Swiss-born Albert Frey was Palm Springs’ first full-time, resident architect.
There, drawing inspiration from the arid climate's vast landscapes of desolate geography, palm trees and constant sunshine, he emerged as one of the founders of the Desert Modernism movement, a regional take on mid-century Modernism.
But before he ventured to Palm Springs in the 1940s, Frey’s first American project was actually a model house in New York. Scarlet Cheng of The Los Angeles Times reports that the building, called “Aluminaire House,” is now set to join the bulk of his other work in Palm Springs.
The Aluminaire House was built in 1931 when Frey was enlisted by the firm of A. Lawrence Kocher to design a house for the Architectural and Allied Arts Exposition in New York. The 22-by-28-foot, three-story structure was erected in just 10 days and was an overnight success with critics and visitors, Rose Spaziani writes for New York Institute of Technology's magazine.
Framed in aluminum alloy and steel, it was designed as an affordable, easy-to-mass produce home. It also holds the distinction of being the first all-metal prefabricated house built in the U.S.
The Aluminaire House’s almost 90-year history includes one near-demolition, notes its official webpage. The architect Wallace Harrison purchased the home for $1,000 and had moved it to Long Island shortly after it was built. But after Harrison died, the structure's fate became uncertain. The building was saved, however, when the New York Institute of Technology scooped it up in 1987 in exchange for its removal from the Harrison property.
In 2011, after the campus it was moved to closed, the house was given to Aluminaire House Foundation Corporation, a nonprofit established to relocate, maintain and open the house to the public. After a failed attempt to place the house in Queens, in 2014, the California branch of the foundation started to work on taking the house to Palm Springs, Cheng writes.
Now, it is sitting in a container in Palm Springs ready to be rebuilt in a city park in downtown Palm Springs that’s still being designed. A campaign to raise $475,000 to restore and erect the home is still pending.
But this month, a full-size representation of Aluminaire House will sit on the site of its future home for Modernism Week, an annual celebration of 20th-century architecture and design, which runs through this Sunday.
“Frey is so important to Palm Springs, and most of his work is here,” Mark Davis, a foundation board member, tells Cheng. “It’s very rare for one city to have the entire arc of an architect’s career, from the first building to his last.”
Frey, who died in 1998, spent the bulk of his career in Palm Springs. There, he designed Palm Springs City Hall; the Aerial Tramway Valley Station, the Tramway Gas Station, now the Palm Springs Visitors Center; a number of homes, and other commercial and residential projects, according to the Palm Springs Art Museum.
When the Aluminaire is eventually reassembled in the new park, the full spectrum of Frey’s work while in America will be available to visitors in the place the architect himself helped to shape.
Editor's note, 2/23/18: This piece initially identified Albert Frey as Alfred Frey. We regret the error.