Desert Modernism in Palm Springs cleared for National Register of Historic Places

Architecture Preservation Urbanism West
Palm Springs Visitors Center (Tramway Gas Station) by Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers, 1965. Photo courtesy Thom Watson/flickr

Palm Springs Visitors Center (Tramway Gas Station) by Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers, 1965. Photo courtesy Thom Watson/flickr

Given that Palm Springs is a destination for sun-soaked desert modernism, it’s surprising to learn that a number of structures by the area’s best-known architects are not protected. That changed earlier this month when the California State Historical Resources Commission voted to nominate ten buildings by Albert Frey, including Palm Springs City Hall and the iconic Frey House II, as well as the Town & Country Center in Palm Springs designed by Paul R. Williams and A. Quincy Jones for the National Register of Historic Places.

The vote was a milestone in preservation efforts in Palm Springs, a city that’s recently seen parts of its architectural history bulldozed for new developments. Recently midcentury modern Spa Resort Casino complex, noted for its concrete-vaulted entry colonnade and designed by William Cody, Donald Wexler, Richard Harrison, and Phillip Koenig, was demolished in the face of preservationist opposition.

The Desert Sun reported that the National Register placements are moving forward despite opposition by two owners: The Mount San Jacinto Winter Park Authority, which oversees Frey’s Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, and Town & Country Center owners Wessman Development. The Tramway owners cite potential development restrictions down the line as their challenge to the nomination.

Town & Country Center (DANIEL CHAVKIN)

Town & Country Center (Daniel Chavkin)

John Wessman’s objections stem from a larger architectural and urban issue: the redevelopment of central Palm Springs and the fact that the Palm Springs City Council city rejected a Historic Site Preservation Board recommendation to list the Town & Country Center as a Class I Historic Site.

As The Desert Sun noted:

Wessman argues that the building is a poor example of mid-century architecture and is problematic to lease due to its awkward layout, low ceilings and other deficiencies. The building also stands in the way of a proposed new street for the area that would form an east-west axis connecting the Palm Springs Art Museum with other areas like the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Writing for AN in 2011, Tom Stoelker reported that the museum’s relationship to the Town & Country Center is “tricky.”

There is the opportunity to connect the museum to tourists and residents, expand within the new complex, and gain visibility—literally—from blocks away. On the other hand, they’ll likely incur the wrath of Palm Spring’s vigilant preservationist community. “We are very interested in working with the city and Wessman, but we are by no means endorsing the destruction of Town and Country,” said museum spokesperson Bob Bogard. “The museum is very interested in an east-west corridor.”

Town & Country Center when constructed

Town & Country Center at mid century.

The complete list of nominated Frey buildings are:

Kocher-Samson Building (1934), Frey and A. Lawrence Kocher
Sieroty House (1946)
Loewy House (1946-47)
Carey-Pirozzi House (1946)
Palm Springs City Hall (1952)
Fire Station #1 (1957), Frey and Robson Chambers
Frey House II (1964)
Tramway Valley Station (1963)
Tramway Gas Station and Visitors Center (1965)
North Shore Yacht Club (1959)

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