Albert Frey fashioned Palm Spring City Hall’s signature feature — the overhang with cutout above the main entrance — from corrugated metal and painted it “Albert green” to match the color of desert succulents.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ARTHUR DROOKER
It doesn’t have the features one associates with a traditional city hall: a stately dome, a grand rotunda, or giant columns. In fact, it’s the opposite — a clean, minimalist building. Yet, despite its low profile, Palm Springs City Hall stands as an important example of midcentury modern civic architecture.
The building recalls the euphoric era after World War II, when Palm Springs flourished as the playground of movie stars and magnates. Wealthy and style conscious, this in-crowd became clients of young modernist architects who had moved to Palm Springs, inspired by its light, landscape, and climate. The private homes and public buildings the architects designed would transform the desert resort city into a mecca of modernism.
Albert Frey’s Palm Springs City Hall signaled a shift from classical to contemporary design.
The first modernist to arrive was Albert Frey, a Swiss-born architect who had worked in the Paris atelier of Le Corbusier. “Frey was a little ahead of everybody else,” says J.R. Roberts, former Palm Springs city council member and preservationist. “He had his own style, and his designs were truly original.” Frey’s designs were spare, affordable, and harmonious with nature. He made the most of the least by using industrial materials in imaginative ways. Frey’s originality and economy made him the father of desert modernism and the first choice to design a new city hall. “[City council members] were very progressive and wanted it to be cutting-edge and say to the rest of the world, ‘We’re a happening place,’” says Jeri Vogelsang, the director and curator of the Palm Springs Historical Society.
Construction began on the concrete block building in 1956 and was completed a year later at a cost of $408,000. “It’s not what anyone might expect coming into the 1950s as a city hall,” observes Robert Imber, a Palm Springs architectural historian and educator. “Then you look at it architecturally, [and] you realize every feature of this place is extraordinary.”
The most iconic feature is the overhang above the front entrance. Made of corrugated metal and painted “Albert green,” the color of desert succulents, its large round cutout, through which three palm trees soar, make the building instantly identifiable. “A circular element was certainly part of [Frey’s] aesthetic vocabulary,” says Sidney Williams, former curator of architecture and design at Palm Springs Art Museum. “Its placement in front of city hall allows sun to come through into the patio entry area, which implies transparency and openness in terms of government.”
In addition to corrugated metal, Frey took sheets of aluminum, another industrial material, and formed them into circular shapes to create a brise-soleil that shades a row of offices.
The circular elements that animate the building also include the concrete disk above the city council doorway at the opposite end of city hall from the main entrance. The diameter of the disk is the same as that of the cutout, a positive shape offsetting its negative, giving symmetry to the whole design. “This is what made [Frey] brilliant,” Roberts says. “He understood the yin and the yang and finding the balance.”
The city council affirmed that appeal with “The people are the city,” the phrase emblazoned across the concrete disk above the council entrance. The line comes from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a tragedy about political power set in ancient Rome. “It resonates with me,” said Mary Jo Ginther, director of tourism of Palm Springs. “It’s what Palm Springs really is. It’s an inclusive city.”
Although it’s a modest building, Palm Springs City Hall represents a significant leap in American civic architecture. “It anticipates a trend away from classical references and forms and toward ideas and materials of contemporary times,” Imber says. Being a modernist, Frey collaborated with the desert to design a city hall that’s not only in Palm Springs but also of it.
Adapted from City Hall (Schiffer Publishing).