Tired of Los Angeles, a gay couple built an oasis in the desert
It’s “life imitating art imitating life” for Kit Williamson and John Halbach. The married couple and the stars of EastSiders – the beloved queer TV series set in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles – moved from his own apartment in Silver Lake to the Californian desert during the lockout. There they bought and remodeled a home in Joshua Tree, a High Desert community adjacent to the gay mecca of Palm Springs. They also filmed a new TV show, Unconventionalabout queer siblings starting an unconventional family in the same setting.
Below, the couple talk about the ups and downs of buying and renovating their home, now dubbed the oasis of El Dorado, as well as creating art as a couple. The process was not easy and they provide advice for other LGBTQ+ people considering a similar trip.
What inspired your move to the desert?
John: We fell in love with Joshua Tree and Palm Springs when we started visiting 10 years ago. It was our favorite weekend, and in 2016 we got married here so we could share our favorite spot with friends and family.
Pencil case: It was a challenge to spend the majority of the COVID quarantine time in our one bedroom apartment in Silver Lake. I spent most of quarantine working in bed while John worked Zooms in the living room. When we had the chance, we jumped at the chance to move here and have more space.
How did you go about choosing a property?
John: Finding a property here in the desert was a process. We made offers on several spots that we fell in love with and ultimately didn’t get. You are going through the grieving process and the search continues. We feel so lucky to have ended up where we did, with a 1958 family cabin set on five acres full of Joshua trees.
Pencil case: It was all about the land for us, and we feel really lucky to have found a place with such great views that is still quite close to civilization.
What was the condition of the property before the renovations?
Pencil case:We like to say the previous owner made it nice, but we walked in and made it gay.
What was your vision of what you wanted it to become?
John: We wanted to play out the desert fantasy and take advantage of the fact that this home sits on five acres of land with stunning views in every direction. There were several patio doors when we arrived, but they opened out to a fenced yard with a clothesline. We removed that fence (and clothesline) and laid pavers that bring you to a hot tub, cowboy bath with lounging deck, outdoor clawfoot tub and shower, and our Shasta trailer from 1962. We also set up a hammock triangle further into the property where we watch the sunset the most each night.
Pencil case: I took charge of the design process for the interior of the house, and I took a lot of inspiration from the houses we had stayed in here during our visits and tried to marry it to our own style of the mid-century. The High Desert has its own aesthetic and its own motto: “Keep Mojave Weird”.
How did you plan its execution?
Pencil case: As a filmmaker, I like to create mood boards in Keynote, so I started with that, then did a second presentation as we started to define the actual design.
John: The renovation process was definitely a learning process. We’re both producers who have handled big projects, but never anything like this. We went with the contractor who made the lowest bid and discovered that there was a reason his bid was the lowest. A year and a half and a few crews after that initial contractor, we finally crossed the finish line.
What surprises did you encounter during the renovation process?
John: We were surprised at the amount of research we had to do on Google to verify the safety of people working on the house. We’ve found that just because someone says they can do tiling or electrical work doesn’t mean they’ll do it properly or safely. You need to specify that you want things to look good and you don’t want the house to burn down. None of these things are given.
Pencil case: You should also make it clear that you don’t want things to look like shit, apparently. When our tile accent wall was installed I noticed it was jagged and falling off the wall as the installer was using thinset [mortar adhesive] on stucco, so I frantically started googling “how to tile” and ended up working on it myself for two days.
What was the hardest part?
Kit: For me, it was about staying positive and not letting my renovation frustrations ruin my love for the house. For John, it was probably putting up with me!
The most fun part?
John: The most fun part was crossing the finish line and finally being able to share the place with our friends and family. It’s so much fun playing tour guide in this place we love so much and coming home to this place we’ve worked so hard for.
Helpers, i.e. people or brands, to whom you would like to thank?
Pencil case: I am especially grateful to Signature Hardware, Villa Lagoon Tile and Concrete Collaborative for helping the bathroom and kitchen renovations go smoothly. There really is no place other than Home Depot to find quality fixtures and tiles here. But thanks to the internet, design and craftsmanship are so much more accessible than ever before. In the same way, Terrier is a great company that delivers high-quality, incredibly easy to assemble mid-century furniture to your doorstep. We put together all the furniture in the house and some of it was a real test for our relationship, so finding Burrow was a huge relief.
John: Our hybrid mattresses Tuft and Needle are truly the most comfortable we have ever slept on. We also loved working with Café appliances from GE, Lamps Plus, Castlery and Cushion Pros.
Has this experience impacted your relationship?
John: I will say that renovating this house was more of a challenge to our relationship than producing four seasons of a low budget independent TV show, but luckily we pulled it off and have a beautiful house to show off.
Your new show takes place in the desert. How has your move inspired you creatively?
Pencil case: It is a case of life imitating art imitating life. Unconventional is a dark comedy about two eccentric queer siblings trying to start an unconventional family with their partners in the desert, where my character will be his sister’s girlfriend’s sperm donor. We had our writers room on Zoom, and it was very inspiring to imagine what life might be like for gay couples in Joshua Tree and Palm Springs. We started filming and had to stop production when the pandemic hit, and John and I moved here during that time. It ended up being a blessing in disguise as we were able to use the house and grounds for multiple filming locations.
What’s the hardest part of living in Joshua Tree – and the most rewarding?
Kit: We thought feeling isolated would be the hardest part of living here, but it actually got very ingrained. Having some space and distance has been great for us, both personally and professionally.
John: Sometimes I miss being closer to friends and civilization, but luckily people like to come here. It’s been really rewarding to see the community grow over the past two years. It’s like a cool new bar or restaurant opening every month.
Palm Springs is known as a gay oasis. Joshua Tree can be a mixed bag. Have you had any sticky encounters as a gay couple?
John: In Joshua Tree, you see a lot of “Let’s Go, Brandon” flags. But you also see a lot of Pride flags! A slew of local businesses have LGBTQ+ owners, and most high street businesses make it a point to display Pride flags and Black Lives Matter signs.
Pencil case: The desert changes quickly, and this change can scare some people, but all our neighbors have been really welcoming.
Any advice for gay couples looking to embark on a similar journey?
Pencil case: Take a cat!
John: Honestly, the cat has stopped so many fights. Being responsible for keeping our son alive is always a good reminder that we are, in fact, a team.
John: Kit needs to return to Los Angeles for a few months to complete post-production on her new series, so we’re renting the property on Airbnb. We work with a great gay-owned property management company called Desert Beacon, and they’ve taken great care of the place.
Pencil case: We also just bought another house. We’re restoring a super cute 1970s pool house in Yucca Valley that looks like it was transplanted here from Palm Springs. It’s a huge undertaking, but I hope our relationship can survive it!
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This article is part of OutsideJanuary/February 2023 publishon newsstands February 7. Support queer media and subscribe – or download the issue via Amazon, Kindle, Nook or Apple News.
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