Our Visit to the Frey House in Palm Springs

Palm Springs is known for having an unbelievable amount of great architecture in a small, concentrated area. This desert hideaway, once known as a second playground for the stars, has undergone a remarkable resurgence. Architecture and design aficionados have descended on the Coachella Valley to restore scores of amazing houses and commercial buildings. Those enamored with nature find the time to visit jewels like Joshua Tree National Park or the nearby Indian Canyons. Architecturally, among the area's highlights are the Richard Neutra's iconic Kaufmann House (restored by Marmol Radziner), hundreds of Alexander Homes, Earle Webster and Adrian Wilson's Ship of the Desert and John Lautner's Desert Hot Springs Motel.

Yet, perhaps the architect most frequently associated with Palm Springs is Albert Frey, a Swiss architect who moved to Palm Springs in 1939. Frey's masterpieces can be found all over town - the Palm Springs City Hall, the unmistakable Tramway Gas Station (now converted to a visitor's center), the Raymond Loewy House, the Movie Colony Hotel, the abandoned North Shore Yacht Club (on the Salton Sea) and, of course, his own house. His first house, often referred to as Frey I, is long gone. However, Frey II still stands proudly in a privileged spot on Tahquitz Canyon Way - a lone sentinel overlooking the town of Palm Springs and the sprawling Coachella Valley.

Small by "modern standards" the house stood as Frey's second residence until his death in 1998. The house was left by Frey to the Palm Springs Art Museum and is closed to the public. As one of the co-founders of Houston Mod, an organization dedicated to preserving mid-century modern architecture in Houston, my wife and I were able to take a private tour of the fascinating little house during a 2004 return trip to Palm Springs.

After paying for our admission fee to the museum, we met up with a local docent. We followed his car past a security gate at the entrance to Tahquitz Canyon Way and up to the very end of the road and the house. To the untrained eye, the house may not look like much from the outside but it truly is a little work of art. Touring really gave us some insight into architecture that was a) functional for the desert and b) compact but efficient. The exterior of the house is a blend of concrete, corrugated metal. cinder block and glass. Noticeable even when seen from the valley floor is how the house literally hugs the side of the mountain. Frey really made it a point to use the surroundings when building the house as it is well known for a large boulder that is integrated into the house. This boulder protrudes inside the residence and actually looms over the house's lone bed.

The house itself is very functional and, in may ways, quite spartan. You can tell that it was built to suit Frey's needs - it had everything he required to live a comfortable life in the desert (excluding air conditioning). Vast expanses of glass walls allow mostly uninterrupted views of the outdoor pool and the valley below. One can just imagine what it must have been like to sit outside and stare at the twinkling lights in both above and below. Built-in furniture tends to be angular and functionally blends from one piece to the other - two sofas back up to the bed and serve as the headboard while a split-level counter rises above the larger sofa. The house also includes a small galley-style kitchen (with many of the original flatware, etc.) a bathroom and a back office. Walls are covered with wood paneling and the floors are cool concrete - essential for the warm desert climate.

And then there was the pool - the sparking blue pool that Frey so often enjoyed. The perimeter is surrounded by a cinder block railing that protects one from falling onto the driveway below. Adjacent are built-in seats, contoured to the body - similar to Frey I (Frey was often photographed enjoying these seats in his pool). Of course, the desert landscaping take precedence - no manicured bushes or closely cut grass. The deserts takes over where the house ends. But the view - the view is spectacular. Just imagine what it must have looked like back when Palm Springs was in its nascent stages and the daytime sky was free from haze.

Frey built himself a perfect little pied-a-terre. While the house is normally closed to the public, keep an eye out for special events that might allow for tours. The house was available for guided viewing during the 2006 Palm Springs Modernism Show and may once again be open. We really enjoyed the tour - despite arriving in Palm Springs around 3:00 AM the night before, it was a great way to start the morning of our third trip.

For more information on Albert Frey, check out Albert Frey: Architect. To gain more insight on the houses he built for himself, Albert Frey Houses 1 + 2 is a must.


mel said...

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The Travel Addict said...

Thanks for the tip - some very cool architectural photographs on that site.