The Good Life

Modern Revival — Palm Springs' iconic Tramway gas station achieves a higher purpose.



After years of false starts and ill-fated attempts at redevelopment, the famous former gas station designed by Albert Frey has finally reopened — this time as Palm Springs’ official visitor center.

Ideally located at Tramway Road and Highway 111 (it’s one of the first signs of civilization off Interstate 10), the renovated structure returns an icon to the city’s gateway and ends years of uncertainty surrounding its fate.

The new visitor center also bespeaks the midcentury modern architecture seen throughout the city. “It is a perfect example of adaptive reuse of a unique Palm Springs architectural gem,” says William Kopelk, president of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation. “All associated with making this happen should be proud of showing how historic preservation can benefit the public and the building.”

Constructed in 1965, the gas station was one of nearly 200 Frey-designed buildings. The late Swiss-born architect, known for his detailing of the Villa Savoye, was particularly prolific in the 1960s, when some 500 modern residential and commercial structures surfaced throughout Palm Springs Valley.

The gas station’s steep-sloping roof design is offbeat Googie — a term coined in 1949 by Los Angeles architect John Lautner for unusual roadside monuments.

“It was one of the building types that allowed exuberance — a billboard for the street, where the roof is a marker,” says Ana Escalante of O’Donnell & Escalante Architects, the firm that remodeled the structure. “Everything is radial. It works like mathematical equation. Each beam is a straight line with a starting point and an ending point at different heights.”

Indeed, the dramatically angular roof encourages motorists to stop, relax, and enjoy the mountain scenery.

Frey, who also designed Palm Springs City Hall (1952) and Palm Springs Aerial Tramway’s Valley Station (1949), used steel, concrete, and glass to achieve energy efficiency in the gas station. The floor-to-ceiling glass on the south side heats the building during winter, when the sun is low on the horizon. Long overhangs facing north block the sun during summer.

During its heyday, it operated as an Esso station, recalls Sally McManus of Palm Springs Historical Society. When it closed, some city officials considered it an eyesore. In the 1980s and ’90s, the structure fell into disrepair, as midcentury modern architecture lost its luster. Many residents and newcomers moved to growing cities east of Palm Springs, and rustic Southwest and Spanish styles — a throwback to adobe style of the 1920s and ’30s — enjoyed a resurgence.

Meanwhile, developers eyed the Frey gas station property for residences in 1996. Bulldozers in place, the building was ready for demolition. “They wanted to put an office for their [development] project there,” Escalante says.

This inspired then-City Councilman and now Mayor Ron Oden’s first political stand to save the building. “Residents were starved for progress,” he says, recalling the battle between developers and preservationists. “The entire city seemed tuned into the controversy. People wore hats designed like the Tramway gas station.”

Developers eventually lost interest in the project, leaving the sructure boarded up and defaced. In 1998, Montana St. Martin and Clayton Carlson of San Francisco bought and restored it.

The building was designated a Class 1 historical site in 1999 and later opened as an art gallery. “It had been approved for Class 1 status in 1996, but the [city] council rescinded the designation,” says Peter Moruzzi, chairman of Palm Springs Modern Committee, which advocates preservation. “This time it stuck.”

The city spent $564,000 to renovate the structure to suit the visitor center. “It serves as a symbol of the nation’s largest cadre of modernist architecture,” Oden says.

Linda Fort, vice president and general manager of Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism, which operates the visitor center, says, “We hope to include graphics of the building in our promotions.”

With doors reopened, Frey’s legacy is helping Palm Springs can reconnect with its past.

“The gas station — it’s heroic,” Escalante beams.

Palm Springs Life

Related Articles

10 Things To Do in Palm Springs This Weekend

Palm Springs Life helps plan out your weekend in Palm Springs and the desert resort cities with concerts, events, restaurants, nightlife, clubs and the world of entertainment only found in the desert.

Wesley Eure Will Co-Emcee at Desert AIDS Project Benefit

Chelsea Lane Bodywear presents Under & Out 3, a fashion show and poolside party on Oct. 5 as part of a benefit for the Desert AIDS Project.

"Top Rock" Commands Stage at Hard Rock Hotel Palm Springs

"Top Rock" brings a brash, rockin' musical tribute to the Hard Rock Hotel Palm Springs on Friday and Saturday nights through September.

Palm Springs Horoscope - August 2014

Just persevere through these tough times, and know that the hard way will become the right road in 2015.

Palm Springs Horoscope - July 2014

Entering Leo on July 16, Jupiter ramps up the social calendar. There will be more summer parties than last year — expect an overbooked schedule.

Promotions + Contests

90 Days of Summer Romantic Palm Springs Getaway 2014

90 Days of Summer Romantic Palm Springs Getaway 2014

Experience the beauty, romance and excitement of the Palm Springs area when you enter to be the lucky winner of this romantic couple’s getaway
90 DAYS OF SUMMER Instagram Contest 2014

90 DAYS OF SUMMER Instagram Contest 2014

Win a fabulous Palm Springs weekend!

Win a fabulous Palm Springs weekend!

Each month, a first place winner will be selected to win a fabulous Palm Springs weekend!And, each month, three additional runners up will be selected to win a wonderful Palm Springs area Dining certificate!
2013/14 Best of the Best

2013/14 Best of the Best

Palm Springs Life’s annual Best of the Best. Readers tell us who their choice is for the “Best of the Best” of the Coachella Valley in over 40 categories.
Cartoon Caption Contest

Cartoon Caption Contest

Each month, we provide a vintage 1950’s cartoon illustrated by Alice Rovinsky. You are invited to submit a caption or vote for your favorite caption.
Enter to Win A Celebrate Dance Experience!

Enter to Win A Celebrate Dance Experience!

Enter just once for a chance to win tickets to one of the second annual Palm Desert International Dance Festival performances.