Albert Frey's Tramway Gas Station with its arresting triangular roof overhang is the symbolic entry to Palm Springs for visitors arriving via Highway 111.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHE
It is only fitting that, during the month we celebrate modernism in the valley, this edition of Desert Dreamers should focus on the architects whose works continue to awe and inspire.
Several years ago, Palm Springs Life published the book The Desert Modernists, which contains short profiles of Robson Chambers, John Porter Clark, William F. Cody, Albert Frey, A. Quincy Jones, Hugh Kaptur, William Krisel, John Lautner, Richard Neutra, Donald Wexler, E. Stewart Williams, and Paul R. Williams.
Actually, that book should be updated to include Lance O’Donnell, whose contemporary portfolio — most recently his phenomenal 2017 house in Desert Palisades — earns him a place among the greats. In fact, the resurgent interest in modernism in the last two decades has brought many fresh, new talents to Greater Palm Springs … all of whom deserve recognition. For now, we offer this small taste of a few classics.
• Read the rest of our Desert Dreamers series.
Albert Frey: The Archetype
Albert Frey began his career studying Beaux Arts design in Zurich before making a radical shift to modernism, working as one of just two full-time employees for Le Corbusier in Paris. Most young architects would have been content under the great Le Corbusier’s wing, but an extended visit to New York in 1930 changed Frey’s life. There he formed a partnership with American architect A. Lawrence Kocher; in 1931, the two designed the first all-metal domestic structure, the Aluminaire House.
But their most fateful collaboration was the Kocher-Samson Building in Palm Springs (1934). Frey fell in love with the desert; except for brief forays, he never left it again. He developed what would become known as desert modernism, addressing the extreme environment through his unorthodox choice of industrial materials — he found that metal, especially aluminum and steel, would cool off quickly, unlike wood, which retains heat — and creation of roomlike outdoor spaces.
Working off these principles, Frey’s first home for himself reportedly cost $1,800 to build. But it was Frey House II, centered around a multi-ton boulder, that would define him as the archetypal local architect. He would live there for 64 years, and when he died in 1998 at age 95 he was buried down the hill at Welwood Murray Cemetery.
“It is a most interesting experience to live in a wild, savage, natural setting.”Albert Frey
PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIUS SHULMAN/GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE ARCHIVE
Palm Springs City Hall (1952–1957) was designed by Frey (below) with John Porter Clark and Robson C. Chambers.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
Cody’s Huddle Springs Restaurant (1957) is an example of Googie architecture. It was torn down to make room for a hotel that was never built.
William F. Cody: The Opportunist
Born in Ohio, William F. Cody spent his formative years in Southern California. He entered architecture school at USC at a time when Bauhaus theories were in vogue and took those lessons to the desert for an early commission: a renovation of the stodgy Desert Inn. This led to two award-winning projects, the Del Marcos Hotel and L’Horizon (then a private family compound).
Cody saw tremendous opportunity in postwar Palm Springs, rightly foreseeing a wealthy vacationland whose part-time residents could pay for the inventive architecture he envisioned. The epitome of this vision was his transformation of the Thunderbird Dude Ranch into Thunderbird Country Club. This led to similar commissions; sadly, some, such as the Palm Springs Country Spa Hotel, have been felled by the wrecking ball and profit over preservation.
Cody had a stroke at age 57 and died five years later in 1978. Nevertheless, his vision for desert architecture inspired many of his contemporaries, and one of his best works, St. Theresa Catholic Church and Convent, still stands on Ramon Road.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN THOMAS JONES
The curved roof of the Bob Hope Estate is said to mirror the nearby mountain ranges.
John Lautner: The King of Futurism
With his astonishing, visionary structures, John Lautner dazzled his clients — the few of them that there were. Not many people were wealthy enough to afford the Michigan-born architect’s trend-defying designs. The Elrod House of 1968 was built for famed interior designer Arthur Elrod and was made famous with its star turn in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever as the home of supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The monolithic structure, which sold last year for nearly $8 million, centers around a circular living room with a 30-foot-high domed concrete ceiling edged by natural rock.
But it was Lautner’s 23,000-square-foot home for Bob Hope that had him crowned as the king of futurism. With its massive mushroom-shaped curving open roof (reportedly designed to encourage Hope’s stargazing) the ultra-luxe structure appears poised to take off into space.
With construction beginning in 1973 and lasting seven years, the project was not without its sturm und drang — there was a fire and a lawsuit, and Lautner famously balked at interior design suggestions from Hope’s wife, Dolores. But the home would become the architect’s magnum opus.
No one would have predicted that the pedigreed residence would languish on the market when it was put up for sale in 2013, despite the jaw-dropping $50 million price tag. There was still no buyer when the price was halved a year later.
The house finally sold in 2016 for $13 million — a relative bargain for one of the most extraordinary residences in this galaxy.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY LAUTNER PERSONAL ARCHIVE
“To me, architecture is an art, naturally, and it isn’t architecture unless it’s alive. alive is what art is.”John Lautner
PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHE
The heavy masonry of the Palm Springs Golf Course clubhouse (1959) has a curved roof whose sweep captures the arc of a golf swing.
Hugh Kaptur: The Youngster
A native of Detroit, Hugh Kaptur was the son of an artist and a car designer. Perhaps this influenced his unconventional designs, which varied from the modernist leanings of his contemporaries to encompass a range of styles inspired largely by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Kaptur’s works, dubbed “populuxe,” include the Siva House of 1959, with its orange scallop-shaped awnings, and the Palm Springs Golf Course clubhouse, with its wavelike roof. Ironically, one of his most famous designs is not a true representation of his approach — the post-and-beam home that came to be owned by Steve McQueen. Closer to the rectilinear International Style than the organic shapes Kaptur loved, the landmark was said to have been described by its architect as “too cold” to live in.
A youngster of the postwar generation, Kaptur was still innovating in 1988 when he created a desert-style house for Paul and Kay Selzer … who had asked for something in the “Mediterranean French Provincial” style. Reluctantly, they went with Kaptur’s vision — and never regretted it. Twenty-five years later, Paul Selzer told PSL, “It blows us away.”
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
"I like form that is flowing and organic."Hugh Kaptur
John Porter Clark: The Patriarch
As the first licensed architect registered in Palm Springs, and with a role on the city’s planning commission that spanned nearly 20 years, John Porter Clark is the patriarch of the desert modernist scene. In 1935, a real estate agent in his hometown of Pasadena urged him to seek opportunities in the growing community of Palm Springs.
Almost immediately, Clark met Albert Frey, who was overseeing construction of the Kocher-Samson building.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Working with partner Albert Frey, John Porter Clark (below) designed the Tramway Valley Station (1963) as a modernist structure with aluminum touches.
They went into partnership and completed eight projects in two years. While Frey went to New York in 1937 to work on the Museum of Modern Art, Clark continued their firm’s projects. They soon added Robson Chambers as an associate; later in his career, Clark partnered with E. Stewart Williams and Roger Williams. Most notable among Clark’s accomplishments were his own house (1939), Palm Springs City Hall, and the Tramway Valley Station.
The epitaph of this unsung hero of desert modernism might be best summed up by E. Stewart Williams. Clark, he said, “was the most trusted man in the valley … he made people recognize architects were an important part of the community.”
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JULIUS SHULMAN /GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE ARCHIVE
William Krisel’s butterfly roof can be seen at this home built by the Alexander Construction Co. in Twin Palms.
Perhaps more than any other architect, William Krisel is responsible for what has come to be regarded as the Palm Springs “look.” With his signature butterfly roofs and block concrete walls, he made an indelible mark on the cityscape — one that was enhanced by the sheer volume of his residential work for the Alexander Construction Co. and Twin Palms, the area’s first modern tract neighborhood.
Krisel’s genius was in keeping costs low through choice of materials and deployment of a basic floor plan while varying rooflines, color schemes, and property orientation to give tract houses a “custom” look.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY WILLIAM KRISEL ESTATE
“Before that, affordable tract houses were tacky, low-ceiling cracker boxes with holes poked out for windows,” Krisel told the Los Angeles Times for a profile in 2008.
With his method, Krisel was able to bring high-quality design to the postwar masses eager to snap up a new modern aesthetic, while contributing significantly to the desert vernacular. In fact, the formula was so successful that the Alexander Co. went on to build more than 1,200 homes in 10 locations across Palm Springs. Krisel’s butterfly roof, an inversion of the conventional peaked roof whose dramatic angles mirror the mountain backdrop, became widely copied by builders in other desert developments.
Although Krisel may be underappreciated on a global scale, those in the know have seen admiration (and prices) for his work skyrocket in recent years — even more so after his death last June at age 92.
"I have had built, from my designs, over 40,000 living units, and that's more than any other architect that I know of."William Krisel