Albert Frey Established Palm Springs As Mecca for Mid-Century Modern Style


Rare Chance to Visit the Clark/Frey Designed Stephens House on December 11, 1 – 3 p.m.

Join The Palm Springs Preservation Foundation on Saturday, December 11, 2010 from 1-3PM to experience the Stephens House (1949), an early example of modernist residential architecture by the firm of John Porter Clark and Albert Frey.

For students of both American popular culture and architecture, the Stephens House is particularly remarkable as it appeared in the September 1955 issue of House Beautiful where it helped introduce the idea of “The Family Room” to post-war America.

Sited on a huge triangular lot in the Palo Verdes Tract, the deceptively large, single-story home has rarely ever been available for touring. Members of the Stephens family are scheduled to attend the event. Light hors d’oeuvres and non-alcoholic beverages will be served. Tickets are available at .

Swiss-born architect Albert Frey’s contributions to modern architecture in the Palm Springs desert region significantly established the area as a progressive mecca for innovative design.  Frey’s work, and that of his colleagues John Porter Clark and Robson Chambers, became known as desert modernism, creating a regional vernacular for the style that originated in Europe and translated into the American post war psyche.

Most of Frey’s residential, commercial, institutional and civic buildings are still in use and now highly regarded for their architectural significance. With one of the largest collections of Mid-Century Modern architecture in the country, Palm Springs is a virtual museum of the desert modern style.

Frey is credited with such landmarks as the Palm Springs City Hall (1952), Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station (1949-63), the iconic winged Tramway Gas Station (1965), the Loewy House (1946-67), the Frey House I (1940 with a later notable addition), Frey House II (1963-64), Fire Station No. 1, an Alpha Beta Food Market (1960 and since torn down), and the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club at the Salton Sea (1962), which was restored this year as a community center and museum and

Early Years in Europe

Frey received his architect’s diploma from the Institute of Technology in Winterthur in 1924, but trained in traditional building construction rather than design, which in vogue at that time was the neo-classical Beaux-Arts Style.  He was always interested fundamentally in building , and spent summer vacations working in construction.

“One reason I was not interested in becoming an Architect was because what was being built in Switzerland at the time was not that interesting, very traditional houses and chalets and things like that,” he said in an interview

In Europe, Frey could not help but become more and more aware of the growing modernism movements:  the Dutch De Stijl and German Bauhaus school in particular.

“But then I went to Brussels and discovered the work of Le Corbusier in books and magazines and decided to work for him,” he said.

He soon secured a position with Le Corbusier and associate, Pierre Jeanneret, in Paris.  With Le Corbusier, he worked on the Villa Savoye and other significant projects.  Then, in 1928 Frey left the atelier for work in the United States, continuing the friendship with Le Corbusier for many years.

“At the time, the building techniques in America were more advanced than in Europe,” said Frey in the interview.  “The prefabrication of things was much farther along and that was something that really interested me.”

Frey was the first practicing architect in America to have worked directly with Le Corbusier.  In New York, he partnered with A.L. Kocher and the two developed the innovative Aluminaire House for an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

Kocher was also the managing editor of Architectural Record, an important publication through which Frey, Kocher and their contemporaries contributed to the American modernist movement through articles on urban planning, technology and the modernist aesthetic.

Although Hocher and Frey only built four buildings together, one of their commissions was a dual-use office and apartment building for Kocher’s brother, Dr. J.J. Kocher of Palm Springs, the Kocher-Samson building (1934-35), a project that brought Frey to the California desert.

Palm Springs Years

The California desert became Frey’s home and its rugged terrain, windswept sand dunes and intense sun became the inspiration for most of his subsequent work.

From 1935 to 1937, Frey worked with John Porter Clark under the firm of Van Pelt and Lind Architects, as neither were yet licensed in California.

Frey briefly returned  to the east coast to work on the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and there married Marion Cook whom he had met in Palm Springs. The newlyweds went to France aboard the great art deco ocean liner, the SS Normandie, and returned to New York in 1938.

After completing  work on the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, the Freys returned to Palm Springs and Albert resumed his collaboration with Clark which continued for another 20 years.

After World War II ended, Palm Springs emerged as a post-war resort community attracting the Hollywood elite, east coast industrialists and the broader American population who had more leisure time and money than any generation before.  Palm Springs’ population tripled and a building boom brought fresh opportunities for Frey and Clark in an unprecedented period of construction.

Frey and Clark were well positioned to capitalize on the boon, although then, the traditional ranch style home was in demand.  They built some 50 ranch style homes in the Smoke Tree Ranch development.

“Clark was trained in traditional so he would do those jobs and I would do the progressive ones,” Frey said in the interview.  “You can always introduce new ideas even in traditional architecture.”

Frey was commissioned to build a home for industrial designer Raymond Loewy (The Loewy House, 1946-47,) and built his own home, Frey House ! (1940), later adding a circular metal “nautical” second story and pool.

The nautical porthole addition seemed a precedent to Frey’s North Shore Beach and  Yacht Club  built in 1962 when it became California’s largest marina.

On May 1 of this year, the restored yacht club was reopened to the public after many years of being abandoned and vandalized

Frey House II Built on Rock

Frey House II built on the flank of hillside in Palm Springs reflects Frey’s interpretation of architecture within the environment.  Why he chose such a seemingly inhospitable site:

“Well, I am from Switzerland and I kept looking up at these mountains,” said Frey.”I thought someday I would like to live up there and look down.  So for five years I looked, and it was just luck that I found it. There was only a turnaround in the road and no flat pad to put a house, just rock.  So I was able to buy the property from the owner.  But when he saw what I did, he was sorry he had sold it to me.”

Frey described how the house grew out of his observation of the site:

“One thing is to understand how the sun is positioned,” he said.  “See the sun is very low in the winter and comes in to help heat the house. In the summer, it is very high and is kept out by the overhang of the roof.  It does not even come through the glass into the house. So that is why the overhang of the roof is this way.”

“I had a very careful survey made showing the contours and all the rock. Then I put up some strings to see how the design would work out. We then established the levels and then I had to fit the glass to the rock. The best way was to put up an aluminum channel straight and clear of the rock, and then fill in the spaces with rock and color mortar. Now you can hardly see the mortar,” he explained.

“The slope of the roof follows the slope of the terrain. The contrast between the natural rock and the high tech materials is rather exciting, I think. Rather than imitate it, you know, the contrast is more interesting,” he said.

A Legacy of Landmark Architecture

Among the most recognized of Frey’s public buildings are the Palm Springs City Hall, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station and the “flying wedge” canopy of the Tramway Gas Station, now also a visitor center at the northwest gateway into Palm Springs.

What inspired Frey to design City Hall with offset block:  “I had just returned from a trip around the world when we got that job and I was very inspired by what I had seen,” he said.  “You can see that when you use block like that, you can get a much better proportion to the walls. The corners lap like a log cabin’s corner.  I tried to use the materials the way they should be used naturally.  Of course I used a lot of metal. I feel why lift concrete overhead? Use lighter materials and it is better for earthquakes as well.

Frey’s aesthetic and practical sense was to keep the mass to the ground with a light frame above. “In the City Hall Counsel Chamber, you notice the walls are splayed, that was acoustically determined,” he noted.  “I worked on schemes for Le Corbusier where he had a consultant for acoustical engineering. The League of Nations Building’s shape was based on acoustics. There was not electrical amplification at that time and you had to be heard. The ceiling way was baffled as well in the same way. So it was a very inspiring way of designing.”

What was Frey’s design process? “Well, of course, it starts in the head, then I make sketches, from there I quite often make a model in order to explain it to the client,” he said. “For instance, the gas station up there, it was very difficult for the City to visualize it from a drawing. So I make a little model to show them that all the beams are straight. Which is an interesting principle, yet it makes a curved roof.”

Modernism Lectures and Tours

In 1998 at the age of 95, the iconic Swiss architect died in his sleep at home and is buried at Welwood Murray Cemetery in Palm Springs.  He bequeathed the Frey House II to the Palm Springs Museum, but to preserve the site, the house is generally not open to the public.

However, Frey is the subject of a lecture at the museum on February 22-23 by Bill Butler.  Call (760) 322-4837or visit

Frey’s work will also be included during Modernism Week, February 17-27. Call (760) 219-4599 or visit online at for locations.

Pamela Bieri

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