The Albert Frey Aluminaire House that was donated and shipped to the Palm Springs Art Museum about five years ago will remain disassembled in its shipping container for at least another year or longer.
The museum has been able to develop a road map to getting the house unpacked and reconstructed, museum Executive Director and CEO Adam Lerner said Saturday.
“It’s not going to be erected by winter of 2021-22. We know that for sure,” Lerner said. “But I hope that the path towards its building will become clear to you soon. We have a commitment to that.”
Lerner gave an update on the house during the first of the two-day Palm Springs Preservation Matters 2022 Symposium, held Saturday and Sunday at the convention center.
He was one of seven presenters on Saturday on architectural topics that included “Preserving Paul R. Williams’ Legacy: The Town & Country Center and His Architecture in Palm Springs,” “Preservation through Education,” and “Southridge Beyond the Gate: Architectural Drama , Diversity and Excellence.”
The four hours of presentations, which were free to attend, were followed by home/site tours at an additional cost.
The event, held in the Primrose Ballroom, was emceed by fashion designer Trina Turk and drew about 300 people.
Making a home for the Aluminaire House
Lerner came to the museum in August 2021 when efforts to reconstruct the Aluminaire House, created by Frey and his then architectural partner A. Lawrence Kocher, at a permanent spot in the museum’s south parking lot.
Built in 1931, the three-story metal and aluminum structure was one of Frey’s first major works and was built as part of an exhibition, serving as an example of the affordable and efficient home design that could be crafted with mass production and modern materials.
“It was constructed and deconstructed several times,” Lerner said. “Though it had never been constructed as a permanent structure.”
It was first displayed at an exhibit in New York and later moved to an estate. After falling into disrepair, the house was moved to the New York Institute of Technology campus.
That campus closed, and in 2011 New York architects Michael Schwarting and Frances Campani created the nonprofit Aluminaire House Foundation and began searching for a permanent home for the structure.
The house went into storage in 2012, where it remained until enough money was raised — about $600,000 — to move it to Palm Springs in 2017. The plan called for the reconstructed house to be permanently displayed in front of the museum, in the south parking lot.
Palm Springs is home to several residential, commercial, institutional, and civic buildings designed by Frey, who lived in the city for many years. The museum has 65% of Frey’s archival materials in its care, Lerner said.
It was initially expected that the Aluminaire House would be reconstructed by winter 2021-22. But when he first arrived in Palm Springs last year, Lerner said his focus was getting the art museum reopened after being closed for more than a year during the pandemic.
Others involved with the museum and the California chapter of the Aluminaire House Foundation were working to get the structure in place, he said, but some delays drove him to become directly involved in getting the project moving.
Key issues raised by the city may keep visitors from ever walking through the Aluminaire House, even when reconstructed.
One is temperature control, he said. The building — made of aluminum and metal — has no air conditioning and no insulation.
“You guys have been in Palm Springs probably longer than I have, and you know what Palm Springs summers are like,” Lerner said, bringing some laughter from the 300 in attendance.
“A metal box in 120 degrees will be 140 degrees in the summertime, and therefore there would be no way that we could take people through,” Lerner said.
When exhibited in the past, Lerner said, the Aluminaire House was installed inside another temperature-controlled structure.
The city was also concerned about whether the house could be made ADA accessible to people with disabilities, Lerner said.
Knowing the city’s concerns, the museum must decide what needs to be done to be able to make this building something the museum can proudly display, Lerner said.
The museum is hiring an executive architect to manage all the consultants necessary to make the Aluminaire House a permanent structure, he said.
The museum is also working with DW Johnson to know what materials can be reused and what needs to be refabricated, Lerner said. “It turns out the aluminum panels have been removed and reinstalled so many times that they need to be refabricated,” he said.
The museum is exploring ways for the public to access the house, which might include the installation of ramps that would allow people to see in without going in, in the absence of air conditioning.
“The important thing is that we are revising the scope to be able to understand exactly what is necessary,” Lerner said.
With an understanding of all that is necessary to build the house, Lerner said a realistic cost estimate could be determined, and fundraising efforts could begin.
Some have estimated the cost of reconstruction at $400,000, while others thought it might be something architectural students could do on weekends, “and it wouldn’t cost us anything,” Lerner said.
“Well, it turns out there’s a big difference between a building that’s installed temporarily for an exhibition and a permanent building,” Lerner said.
It will likely cost $2 million or more, Lerner said.
Inheriting the Aluminaire House as a project when he arrived at the museum “is like somebody left a puppy at your doorstep,” he joked. “And you’re like, well, I have other plans, and I wasn’t expecting to raise a puppy right now. … But it’s a puppy. You can’t turn away a puppy,” he said to the audience’s laughter.
More homes designated for historic preservation
Palm Springs Mayor Lisa Middleton welcomed everyone to the eighth annual symposium — the first one held in person since the pandemic’s start.
“It is so neat to see people again in three dimensions,” Middleton said.
She applauded the seven-member Historic Site Preservation Board.
Palm Springs is known for its midcentury modern architecture, which draws people worldwide who want “to see what it is we built and what we’ve maintained and what we’ve opened to the entire world,” Middleton said.
“Palm Springs, as we know, is internationally recognized for the architecture in our region. We are a name in architecture. For the treasure trove of diverse styles that visitors worldwide seek when they come here,” Middleton said.
The City Council appoints preservation board members to identify, nominate and recommend potential historic sites and districts to the council for preservation.
Over the past year, the board has designated about a dozen properties as historic sites, including six houses in Araby Cove, some made of adobe bricks with red clay roofs.
“This is a really old neighborhood with lots of character, lots of charm …,” said Katherine Hough, who chairs the board and lives in a home in Araby Cove off S. Araby Drive, north of E. Palm Canyon Drive.
Among those designated as historical is one of the earliest homes built in Araby Cove.
Hough told the story of how one of the designated homes, made of adobe bricks with a red clay roof, earned its nickname “El Dumpo Adobe.”
When Everett Dunlap bought the home in the late 1950s, which was about the time people were buying new, modern tract houses in Palm Springs.
“Mr. Dunlap’s friend joked to him and said to him, ‘You bought a dump of mud,’” Hough said. “So, the new owner named his home, ‘El Dumpo Adobe,’” and it stuck, Hough said.
Another of the homes is an arts and crafts rock house built in 1925 — “one of the first homes built. This is my favorite house; the finest house in our neighborhood,” Hough said.
The Sutter residence, designed by E. Steward Williams in 1960 on Ladera Circle and commonly known as the “Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway” because it is where Elvis and Priscilla Presley stayed after they were married, was also designated a historic site this year.
The symposium continued on Sunday with additional presentations.