Rest In Peace
The spirit of William Burroughs inhabits the chilled-out Beat Hotel in Desert Hot Springs, California.
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 7/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
There were a couple of hitchhikers on the road outside the Beat Hotel in Desert Hot Springs, California. But these weren't aspiring Jack Kerouacs or Allen Ginsbergs, hitting the highway in search of drugs and drama. Try a couple of Los Angeles matrons who'd gone out for a morning jog and somehow lost their spa.
In Palm Springs, 10 miles north, the women might have called a cab—or a limo. Things are rougher here, in a town known variously for methamphetamine production and discreet nudist resorts. Motels were plopped down along rutted roads, wherever the advertised hot springs were waiting to be tapped. Outside these establishments' high cinder-block walls lie expanses of scrubby land determined to stay scrubby.
Which is why Steven Lowe, who'd previously restored a nearby 1947 motel by John Lautner, was able to buy a 1957 property for $120,000 and, for about the same amount of money, turn the place into a shrine to the writers of the beat generation: Kerouac, Ginsberg, and most significantly William Burroughs. Better known for his novels, Burroughs gained notoriety as a visual artist in his later years. Some of his works on wood—made by shooting bullets at cans of spray paint—are on display at the hotel. The shot-up paint cans are here as well.
No piece of detritus is too obscure for Lowe, who—growing up in his family's Miami funeral home—turned to design as an escape. In the second grade, he began making extravagant clothes for his classmates. (He remembers an "early version of the Grace Jones look.") When he met Burroughs in New York in 1974, Lowe says, he had a job writing "hetero S&M porn" but, figuring that his publisher never read the stuff anyway, began turning in experimental feminist lit instead. Accustomed to producing a novel a week, he was just the right person to help Burroughs overcome a famous case of writer's block.
Lowe worked with Burroughs on and off for more than 20 years. In 1990, Lowe even helped outfit a Burroughs-themed nightclub in Tokyo—where the author is iconic as much for his flannel suits and narrow ties as for his writing. The Beat Hotel in Desert Hot Springs is named for his favorite Paris outpost, but Lowe says his own hostelry is actually a dead ringer for the Hotel El Muniria in Tangier, Morocco, where Burroughs wrote his 1959 novel, Naked Lunch.
When Lowe bought the Desert Hot Springs property, he recalls, it was a "bombed-out dump" littered with hypodermics. Vacant for more than 10 years, it had been built as the Monte Carlo Hotel—and doused in colored lights, Las Vegas–style. Lowe's somber scheme, by contrast, is based on the colors of Burroughs's trade: white paper, black ink, and manila folders.
Against that severe backdrop, Lowe installed such oddities as a gory latex creature from the David Cronenberg film of Naked Lunch. Artwork by George Condo and Lynda Benglis, associates of Burroughs, accompany his assorted collaborations with Keith Haring, Robert Rauschenberg, and—in the case of a large acrylic diptych called The Exterminator—Lowe himself.
Many of the furnishings come from places such as Lawrence, Kansas, where Burroughs settled at the end of his life and a mid-century lamp may still cost $12 not, Lowe says, "the $800 they sell it for in Palm Springs." Also scattered around are adding machines. (Burroughs's grandfather invented them.) In addition, Lowe scoured the country for old manual typewriters. All are in perfect repair—in case a visitor is inspired to write a rambling novel.
Lowe's ideal guest would spend an evening watching the film version of Naked Lunch, perhaps while perusing a set of flower-arranging books by Burroughs's mother, Laura Lee Burroughs, a mid-century Martha Stewart. "This isn't so much a hotel as an interpretive site and educational retreat," Lowe says. Almost as an afterthought, he adds, "It also has to make sense as a business."
What the Beat Hotel and its sister establishment, the Lautner, have in common is that both offer guests the chance to immerse themselves in the lives of "extremely radical, uncompromising thinkers," says Lowe. Of course, some people are happy just to immerse themselves in the pool and hot tub at the Beat. But they'd be missing the point, he maintains: "I may start calling it a brain spa."