A stunning and historic clubhouse at the doorstep of California’s largest state park will be turned into a long-sought UC Irvine field research center for biologists, astronomers, anthropologists and others, thanks to a generous gift from Audrey Steele Burnand, who has deep ties to the property and the small town in which it’s located.

The Desert Club, a sleek, airy structure built into a broad Sonoran slope bordering Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, is expected to become part of the University of California’s 135,000-acre Natural Reserve System. It will provide much-needed shelter and laboratory space in a remote area where temperatures can top 100 degrees.

“It feels great. This building is perfect; it will be our home base for research of all kinds,” said biologist Diane Pataki, director of UCI’s Center for Environmental Biology, who has tried for five years to set up a research station in Borrego Springs. “We’re so lucky to be able to take advantage of the opportunity to get this property.”

Burnand’s father-in-law, Alphonse Burnand Jr., commissioned Streamline Moderne architect William Kesling to design the structure as the social hub of a planned new community in the 1940s.

“I made this gift to give new life to a beautiful, special place near the state park, one that has deep meaning for my family and will benefit generations of University of California researchers and others who share my love of the desert,” said Steele Burnand in a statement.

The gift will fund the purchase, expansion and operation of the property, including dorm rooms for up to 24 graduate students and longer-term housing for professors conducting in-depth research. The building will be renamed the Steele Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center, in honor of her parents and her husband’s family. Its unique architectural features will be preserved.

“Audrey Steele Burnand’s gift enriches the interdisciplinary research opportunities for our faculty and students, and we’re very grateful to her,” said UCI Chancellor Michael Drake. “This kind of generous support is essential to continuing research and academic excellence.”

UC faculty and students working in the area will have a welcome nearby perch, minimizing the need to drive long distances over twisting roads. Six schools at UCI alone have already expressed interest in conducting studies at Anza-Borrego on such topics as shifting rainfall due to climate change, the impact on native plant species of overpumping underground aquifers, and how recreational use affects natural landscapes. UCI researchers will work with the community and state parks staff on everything from public events to better open-space management.

“This is such a wonderful thing for UCI and Borrego Springs,” said Albert Bennett, dean of the School of Biological Sciences. “It just makes you feel good to be out there. It was meant to be.”