Buildout reshapes social club into premier desert science center

This story is part of NRS reserves transformed by Proposition 84 funds, a series describing the facilities improvements and expansions at NRS reserves supported by Proposition 84 bond funds.

Anza Prop. 84
State bond funding helped transform the former Desert Club into a premier field station for classes and researchers. Image: Joseph Brown

By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System

When the Borrego Desert Club opened in 1950, it was considered to be the height of modern architectural elegance. Intended to be the social center of the resort town of Borrego Springs, the Streamline Moderne building featured wraparound desert views, a curved bar, and a luxurious oval swimming pool.

But by the time UC Irvine acquired the building in 2011, the Desert Club was a ghost of its former self. The bar and spacious kitchen remained, and the dining room still looked out over splendid scenes of desert flora and fauna. But the wiring was antique midcentury, the pool hadn’t seen swimmers in decades, and the nearest fire hydrant emitted little more than a trickle.

Anza Prop. 84
The inner courtyard area circa 2011, before the renovation project. Image: Kathleen Wong/NRS

Philanthropist Audrey Steele Burnand had donated the $650,000 landmark building and surrounding 3.75 acres to UC, and provided for an additional $1.2 million in renovations. Yet even after that work was done, the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center lacked critical features of a functioning field station.

“For the first year and a half, we had a grand total of three Ikea bunk beds, two in one room, and one in an office. The classes that came had to sleep on cots or outside,” recalls reserve manager Jim Dice.

The once-grand pool had become little more than a health hazard. “After 45 years without any water, the pool was pretty rough. In the early years we had to import mosquito fish from campus to keep down the insect population after rains,” Dice says.

Anza Prop. 84
This central courtyard used to be the parking lot. The new building with solar panels offers laboratory and storage space, while the new building to the right houses private rooms. Image: courtesy UC Irvine

When UC Irvine realized the Burnand gift qualified the reserve for Proposition 84 improvement funds, they jumped at the opportunity.

“We were lucky that the funding came so close to our original startup,” Dice says. “I can’t imagine what we would be like at this point without Proposition 84. It really was hugely important to the establishment of the reserve.”

The campus proposed a $2.78 million renovation. Half was paid for by Proposition 84 bond funds administered by the state Wildlife Conservation Board, and the remainder by UC Irvine in the form of planning, design, permitting, furnishings, renovation, and the value of the reserve itself.

Anza Prop. 84
The new laboratory/classroom offers plenty of room for people to congregate to process specimens and collaborate. These students from the University of Connecticut were studying caterpillars and identifying plants. Image: Jim Dice/UC Irvine

UC Irvine shut the reserve for construction just 18 months after it opened. They had to; the remodel would deconstruct the driveway, expose wiring, reinstall plumbing, and generally make the building uninhabitable for the duration.

The yearlong construction project proved well worth the hiatus. Completed in November 2014, the renovation roughly doubled the existing square footage of the buildings, increased accommodations fivefold, modernized safety features, made the facility handicapped accessible, and provided dedicated space for science research.

Expanding the original field station building was at the top of the wish list. Dorm rooms with bunk beds for 24, men’s and women’s bathrooms and showers, plus a common area in between, added substantial housing.

Anza Prop. 84
The center’s new common room enables students and other visitors to work, socialize, and relax right outside their bunk rooms. Image: courtesy UC Irvine

A laboratory building went up across a central courtyard area. The science building includes a laboratory with sinks, lab benches, and cabinets, plus a room to store research equipment. A third structure houses four efficiency units—comfortably furnished motel rooms with their own bathrooms—for instructors and researchers.

The field station exterior got a facelift as well. The pool was filled in to form a patio ideal for outdoor classes and nighttime events. The driveway was repaved, a new fire hydrant installed, and the parking lot got upgraded with ADA spaces. Improvements to the heating and air conditioning systems, plus rooftop solar panels, helped qualify the building for LEED Gold Certification.

Buildout reshapes social club into premier desert science center 1
The four efficiency units are much like motel rooms. Each is equipped with a queen bed, desk, wardrobe, and its own bathroom facilities. Image: Alan Tulving

On top of the facility renovations, reserve donor Mrs. Burnand added $250,000 of landscaping work to beautify the grounds.

When the remodeled reserve reopened in August of 2014, the number of visitors skyrocketed. From the handful of scientists and a couple of classes that visited before the project, the number of users immediately soared to 1,100 in fiscal year 2014–15, and reached 2,500 in fiscal year 2018–19.

“Proposition 84 really has made the place what it is,” Dice says. “Our site is now one of the two or three top reserves in being able to accommodate classes in a style to which they’re rarely accustomed.”

Anza Prop. 84
A drone’s-eye view of the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center after renovations. Image: Dan DiPinto

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *