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A Metal Prefab House from the 1930s Finds a Home in Palm Springs

This week, the 1931 metal Aluminaire House arrived in Palm Springs, where it will finally be reassembled after years in storage.

The 1931 Aluminaire House installed on the estate of Wallace K. Harrison (courtesy Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

This week, a 1930s metal house long in need of love got a jubilant welcome in Palm Springs, California, when it arrived for a Valentine’s Day debut. The Aluminaire House has been in storage for years, its prefabricated parts disassembled, and although it will remain in its personalized trailer truck for a couple of years before being reassembled across from the Palm Springs Art Museum, its journey has finally brought it within view of a fitting permanent residence.

The Aluminaire House on the campus of the New York Institute of Technology (photo by Michael Schwarting)

Its arrival was timed to coincide with Palm Springs Modernism Week. The 1931 home was designed by the then Managing Editor of Architectural Record, A. Lawrence Kocher, and architect Albert Frey, who has a considerable architectural legacy in Southern California, including over 200 buildings built between when he moved there in 1939 and his death in 1998.

“Albert Frey is our patron saint of architecture here,” Mark Davis, Modernism Week board member and treasurer, and a California Aluminaire House Committee member, told Hyperallergic. “For three decades he was the architect that put Palm Springs on the map for progressive modern architecture.”

The Aluminaire was in the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark 1932 exhibition devoted to the International Style, and curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock. It’s considered the first American all-metal prefabricated house, and the Swiss-born Frey, who had worked for Le Corbusier, used it to introduce that architect’s prefabrication techniques through an aluminum and steel structure.

After the exhibition closed, architect Wallace K. Harrison acquired the house and reassembled it at his Suffolk County estate, where it remained for 50 years. Some of those decades it was used as Harrison’s summer home, but eventually it was left to decay, especially following Harrison’s death in 1981. In the late 1980s, on the brink of being lost to its deterioration, the Aluminaire was donated to the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) on Long Island, where it was restored and reassembled by architecture students. However, the NYIT campus at Central Islip closed in 2012, so in 2011 Frey’s innovative home had to go on the move again; this time being broken down into parts and put in storage.

The Aluminaire House arrives in Palm Springs this Tuesday (photo by Jeff Durkin)
The Aluminaire House on the campus of the New York Institute of Technology (photo by Michael Schwarting)

The house’s cross-country relocation was organized and facilitated by the nonprofit Aluminaire House Foundation, started in 2010 by architects and NYIT faculty members Frances Campani and Michael Schwarting. Fittingly, Frey’s archives and his longtime residence are part of the Palm Springs Art Museum, and Tuesday’s arrival celebration was staged at the 1965 Tramway Gas Station designed by Frey. “When the Aluminaire is reassembled, Albert Frey’s entire arc of his career from 1931 until his death will be represented in Palm Springs,” Davis said. “It’s a very unique situation, and there are not many small towns that can brag about something like that.”

Not every community was thrilled at the prospect of an angular modernist in their midst. Back in 2013, the plan of the Aluminaire House Foundation was to erect the home in Sunnyside, Queens, which has garden city architecture also featured in that 1932 MoMA exhibition. Both the Aluminaire and these Queens homes were designed to be easily repeatable in suburban areas.

Sketch of exterior elevations of the Aluminaire House (courtesy Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

To say that the residents of Sunnyside’s Colonial Revival brick homes weren’t fond of Frey’s blocky metallic building is a bit of an understatement; a headline this month in the Sunnyside Post blared: “The much-hated Aluminaire House, which was almost plopped in Sunnyside Gardens, is California bound.” Davis admits that the Aluminaire was “a terrible match for the neighborhood.”

It’s a loss for New York architectural heritage, yet will likely harmonize more with the clean lines of the homes and other buildings in Palm Springs. After being a guest of honor at Modernism Week, the house will soon be rebuilt in the city’s new downtown park, with an opening projected for 2018. And to answer the question you might be pondering: no, this metal house will not become an oven to roast visitors out in the California desert. “The house is extraordinarily well designed and insulated,” Davis said. “It will not bake in the sun.”

The Aluminaire House on the campus of the New York Institute of Technology (photo by Michael Schwarting)
Exterior wall construction drawing for the Aluminaire House (courtesy Aluminaire House Foundation)
Kitchen drawing for the Aluminaire House (1930) (courtesy Aluminaire House Foundation)
Early drawing of the Aluminaire House (courtesy Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Updates on the Aluminaire House will be shared online by the Aluminaire Foundation.

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