A Beacon of Modern Architecture Lands in the Desert

The Aluminaire House, one of the earliest and edgiest examples of the International Style of modernist architecture in America, was never meant to withstand a harsh desert climate. Originally it wasn’t even designed to be outside.

When the 27-year-old Swiss architect Albert Frey moved to New York in 1930 and teamed up with an Architectural Record editor to build this affordable, modular — some say prefab — metal house, it was part of a design showcase inside the Grand Central Palace, a soaring exhibition hall made by the architects behind Grand Central Terminal. The house, a boxy three-story structure clad in aluminum panels that went up within 10 days, drew big crowds as well as some gleeful ridicule from the mainstream press, which naturally helped to establish its bona fides as avant-garde architecture.

Now, having been disassembled, reassembled and relocated three times over the decades and rescued from demolition along the way, the influential house is being reconstructed in a new — and the plan is, permanent — site. It has been rebuilt by the Palm Springs Art Museum on a revamped parking lot just south of the museum with a budget of $2.6 million, and a public opening is set for March 23. In anticipation, an Albert Frey exhibition opened at the museum in January.

This time construction, which began in July, took considerably more than 10 days. The museum had to prepare the site and pour a concrete foundation for the house. It also added features like weatherproofing and air conditioning so the house can survive the elements — and not act like a solar oven.

“It’s a metal box in the desert. We have to keep it from melting in the desert sun,” said Los Angeles architect Leo Marmol of Marmol Radziner, who has been overseeing the project as a museum trustee, speaking from the construction site on a brilliant, cloudless afternoon in December. “If you think about a metal box in the 125-degrees summer sun, it would be hot enough inside to damage any finished materials — paint, wood,” he said over the sound of workers drilling an aluminum panel into place.

As for the comfort of visitors, they won’t be allowed inside anyway. As Marmol explained, the process of meeting legal accessibility requirements would have brought major changes to Frey’s design. So instead the house will stand, its interior partly visible from the outside, more as an educational tool: a prototype of modern architecture and an early example of Frey’s work in the city that he later helped to shape.

“Frey is the grandfather of the modern design that you see everywhere in Palm Springs, and he’s the grandfather we want because he keeps us true to our ideals,” said the museum’s executive director, Adam Lerner. He described the architect’s use of industrial and humble materials as a powerful reminder that modernism hoped to change society through good design and that good design does not require luxury consumption or hefty price tags.

Frey first moved to Palm Springs in 1934 to build a mixed-use space for the brother of A. Lawrence Kocher, the Architectural Record editor who collaborated on the Aluminaire House. He lived there until his death in 1998 at age 95. Over that time, he helped to shape the built environment of the Coachella Valley with dozens of residences, schools and commercial properties, including some small-scale but high-impact structures in the 1960s.

At the entrance to Palm Springs stands the gas station he designed, now a visitor center, where a sweeping steel canopy juts out like a jet plane wing. And near the museum is the tiny home he built for himself into the side of a mountain — a boulder intrudes in the living room — with a dramatic interplay between glass (sliding doors), corrugated aluminum (the roof and siding) and concrete (built-in patio furniture). He bequeathed that house, known as the Frey House II, to the museum, which opens it on a limited basis for tours.

The Aluminaire House anticipated his interest in lightweight metals and affordable, everyday materials. But it also reflected Frey’s European roots. He designed the house shortly after his apprenticeship with Le Corbusier in Paris and closely followed the master architect’s five “points” or principles, including the columns that hold up the structure and its rooftop garden, reminiscent of Villa Savoye, meant to compensate for the green space lost by building.

This direct connection to Le Corbusier and European modernism is one reason the Aluminaire House has inspired great support over the years. After its debut at the Architectural and Allied Arts Exposition of 1931, the house was purchased by the architect Wallace K. Harrison for $1,000. He used it on his 11-acre Long Island estate for decades, even making additions and relocating it once, but in the hands of subsequent owners it had fallen into disrepair.

Demolition was planned in 1986, then vocally opposed by a group of preservationists until the architect Michael Schwarting raised the money to dismantle and move the house to Central Islip, N.Y., where it became an educational project at the New York Institute of Technology.

Schwarting and the architect Frances Campani worked with students on it until 2004, when the Islip branch of the campus closed. Eventually, to protect it from vandalism, they dismantled the house again and stored the pieces in a 40-foot-long tractor-trailer. “It took five days,” Schwarting recalled. “It comes apart like a big erector set.”

The architects’ first choice for a new site was Queens, where they thought it would complement Sunnyside Gardens, an affordable housing development from the 1920s. But neighbors objected, nixing their plans, around the same time they gave a talk about Frey in Palm Springs where audience members clamored for them to bring the house to the desert. Through the nonprofit Aluminaire House Foundation they had created, they finalized the donation to the museum in 2020, and have served as consultants on the current project.

They said some original pieces in storage could be used this time around, like the metal columns, girders and beams and some steel window frames. But the original aluminum panels were badly damaged, and their substitutes had weathered, so another replacement set was fabricated. New wood walls inside were needed, as was seismic retrofitting.

Like a Ship of Theseus, the house has seen so many of its parts replaced that it edges into tricky philosophical territory: Is the shiny structure that will be feted in March in Palm Springs even the same one that debuted in New York in 1931?

Marmol argues that the current version is essentially the same house, calling it a “preservation” project because “we’re returning the house to its original use as an exhibition, designed to proselytize about the benefits of modern living.”

But he acknowledged it could credibly fit any of the federal classifications for historic properties: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration or even reconstruction, the category for cases involving the most extensive replacement of materials.

In this way, the Aluminaire House highlights the inadequacy of historical preservation standards when it comes to modern architecture. “The conservative perspective is that to remain authentic, you have to have a very high degree of original fabric,” Marmol said. “The problem with modern architecture is there’s not that much original fabric to begin with. The buildings were light, thin, delicate. Many of the materials were very experimental.”

“Is it inauthentic to reconstruct a significant modern building that is rusted and termite-ridden?” he continued. “If that is the perspective you want to take, you condemn most of modern architecture to the wrecking ball.”

There’s also some debate in the community as to whether the Aluminaire House qualifies as “prefab.” Marmol uses the term, noting that Frey’s materials were factory-made and could be bought commercially. Schwarting and Campani said they avoid the term because Frey didn’t have the components manufactured specifically for this house.

Those kinds of debates are likely to play out more publicly once Palm Springs museum visitors can see both the Frey exhibition and the Aluminaire House itself. Guest curated by the designer Brad Dunning, the show includes Frey’s sketches for the Aluminaire House interior, which was only partly realized in the Grand Central Palace in 1931.

That interior did, though, have some memorable features, like single beds suspended from the ceiling. It also had splashes of color: a gentle yellow, a rusty orange, a light brown and a mossy green, in the form of rayon fabrics made by Dupont covering the walls. To replicate this effect, the museum is painting interior wood walls in these four colors, visible from certain vantage points outside. The museum is also working on developing a virtual reality experience to let modern design fans experience the house in some fashion. “Our plan is to give people access to what the interiors might have been if Frey had completed them,” said Lerner, who is also hosting a Frey Symposium at the museum next month.

Campani said giving the Aluminaire House this sort of museum treatment was one of their goals when shipping the house off to the desert. “There were some people here who had enough property and offered to take the house and live with it, but we’ve never been interested in that,” she said. “One of the things that has always been important to us is that it stayed in the public. It was an exhibition house at the start, and now it’s an exhibition once again.”

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