By Denise Ortuno Neil
It looks like it could be something reminiscent of a castle from long ago, or a wall guarding something of great value, or perhaps a look out to the vast desert valley below for a person with means to build it. In a way, the mysterious wall that sits on the foothill of San Jacinto just above the famed O’Donnell Golf Course is all of those things, and a precious part of Palm Springs history. It is the wall that Tom O’Donnell built.
Tom O’Donnell didn’t actually haul the materials up the hill and literally use his hands to build the iconic wall himself, but he did have it built out of his vision. Tom O’Donnell was an oilman man of great wealth who came to Palm Springs along with his wife in the 1920’s, lured like so many before him by the areas inviting serene beauty and warm weather that benefited his respiratory ailment .
O’Donnell spent his early time visiting Palm Springs at the Desert Inn, owned by one of the town’s most prominent pioneers, Nellie Coffman. O’Donnell and Coffman became fast friends, so much so that when O’Donnell wanted to purchase the land up the hill from Coffman’s hotel to build a home, she struck a deal with O’Donnell, leasing the property out to him for 50 years in exchange for his assistance in expanding her business. The deal was made and construction began, the most beautiful house in the desert at the time was completed in 1925. The 4,100 square foot villa was named Ojo del Desierto, Eye of the Desert, and it truly was. The expansive view from the home spanned the desert valley floor as far as ones vision could take them.
The O’Donnell’s were avid golfers, often golfing on a limited green at the Desert Inn. The inadequate make shift course would not suffice and so O’Donnell purchased land below his new home and the O’Donnell Golf Course was conceived. The 9 hole private golf course opened in the winter of 1926 and was the first golf course in the desert. The golf course has hosted an elite group of members throughout the years and continues to be one of the most exclusive courses in the desert and certainly the most historic.
It was later in the 1930’s that O’Donnell set his sights on the star of this story…..his mysterious wall. It is said that the wall was built as assistance to those men who were systematically unemployed by the depression. Although Palm Springs was not as hard hit by the country’s economic plight, the impact still left a mark on valley workers. In his benevolent manner, O’Donnell employed these men to build his wall. The wall, with gothic inspired style, was to be the perimeter for his second home that was to be built on the mountain side not far from his first home, the Ojo del Desierto.
After completion of the wall, O’Donnell’s health declined, and maneuvering up to the new house’s intended site proved difficult. He decided to have his second home on the ground level near his golf course instead. But O’Donnell was not done with the mountain yet, he truly loved the desert and wanted to be buried here…in the mountain. He commissioned a crypt to be built not far from the wall. The crypt was built into the mountain and has an unfinished 12 foot square room with a 10 foot ceiling. The large archway was intended to be fitted with ornate bronze doors, but they never came to fruition. Instead, wooden doors covered the crypt, but over time because of vandals, the wooden doors gave way to a cement enclosure and that is how it stands today. O’Donnell was never buried in the crypt as California law prohibited being buried on private land.
During the time of the walls hay day, radio speakers were placed at the base of the wall, which would play music during the holidays, but unfortunately those also became victims of vandalism.
Tom O’Donnell was one of Palm Springs most revered citizens, donating his efforts to the desert city that he loved with his wealth and his heart. I have had the occasion to go up to the wall many years ago; it is as mysterious in person as it is from afar (massive steel gates forbid entrance now). Perhaps it was because I didn’t know the wall’s story at the time, and the energy I felt was derived from my imagination, but I definitely felt a presence. It is after all very possible that the energy I felt was real and from O’Donnell’s sincere love for Palm Springs, still loving it from beyond…still having his eye on the desert.
For more information about Tom O’Donnell visit www.pshistoricalsociety.org