The Spartan Restoration Story

In 2006 I began researching Spartan travel trailers, considered top of the line in their day, with aerodynamic aluminum bodies and deco styling. Spartan Aircraft first built them in 1945 when its owner, Jean Paul Getty, turned his attention and facilities to the great need for affordable housing by postwar families. Since I have a small group of short-term lodgings on 2.5 acres of land at my home in Santa Fe, I thought a restored Spartan travel trailer would be a wonderful addition to the mix. 

A time-lapse exposure of the Spartan on a clear Santa Fe nightA 1948 Spartan Mansion (30' long x 8' wide) in decent shape at a reasonable price was found by a trailer renovator and installed in my back yard. Walking through it, I saw those beautiful curved birch panels and was ecstatic over what was now mine. I was also profoundly affected by the humbleness of the times, as reflected in this travel trailer: small kitchen, small sink, tiny bathroom, everything simple and taut, just enough and nothing extra, an ethic that matters to me very much. I began to look for the person with whom I could easily collaborate on the restoration and who had the necessary skills for such an undertaking. 

Three years later, I found him. A mushroom farmer/part-time carpenter named Danny Rhodes had tackled various projects at my house. His meticulous, detailed engineer’s mind, his passion for figuring out things, along with his exquisite furniture-making abilities and his immense ease at collaborating on projects with me made him the perfect choice. 

Following consultations with vintage trailer renovators, it became clear that the Spartan had to be taken down to the metal and completely rebuilt. It was obvious which parts were original and which were altered or replaced over 60 years; it was our intention to use every original aspect of the Spartan that was intact and restorable. It was also a
passionate goal of mine that the rebuilt Spartan be as green and energy-efficient as possible. 
The three crumbling layers of linoleum and rotted subfloor had to go, and the birch wall and ceiling panels were sufficiently water damaged, delaminated or covered with fake brick veneer that they had to be completely replaced, using the old ones as sectional templates. Crumbling “Kimsul” paper insulation between the aluminum shell and the birch interior panels had to be removed and replaced with contemporary insulation, which thankfully eliminated the mustiness that permeated the whole. 

A view of the Spartan kitchen

The kitchen was fundamentally sound but was removed for re-gluing and strengthening where needed, plus sanding down prior to refinishing. The aluminum bathroom, reworked and corroded beyond repair, was cut in half for removal and taken to a metal fabrication shop to use as a template for a new stainless steel one—with an additional 6" in length scrounged from the bedroom. A bank of cabinets and a dresser in the middle section opposite the kitchen was rebuilt with the same footprint and a slightly different allocation of space, using the original cabinet doors. And everything was rewired and replumbed, salvaging every original fluorescent light fixture and intact plumbing.

During this demo phase Danny repeatedly marveled at how well the Spartan was built, such as the drawers having dovetail joints and the high quality of the plywood compared to much of what is sold today. He also realized that the entire shell merely sat on the floor frame, and had the brilliant idea of raising the height of the interior by two inches, being himself 6'2" and nearly touching the ceiling.

My main job was to source replacement parts online. Danny would come into the house and hand me something, saying, “We need six of these.” I would ask him what it was and what it was used for; he invariably didn’t know what it was called but would describe its function, and my search would begin. It’s quite interesting to look for a thing you don’t know the name of: I’d type in what I thought it should be called, and eventually—an hour, a week, a month later—I would find out what the thing was actually called and where to get it. 


Bit by bit the Spartan came back together to its original footprint, by Danny’s endless abilities and deep commitment to the project. The metal people showed up with the two halves of the new bathroom, nervous about the project because they had never before used airplane rivets (found, miraculously, at our local hardware store). They did aperfect job and were very proud of their contribution to our project. After that installation, I refinished all of the old doors, cleaned up the original latches and hinges, continued to find needed products, and sanded and then finished every inch of the interior woodwork with three coats of Safecoat Polyureseal gloss finish. 

As far as furnishing and decorating the Spartan, I began with my favorite colors, red, purple and a soft green. First came the floor—Marmoleum black-and-cream checkerboard tiles installed on the diagonal. I found the retro couch online, beautifully made by Rehab Vintage in Los Angeles, and was immediately and strongly attracted to its busstation sensibilities. Importantly, it was big enough to sleep a third person as needed. After I chose a wonderful plumcolored vinyl and was assured that the couch would fit through the narrow 2' doorway, it became the jumping-off point for all the rest. Danny made a beautiful mahogany Heywood-Wakefield–style coffee table to go in front of the couch, instead of the original folding dining table we considered reproducing. I then found a patterned wool rug that looked period-appropriate, and the living room was complete. 

I spent a number of months searching for vintage kitchen paraphernalia, finding what I wanted (essentially what I grew up with, being one year older than the Spartan) piece by piece: Revere Ware pots and pans, Pyrex mixing bowls and casseroles, and vintage dishes, silverware and glasses. I also managed to find small 1940s appliances, all functional and with beautiful deco styling, including a Toastmaster toaster, Osterizer beehive blender, and a classic radio, fan and iron. 

Addressing my ecological principles, the linoleum floor tiles are made of natural and compostable materials (linseed oil, pine rosins, wood flours), and the glue used is non-toxic. The refrigerator, a small retro model made by the Italian company Smeg, is energy efficient and happened to be the only one that fit through the small doorway—with 1/2" to spare! The bathroom and kitchen share an on-demand water heater, and the toilet is a small composting model made for boats. All water exits through a simple gray water system that directly waters trees in the back yard. And recently we converted to a 16-panel solar tracking system for the electrical needs of the compound. 

An exterior view of the Spartan through summer flowersThis renovation project was a year-long labor of love and a task much greater and richer than I imagined on many levels; it could never have happened without my friend Danny Rhodes. I now have the great fortune to live close by this venerable beauty and to share it with those who might want to step back in time and come stay a while.

This article originally published in the Atomic Ranch Magazine, and is reproduced with permission.