walls; he opted for a single style of floor tile throughout the house to create a consistent feel and there are no prizes for guessing his favourite colour is blue; the backrests on the bar stools make them comfortable to sit in for long periods and Philip made sure there are plenty of powerpoints and USB charging stations under the island top; he calls the cow Michelle and found her in an estate sale.

That included doing basics such as re-wiring and re-plumbing. It also included knocking down two walls in the kitchen to create the open-plan kitchen and living area they were after. They added new cabinetry and a 1.8m-long kitchen island, which does double duty as the dining table and seats eight.

“We love to cook and host lots of friends for dinner parties. Palm Springs is the kind of place where you can barbecue year-round.”

They also added large concrete-look flooring tiles to the kitchen and a striking blue glass splashback.

The fine desert dust in the evening light creates incredible colours over the San Jacinto mountain range, Philip says, and in the winter, although the temperatures are 20C most days, the mountains are covered in snow; Philip has planted all the garden walls with vines that attract hummingbirds and the pink metal cactus was a house-warming gift from a ''crazy Australian friend''.

Brian Dillon/NZ House & Garden

The fine desert dust in the evening light creates incredible colours over the San Jacinto mountain range, Philip says, and in the winter, although the temperatures are 20C most days, the mountains are covered in snow; Philip has planted all the garden walls with vines that attract hummingbirds and the pink metal cactus was a house-warming gift from a ”crazy Australian friend”.

Philip’s usual decorating style tends to be more minimalist and plucked from the neutral end of the colour wheel. But in the desert all bets are off, he says. “There’s something fun and colourful about Palm Springs and that seeps into the decor too.” Hence the colourful wallpapers in the two guest bedrooms, which Philip found locally.

“There are so many great interior shops in Palm Springs. Plus, because it has a huge retirement population, there are always lots of great estate sales and stock in vintage shops.” That’s where he found the mid-century credenza in the living room and the desk in one of the guest bedrooms.

The pineapple wallpaper in the guest bedroom is a favourite with everyone who sees it, says Philip.

Brian Dillon/NZ House & Garden

The pineapple wallpaper in the guest bedroom is a favourite with everyone who sees it, says Philip.

In the master bedroom, Philip borrowed space from an adjoining bedroom to create a generous walk-in wardrobe. “Eventually, we’d like to extend the master bedroom out to create a separate sitting/office area but that’s phase two of the project,” he says.

Outside, Philip put his years of landscape design to use, adding sculptural plants such as snake plant, cacti and hedges. He also knocked down part of a wall to create a separate garden zone.

Summer in Palm Springs can mean extreme temperatures, so a pool is a necessity. The one that came with this house needed a spruce-up, so the interior was re-lined and blue tiles added. The couple also added a hot tub for winter nights when temperatures can drop to as low as 6°C.

Philip removed an oval bath and added the large walk-in shower and hexagonal wall tiles; he couldn't resist adding an image of the shower scene from the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film 'Psycho'.

Brian Dillon/NZ House & Garden

Philip removed an oval bath and added the large walk-in shower and hexagonal wall tiles; he couldn’t resist adding an image of the shower scene from the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film ‘Psycho’.

Philip and Doug spend a few months a year in Palm Springs, split over weekends and holidays such as Thanksgiving. At other times, it’s used by friends and family or rented out on Airbnb.

“The plan is eventually to sell our New Jersey place and split our time between Palm Springs and New Zealand. I used to come home every Christmas, but thanks to Covid, it’s been a few years since I’ve been back and I’m pretty homesick. Doug now has permanent residency in New Zealand so once we’re able to travel freely again, we’ll come back and try to find a project in Wellington.”

The master bedroom faces south-west, so it has views of the sunset and also the new hot tub, which was cut into the side of the existing pool; its waterfall noise is wonderful in the desert, says Philip; the cut steel artworks by the TV and the antique bedroom mirror are both from New Zealand; the couple particularly love the curved mid-century style dresser from West Elm, which has a marble top.

Brian Dillon/NZ House & Garden

The master bedroom faces south-west, so it has views of the sunset and also the new hot tub, which was cut into the side of the existing pool; its waterfall noise is wonderful in the desert, says Philip; the cut steel artworks by the TV and the antique bedroom mirror are both from New Zealand; the couple particularly love the curved mid-century style dresser from West Elm, which has a marble top.

Q&A with Philip Roche

What I love about this part of America: The weather is constantly fantastic, even in the heat, while the winter is amazingly sunny. There are lots of outdoor lifestyle activities and the welcoming locals are a nice mix from all over.

Best renovation advice: With every reno I’ve done I’ve had to remind myself that it will take longer than planned, go over budget and disasters will happen. But after completion, I’ll forget the issues. I always say, try to enjoy the ride.

Philip found the mid-century buffet locally, and fell in love with the quirky 'Thinking Monkey' artwork; the image of New Zealand next to it is a reminder of home.

Brian Dillon/NZ House & Garden

Philip found the mid-century buffet locally, and fell in love with the quirky ‘Thinking Monkey’ artwork; the image of New Zealand next to it is a reminder of home.

My dream: Is to build a house in New Zealand with a lake or ocean view, lots of glass and light, a heated concrete floor and complete privacy. I’d love to build it somewhere like Ōtama Beach in the Coromandel or the Kāpiti Coast, Wairarapa, Lake Taupō or Russell.

What I miss about New Zealand: I’ve always maintained a very close connection with home. Of course, I miss my immediate and extended family and friends but also the best food in the world, the landscape, culture and beaches around Gisborne, Ōtama, Castlepoint and the Kāpiti Coast.

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