Carlos Serrao and Monica May scoured original plans, photography, and texts in their pursuit to return the 1946 Robson Chambers Residence to distinction.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LANCE GERBER
For Carlos Serrao and Monica May, the COVID-19 pandemic presented a window of opportunity. Freelance photographers of the top rank, Serrao and May travel far and wide on shoots for corporate and editorial clients. After the lockdown started three years ago, they were more often home at their Arts District loft in Los Angeles and better able to oversee the tricky rehabilitation of the 1946 Robson Chambers Residence in Palm Springs. By good fortune, they had acquired this treasure in 2018 for $800,000.
Chambers was a lesser-known architect, later referred to as The Third Man, but it turned out there was more to his personal story and legacy that most people had reckoned. “We did know that it was Robson Chambers’ [house],” May says, “but there’s not that much on him.”
The rehab exceeded expectations in its own way. The original two-bedroom house was sometimes attributed to Albert Frey because of its design under the aegis of Clark and Frey, Architects, which Chambers joined in 1946. Chambers, who grew up in nearby Banning, earned an architecture degree and an AIA medal of distinction at University of Southern California. He spent World War II designing military bases before arriving in Palm Springs and joining Clark and Frey. He was named partner in 1953, and the firm at 879 N. Palm Canyon Drive became Clark, Frey and Chambers. Three years later, John Porter Clark left, and the name was pared to Frey and Chambers. Signature projects during this era were the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club, Palm Springs City Hall, and the Valley Station of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
Carlos Serrao and Monica May were inspired by the architectural plans, magazine articles, and Julius Shulman photographs of the house they found in the Robson Chambers archive at University of California, Santa Barbara.
In 1966, Chambers departed to be campus architect at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Conveniently for Serrao and May, UCSB holds the Chambers archive, so they made an appointment.
“We discovered original bluelines, the 1948 Julius Shulman photos, and material in books and magazines,” Serrao says. “That’s when we started saying, ‘OK, this house is worth trying to bring back.’”
Chambers had schemed 695 Warm Sands Drive as an inexpensive two-bedroom residence easily expandable to the present 1,750 square feet. Sliding-glass doors at three points afforded quick access to the great beyond. A pocket door clad in combed plywood in the living room partitioned an area to be used as a guest bedroom. The patio off the kitchen was enclosed with opaque glass panels and often used as a dining area. Thinking ahead to a growing family with his wife, Helen, Chambers also drew in the lines for the primary bedroom with a dressing room and bath that were indeed added in 1950. For his expanding automotive fleet, a double carport adjoined the kitchen.
The pool would go in sometime during the late 1960s or early ’70s.
Esther McCoy, the dean of California architecture writers, came to visit for a Los Angeles Times Home Magazine story in early 1951. Her report stressed the low-cost and -maintenance aspects of the concrete floor, the combed-plywood interior walls, and the cement-asbestos exterior countenance. “Another material has been used that requires no surfacing and presents no maintenance problems,” McCoy wrote, referring to the corrugated-metal cladding under the “sombrero-like overhangs so essential to desert houses.”
For Serrao and May, each of these materials presented a special problem in the rehabilitation. Some interior walls were covered with maple panels, and removing them revealed damage to the original combed-plywood.
She came across Ardex K 521 topping for quick resurfacing. It’s a product for indoor applications; when poured in a minimum layer of ⅜ inch, the deep gray matrix reveals a white aggregate in an appealing way. After finding a brave craftsman willing to try the application, they did a test.
“It was like an hour of sheer terror because it’s self-leveling concrete,” Serrao remembers. They found the pour averaging between ¾ and 1 ½ inches, and the process wrapped up satisfactorily; they could walk on the new surface after three hours.
Performing all these retrofits acquainted Serrao and May — who were rehabilitation rookies — with the concept of “truth to materials,” a tenet of modernism. As McCoy noted in her Times piece, paint “was used sparingly.” The exterior cladding remains unpainted. Interior fin walls of tongue-and-groove boards wear a comfortable coat of navy instead of the original teal — a good call. The combed plywood got a coat of light apricot that changes to deeper hues as the sun disappears.
One feature was definitely not a commodity and does not require the professing of “truth to materials.” We are talking about the irreplaceable, built-in, dimmable louver-lights whose origins so far haven’t been traced. They’re embedded hip-high in the walls at four points of the living room and short hallway. Upon first glance, Serrao and May thought, “That’s a weird place for the air-conditioning vent,” as he says. Discovering the real purpose of the louver lights, they grew adamant about keeping them.
The house was built with an evaporative cooling system but upgraded years ago with refrigerated air conditioning; as for the original electric heating system, Serrao expressed uncertainty over whether it remains in place, explaining, “We rarely need to use it.”
Serrao and May installed era-appropriate pleated curtains and restored the main living area walls with combed plywood — both part of the original design — and poured new concrete for the interior floors and external hardscape.
The 1950 expansion also enclosed the southern “sun bathing patio,” as Chambers had termed it, with a 6-foot fence of redwood framework and aluminum vanes, but it was removed when the pool went in. Random plantings over the past decades meant that everything about the grounds needed to be reconsidered. At the start of the pandemic, Serrao and May superintended the extensive hardscaping. For greater privacy, they ordered a solid perimeter wall of blocks and a driveway gate to deter what Serrao calls “the occasional looking-for-tools person.” They replaced grassy patches with Xeriscaping, planted ficus in place of oleander hedges, and positioned palo verde trees at strategic points to complete the contemporary update.
Our question about total cost of the project met with demurral, but whatever the amount, the payoff is seen in the Palm Springs Modern Committee’s selection of Serrao and May for a 2022 Residential Renovation Award. The Palm Springs Preservation Foundation has organized tours of the Robson Chambers Residence on Feb. 20. Visitors will find this early example of desert modernism to be a rigorous but radiant composition as light pours through the many windows.
The pandemic often slowed down the redo and circumscribed the amount of swimming and barbecue time with family and friends, but sunny days lie ahead. As May says, “We’re not developing this house in order to turn around and flip it. We like this house for ourselves.”
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