Westward Ho: The Aluminaire House Finds a Home

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AFTER DECADES OF NOMADIC EXISTENCE, the Aluminaire House, a pioneering example of modern prefabricated construction, has finally found a permanent home in Palm Springs, California. Completed in 1931 by A. Lawrence Kocher and Albert Frey, the house was built as a demonstration of new building technology and products and of modern design for the Allied Arts and Industries and Architectural League of New York Exhibition that year.

Though the three-story aluminum house was heralded as revolutionary in its day—it was included in the 1932 International style exhibition at MoMA—it has been imperiled almost since it was first built. A haven of modern architecture, Palm Springs is a logical place for it to land. Indeed, as Albert Frey practiced there for decades, the permanent relocation of the house represents a homecoming of sorts, and a link from the beginning of Frey’s body of work to the end.

Architect Wallace K. Harrison bought the house in 1931 and moved it to his Long Island estate, where it initially served as a summer house, then as a guesthouse. Later, it was relocated on the property, abandoned, and fell into total disrepair after Harrison’s death. In the late 1980s it was dismantled, donated, and eventually reassembled on the campus of the New York Institute of Technology on Long Island. But the house faced renewed uncertainty when the university campus was confronted with closure. In 2011 a group of architectural preservationists formed the Aluminaire House Foundation to purchase and save the building, making several attempts to find a permanent home for it on the East Coast.

“Frey is our patron saint of modernism here in Palm Springs,” says Mark Davis, who was instrumental in bringing the structure West. “When I heard that [East Coast options] fell through, I said, ‘What about Palm Springs?’” Davis and his colleagues on the California Aluminaire House Committee quickly lined up local philanthropic and governmental support for the move and help in finding a location for the house in town.

The house traveled across the country in a shipping container, arriving in mid-February in time for Modernism Week, Palm Springs’ celebration of architecture and design. The California committee had the container wrapped in a custom banner with photographs and drawings of the house and Frey, and parked it in front of the house’s future site. “It’s a billboard for the project,” Davis says. The location is in a new downtown park across from the Palm Springs Art Museum. After restoration by the nonprofit Aluminaire House Foundation, which plans to use it for educational programs, the house is expected to open to the public in two years.

Most of the interior finishes in the eleven hundred-square-foot, five-room house are gone and will have to be reconstructed by the foundation. The foundation also plans to submit documentation to place the house on the National Register of Historic Places.

Born in Zurich, Frey worked for Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in Paris in the 1920s—so he was intimately involved in the inception of modernism in general and the International style in particular—before relocating to the U.S. in 1928. He settled in Palm Springs in the mid-1930s and eventually designed numerous houses and commercial buildings in the town, helping to develop its distinctive desert modernist style. (Among his buildings is the Tramway Gas Station, with its dramatic cantilevered canopy that now serves as the town’s visitors’ center.)

Since its founding in 2006, Modernism Week has become a major draw, bringing visitors to Palm Springs. The Aluminaire House will add similar luster to the city year-round. “Frey is revered in Europe, so the house will only enhance Palm Springs’ reputation around the world as a destination for architecture and design,” Davis says.

Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation