The Albert Frey Tour has 13 stops, beginning at the town’s north entry with the iconic Palm Springs Visitor Center and the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station. The tour continues south to such landmarks as Frey House II and Palm Springs City Hall.
Albert Frey was born in 1903 in Switzerland and earned his architecture diploma there in 1924. He moved to Paris in 1928 to work for Le Corbusier on projects including the Villa Savoye. Moving to New York in 1930, Frey was the first Corbusier disciple to work in the United States. There, he became partners with architect A. Lawrence Kocher, who was also managing editor of “Architectural Record” magazine. Together they published numerous articles on urban planning, the modernist aesthetic, and technology. Kocher and Frey also designed four buildings, including the acclaimed Aluminaire House, a demonstration house designed for the 1931 Exhibition of the Architectural League in New York. In 1934, Frey came to Palm Springs to supervise construction of the Kocher-Samson Building, a mixed-use building for his partner’s brother, Dr. J.J. Kocher. Frey fell in love with the area and worked with John Porter Clark for two years under the offices of Van Pelt and Lind, as neither architect was yet licensed in California. Returning to New York in 1937 to work on the Museum of Modern Art, Frey moved back to Palm Springs permanently two years later. Rejoining Clark in a partnership, he went on to design a body of work, including residential, commercial, institutional, and civic buildings. Many of these buildings are preserved today, including the Raymond Loewy House (1946-47), Palm Springs City Hall (1952-57), Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station (1963), Frey House II (1963-64), and North Shore Yacht Club at the Salton Sea (1958). Frey lived in Palm Springs until his death in 1998 and is known as one of the founders of desert modernism.
Tramway Gas Station
Designated Class 1 Historic Site by the City of Palm Springs. Originally an Enco gasoline station, today the Palm Springs Visitors Center welcomes tourists and residents to the city’s northern entrance and the entire Coachella Valley. Designed by modernist ARCHITECTS Albert Frey and Robson Chambers, the distinctive, soaring structure served as a lone beacon on the open desert, pronouncing that something special was ahead — something clearly different, optimistic, and exciting. Even getting gas could be a new experience. Boarded up and painted pink in the 1980s, the site was reinvented in the 1990s as an art gallery under Frey’s supervision. Though short lived, the gallery was instrumental in saving the structure and putting modernism (and Palm Springs) back on the map. Yet another adaptive reuse brought the Visitors Center in 2003 (O’Donnell + Escalante Architects). Under a hyperbolic parabaloid roof spanning more than 95 feet, this inventive and iconic historic site is no less monumental today and serves as testament to an era of groundbreaking ideas and extraordinary accomplishment.
While Frey designed public buildings of all types of construction, the Visitors Center is composed of materials he almost always used (yet never twice exactly the same way): industrial and corrugated metals, glass, and concrete. Often, as seen at Palm Springs City Hall, he would tint the metal in a cactus green and, as at the original Tramway Gas Station, specify concrete block with tiny rock and aggregate in it in colors of desert sand and native plants. Thus, while the buildings are in stark contrast to the natural environment in form, they blend in an aesthetic and philosophic manner.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station
Designated Class 1 Historic Site by the City of Palm Springs. Conceived by young Palm Springs electrical engineer Francis Crocker in 1935, the tram was dubbed “Crocker s Folly” at the outset. The development was stalled for several decades, as Crocker tried to convince others and waited out World War II and the Korean War. Today, it is designated as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, often called “the Eighth Wonder of the World.” Spanning the jagged gorge at the base of the mountains, the Valley Station starkly contrasts its environment in every way. The corrugated metal steel truss main section is designed, in fact, to emulate traditional covered bridges of New England — but in modern industrial materials and California architecture. With imposing posture, the building seems to float, powerfully utilizing the simple materials for which John Porter Clark and Albert Frey became well known. Research was done studying and visiting Swiss trams, so it merits note that Frey, with early Corbusier mentoring and inherently adept at devising innovative architectural technique throughout his life, came from Switzerland, the land of mountains and trams.
Passing through five different life zones, the world s largest rotating aerial tram rises 8,500 feet from the desert to an alpine forest in about 12 minutes.
Designated Class 1 Historic Site by the City of Palm Springs. Among the most seminal of Albert Frey’s residential work, this site exemplifies not only his expertise, but also the intent and infusion of a personal philosophy woven throughout his architecture. In it, industrial materials and concepts unusual for the times are applied to a house certainly different from all others. An ingenious design feature allows air and water on the alluvial fan to pass under the house, as it is elevated on an inclined site above the rocky terrain with only steel pilotis and a small amount of concrete connecting it to terra firma. Don’t miss the tapered beams detail. In addition to Frey’s signature corrugated metal and casement windows, idiosyncratic color-striated concrete panels are found here in green, gray, and yellow. Unique in every way, it redefined the family home.
Mrs. Carey, the original client, approved the plans, then returned from abroad to her new house, where she and Frey planned and installed the desert landscaping. Later, family friends purchased it and commissioned additions by Frey.
Raymond Loews House
Designated Class 1 Historic Site by the City of Palm Springs. And on the National Registry of Historic Places. With traits reminiscent of both architect and client, this distinguished home was a collaboration between Albert Frey and its original owner: world-renowned industrial designer Raymond Loewy. To what extent each contributed to the house remains a topic of discussion. Prolific barely defines the French- born American emigre known as “The Father of Industrial Design,” who fashioned this Palm Springs oasis unto itself. Originally on an open boulder-strewn desert, only the Kaufmann House was nearby. Engulfing an elegant freeform swimming pool, the right-angled plan creates an outdoor haven, providing inviting ambiance and shelter from strident desert conditions. Its design and some materials suggest sophisticated moderne influences; but rustic, pecky cypress and desert boulders set into the patio, pool, and living room floor evoke the environment. The pièce de résistance? In a broad arc, the pool reaches into the house under the sliding door, with a large flat rock imbedded into it and the brick floor. A sensitive restoration and addition was completed by Marmol + Radziner Architects in the late 1990s.
Loewy’s contributions range from housewares to architecture, locomotives, automobiles, and store design — and then some. Among his logos: Shell, Exxon, BP, U.S. Postal Service. Products include the Coca-Cola bottle, Greyhound ScenicCruiser, and the Studebaker Avanti automobile, designed in a rented Palm Springs studio in less than 40 days.
Without today’s ultra-stylish boutiques, this small row of retail stores might be overlooked. Closer scrutiny illustrates a simple excellence that works as well today as when it was new. Under a corrugated metal awning that ties everything together, the flush glass elevation is annotated by indented, angled entrance doorways. Floor-to-ceiling storefront windows combine retail marketing with the consumer’s shopping experience. These expansive glass walls attract passersby with the shop’s finery and invite them in. Glass vestibules facing the back parking lot provide easy access and (when incorporated into the store’s layout) wash the interior with brilliant afternoon desert sunlight. Amid a site full of effective Clark and Frey concepts, the wide front awning not only provides shade from the morning sun, but also a uniform signage program for the merchants. Note the Albert Frey-designed fountain sculpture on the building’s north side.
Fulfilling the needs of a new generation in tune with midcentury modern cachet, this part of town, now called the Uptown Design District, has been completely revitalized over the last decade by hip stores such as the Trina Turk fashion and residential boutiques and Wil Stiles.
Clark and Frey Building
As it housed the office they shared, this diminutive building not only is testimony to philosophies John Porter Clark and Albert Frey developed, but also in strong, subtle terms expresses some of the finest qualities of their work. Compressed into a vertical, rectangular tower, the building showcases several defining characteristics for which the avant-garde architects were praised and admired. The second floor, almost hidden from view, is defined by the prominent corrugated metal balcony that surrounds it. Below, a single shop with a commanding all glass prow gets our attention. Note the useful cutout of the stairwell entrance and the original screen at the upper landing. Frey’s distinctive notched concrete block corners, allowing the passing sun to create a kineticism of lively shadows and patterns, are on this small site less pronounced than seen in most others, perhaps due to the building’s refined scale.
Clark and Frey met in Palm Springs in 1934. Both were mutually impressed and infused with the most avant-garde ideas in architecture and technology, so it wasn t long before Frey left New York for the desert to establish their longstanding partnership.
The project that first brought a young Albert Frey from New York to the desert, this tiny International Style gem (sheathed in later changes) can be easily reimagined with a closer look than a casual glance. Note its simple, perpendicular rectilinear forms, metal crossbars in the northern front window (earthquake proofing), steel plated spiral staircase deeply recessed in the walkway, and the façade of the upstairs apartment. One of the region’s first mixed-use projects, it combined a medical clinic with an apartment upstairs and was originally a grid of small squares that alternated enclosed spaces and open atriums from the front to the rear. Frey’s NYC colleague, Lawrence Kocher (an editor at Architectural Record (AR) Magazine), was brother to Dr. J.J. Kocher, who commissioned the work, which was one of the early avant-garde buildings that gave rise to Palm Springs collection of exceptional architecture.
A. Lawrence Kocher, a prominent architect with whom young Albert Frey worked in New York asa 1930 emigre. was later Chief Architect at Historic Williamsburg, Virginia. The Kocher-SamsonBuilding is arguably the region’s most significant early building. As the first example of Avant-Garde International Style principles it gave rise to the now extensive Collection of exceptional Desert Modern architecture.
A manse resting above central downtown, immense rock walls easily identify this estate. It began in 1958 as a modest post-and-beam house, less than 2,000 square feet, designed by Palm Springs architect Hugh Kaptur. Subsequently, the original owner designed extensive additions and later commissioned Albert Frey, a neighbor on the winding mountain lane, for more, including a guest house with exterior mirrored walls narrowly adjacent to the steep, rocky mountainside. With endless lawn and views, the exotic glass home contains original furnishings, fixtures, built-ins, water features, etc. — a veritable living museum to accommodate active lives and to house art and artifacts collected from travels and archaeological digs worldwide. Canvas arches seen from below are pergolas and carports designed by Frey. A Norwegian stonemason lived on-site for 15 years, building out the dramatic walls and adding mountainside steps, patio amenities, and other stone components.
The estate’s name, “Bougain Villa,” is a play on words, so named for the predominant plant on the property: bougainvillea.
Frey House II
Designated Class 1 Historic Site by the City of Palm Springs. The second home of legendary Palm Springs architect Albert Frey — 220 feet above the desert floor — is essentially a rectangular glass box perched on the hillside. Imbued with Frey’s inquisitive creativity, it is primarily constructed of industrial materials (steel, aluminum, glass, and concrete block). Yet the architecture personifies the Swiss-born architect’s lifelong love and study of nature, color, and environment. Integrated into the natural landscape, the tiny house (less than 1,000 square feet) surrounds an enormous granite boulder that partitions the interior living spaces. In it, Frey’s materials and color are seen in strong, soothing choices, from tawny Philippine mahogany to a sky blue ceiling under a COR-TEN steel roof slanted to emulate the mountain slope. Frey often spoke of the yellow curtains as evocative of encilia, one of the most brilliant and prolific annual desert flowers. Bequeathed to Palm Springs Art Museum on the architect’s death in 1998, Frey House II lives on as a historic house open to visiting scholars, architects, and students.
Frey House II was the highest sited building in the city until the Bob Hope House (John Lautner, architect) came along in 1968. Before determining the specific location of the home, Frey extensively studied the site, its views, and movement of the sun over years.
Fire Station No 1
Designated Class 1 Historic Site by the City of Palm Springs. Still serving its original function, Fire Station No. 1 is a skillful case study of simple refinement, where new ideas, materials, and practicality are incorporated into a thoughtful civic building. Note the similarities between Fire Station No. 1 and Palm Springs City Hall, both employing colored concrete block and corrugated aluminum. Also take note of the flagpole that pierces the open corrugated-metal roof (perhaps serving as a nod to the quintessential American firehouse pole?).
In 1999, the proposed demolition of this property (for a parking garage) was the impetus for founding the Palm Springs Modern Committee. The building was saved, due to active preservationists and community support. Since then, PS ModCom has continued to advocate for saving historic buildings and helping designate historic sites.
Palm Springs City Hall
Designated Class 1 Historic Site by the City of Palm Springs. This study of form and function rests on a wide, flat plane that draws us in from the street, then quietly steps up to articulate daring yet remarkably simple architecture. “The main volume of the building is linear and symmetrical,” explains Joseph Rosa, Albert Frey, Architect monograph author. “To the right of this is the Council Chamber, which is higher than the rest of the building. … A brise-soleil serves as a covered walkway between the two volumes and anchors the Council Chamber to the main building, thereby creating an overall asymmetrical composition.” A stellar compilation of siting and massing, inventive materials, and protocols Frey often employed, City Hall was a collaboration with Palm Springs architects John Porter Clark, Robson Chambers and Williams, Williams, and Williams (with landscape architecture by Garret Eckbo). In the genus of modernist governmental centers, it has become internationally acclaimed and distinguished — perhaps as second only to the Marin, Calif., Civic Center (Frank Lloyd Wright, architect; 1957).
Frey was ever exploring positive/negative form. The center porch opening is the same size as the portico roof to the right (like a cookie cut from dough). Originally, it contained the flagpole; a linear steel form that, like a needle, pierced the unconventional architecture to the ground.
Cree House II
Other than his own home (see Frey House II, site No. 33), this is Albert Frey’s most intact residential work. It was commissioned by a prominent desert family at a time when little, if anything, had been built nearby. One can only imagine the ancient, open desert views it commanded from an elevated perch overlooking the desert floor. A large natural stone corner fireplace anchors everything to the terrain, but the home is abundantly clad in identifying characteristics found in other Frey projects, like strong, jutting balconies with corrugated fiberglass railings; asbestos exterior walls; industrial materials; and thin roof overhangs. A fascinating study in siting, the building is primarily elevated on pilotis, leaving the mountain underneath virtually untouched. Wildly contrasting its environment in materials and forms, it also seems to blend into it. Even today, it is easy to miss — not only because of the large church building below, but also because its colors and shapes seem to evoke the surrounding granite hills and desert foliage as much as contrast them.
The church below Cree House II is built on the original site of Romanoff’s on the Rocks, designed by A. Quincy Jones and Frederick E. Emmons in 1950, the desert outpost of the swinging Beverly Hills nightclub. It was at Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills where a few certain booths were preferred by Hollywood royalty and the phrase “seated in Siberia” came to mean any less-venerated table.