February 28, 2019

Photo Essay: The Albert Frey House That Time Forgot

This year at Modernism Week in Palm Springs, I had the chance to be among the first to tour the "Forgotten Frey"—a.k.a. the Cree House.

It wasn't so much forgotten as hidden away. It's been occupied by private residents since it was erected in 1955. And it's only recently that the owners relented and allowed us to tromp around.

The Cree House only cost $40K to build into a rocky mountainside overlooking Cathedral City—but not just because it's rather petite, at only 1300 square feet.

It's a good example of architect Albert Frey's attempt to achieve a desired result with the least amount of material—and effort.

And the materials he used were relatively industrial grade—like the yellow corrugated fiberglass panels, which, at the time, were pretty avant-garde.

They make for a nice canopy over the carport...

...and frame the stunning view with a fair amount of shocking contrast.

That's where the Cree House and the Frey II—which the architect built for himself—diverge.

Both use the surrounding natural landscape...

...but at the Cree House, the asbestos-cement sheets that cover the exterior don't exactly blend into the desert...

...despite their sage green color.

Inside, the rock fireplace is still intact, and the furnishings are suitably retro—though not original. (And I suspect some were planted for the sake of these tours).

The kitchen, however, is a time capsule...

...featuring original, restored appliances... the "Atomic Age" gas oven by Western Holly, which is as 1950s as any car that might be parked outside.

Undeniably, the best feature of this two-bedroom home is the view—but that's changed a lot in the last 65 years. In the 1940s, this hillside was barren—and had been earmarked for a new hotel that was to be designed by Frey.

When the developer, Raymond Cree, abandoned his plans, he had Frey build the small home instead.

Palm Springs and Cathedral City subsequently arose out of the desert below, replete with fast food restaurants, grocery stores, golf resorts, and amusement parks.

But at least behind it, you can still find the San Jacinto Mountains and the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation's Indian Canyons. (Unfortunately, that's not what the Cree House looks out upon.)

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Photo Essay: A Modernist Spider Lands In Palm Springs

In North Palm Springs on Indian Canyon Drive, there's a roadside attraction known as the "VW Beetle Spider."

circa 2009

Made of a Volkswagen and other welded parts, it's attracted many a traveler passing through the low desert. But it's not the only arachnid in Palm Springs now.

Photo: Circa 1952, OfHouses (via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Thanks to the Sarasota Architectural Foundation and Palm Springs Modern Committee, a replica of the "Spider In the Sand" arrived in late 2018, just in time for the Modernism Week preview.

Designed 1952 by Paul Rudolph—when he'd just begun working at his own practice and was challenging the principles of International Style—the original Walker Guest House is a beach cottage built for Dr. Walt and Elaine Walker in Sanibel Island, Florida, where it still stands.

The replica has made its first journey to the West Coast and is now situated literally in a construction pit near the Palm Springs Museum of Art.

Fortunately, this "floating pavilion" sits on a platform and can be set up anywhere the land is level.

The concept behind the beachfront guest house is for it to be "open to all outdoors" and provide "carefree summer living"—and the key to that is in its modularity.

In fact, it can be "tuned" by its residents—raising hinged plywood flaps to create 8 additional feet of living space on all four sides of the house.

During World War II, Rudolph had spent four yrs in the Navy—including a stint working at Brooklyn Navy Yard in shipbuilding—and the naval influences on the guest house are clear.

The shutters can be operated thanks to a set of pulleys, anchored by 10-inch red counterweights, each weighing 77 lbs. The posts that reach down from the beams that support them appear like legs on a crouched spider. And it looks the leggiest when the shutters are up.

But those red balls earned the Walker Guest House yet another nickname—the "Cannonball House."

Inside, the postwar and naval influences also abound, including the cleats that hold the ropes for the pulley system...

... and the galley-like kitchen.

One fixed panel of glass is installed at the end of each Masonite wall—the epitome of postwar construction using "new" and affordable materials.

At 24 by 24 feet, this "tiny house" feels like it could be installed anywhere. But when I mentioned that I'd like one in Southern California, the docent discouraged me, noting that it was really just meant as a summer home for the Florida beach.

It couldn't handle summers that were too hot or winters that were too cold.

But I think a little radiant heat in the flooring would do just fine.

Now I just need some land to put it on...

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February 25, 2019

Photo Essay: Hollywood Glam in a Desert Modernist Tract

I spent years not attending Palm Springs Modernism Week because I found it too overwhelming.

I didn't know what I should see.

But now I know that "should" doesn't matter. I just choose what I want to see. For whatever reason.

And personally, I don't care much about the showcase houses that have been redone by celebrity interior designers or outfitted with the most modern or even modernist appliances.

I'm going for historical significance.

This year, the Morse Residence--a Palm Springs Class One Historic Site as of 2016--fit the bill.

Though it was a last-minute addition to my itinerary, it blew the rest of the day's tours out of the water.

Originally built in 1960 by the Alexander Construction Company as a standard ranch model in a tract in the Vista Las Palmas neighborhood of Palm Springs ("The Beverly Hills of Palm Springs," established circa 1958), the original Palmer and Krisel "bare bones" design wasn't quite up to par for Theodore Morse, a lingerie magnate, and his wife Claire, who'd moved to the desert from Chicago and purchased the property in 1961.

They presently hired Hal Levitt to embellish the "Desert Regional Variation" on the notoriously plain International Style into the epitome of mid-century desert modernism, with some flourishes of Hollywood Regency style--none of which you can see from the horizontal facade of fieldstone (painted sometime prior to 1970) and concrete breeze blocks (the “Empress” pattern, the most
popular screen block pattern ever produced).

After walking up onto a polished terrazzo concrete pad (in place of a boring old cement sidewalk and stair)...

...and through the wood board and batten front door (a circa 2015 replacement)... enter a long, grandiose hallway, under a non-original, period-appropriate ceiling fixture by Italian designer Gaetano Sciolari.

You're surrounded by hidden doors that lead to... well, who knows? A closet perhaps. Certainly a bathroom with a restored or at least replicated doorknob.

Once inside, you're surrounded by padded walls covered in white leather...

...and of course more Mid-Century Modern fixtures on the walls and ceiling.

The piece de resistance--and the crowning achievement of the Hal Levitt redo-- is the sunken living room, with its natural rock walls, recently furnished with a vintage Warren Platner chair.

The built-in couch has been newly reupholstered and looks out on the aluminum-framed sliding glass pocket windows...

...which provide a seamless portal to the outside and a glorious swimming pool with swim-up bar, essentially situated at eye level.

Out on the southwest patio area, there's more of the terrazzo flooring, as well as a good view of the projecting “V” wall and stone-clad support column--all in the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Another one of those stone-clad columns that support the roof can be found literally in the middle of the pool, creating a "column island" covered in fabric and used for seating.

Around the bend at the northeast edge of the pool is a “therapy pool” (a.k.a. hot tub), which was installed in an existing terrazzo patio.

The pool is surrounded by various kinetic sculptures, which you can also see from the inside as you're sidled up to the bar for a drink.

Not a lot is known about the original owners, the Morses--but a later owner was "superagent" Ed Limato, the SVP at William Morris who represented the likes of Sharon Stone, Richard Gene, and Denzel Washington.

Photo: SHAG Store (via Facebook)

The current owners are Gary Gand and his wife Joan--also Chicagoans who relocated to Palm Springs. You can see them depicted in "The Imposters" by Palm Springs artist SHAG (a.k.a. Josh Agle)--Gary in the hat wearing green on the chair (watching Simon and Garfunkel?) and Jan sitting on the steps to the pool. 

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February 20, 2019

Photo Essay: A Double Dinosaur Climb, In Claude Bell's Prehistoric Garden

When dinosaurs were still alive—some 70 or 80 million years ago—California was still underwater.

The ancient sea may have been shallow—and receding—but it didn’t leave much for today’s paleontologists to find.

So, industrious Southern California entrepreneurs simply created their own along our roadsides. Who cares if they're fake? That just means you can go up inside of them and look around their innards.

When you mention Southern California roadside dinosaurs, the ones everybody talks about are in Cabazon—particularly Dinney, the 150-foot-long Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus you can see from the 10 freeway. Those who have never driven this stretch of the 10 may still recognize them from the movie Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

Inside Dinney's Gift Shop, you can examine the evolution of man from prehistoric times, as built into the walls...

...from Homo erectus erectus and Homo erectus pekinensis to Homo sapiens neanderthalensis... the European early modern humans, a.k.a. the Cro-Magnon.

Farther back off the access road, there’s a three-story concrete Tyrannosaurus rex—like Dinney, also built by theme park artist Claude Bell (of Knott’s Berry Farm fame). Bell spent 11 years on Dinney, without the help of contractors or construction crews. Then, in 1981, he started work on Mr. Rex—as an octogenarian.

They're now touted as the “World’s Biggest Dinosaurs”—or simply the "Cabazon Dinosaurs"—and you can also buy a ticket to climb on up into the T. Rex.

But first, you've got to amble through Bell's recreation of prehistoric life—a kind of walkabout through a dinosaur garden that takes you through a habitat we've only ever seen in movies (and on the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios).

There's plenty here to entertain kids—like another gift shop, this one with animatronic dinosaurs chomping towards you—but this grown-up enjoyed the peacefulness outside, with few if any other humans around.

During my visit, the sun was setting and began to cast a glow on these menacing faces, which still appeared darkened in contrast to the snow-capped mountains to the north.

The long-necked dinos—maybe Plateosaurus, Brachiosaurus, or Diplodocus—gazed at each other, not noticing me.

Though they were silent, I suspect their bark was still worse than their bite.

Among the many velociraptors...

...all were grounded from flight.

In history, not all of these dinosaurs lived together or even all at the same time...

...but as long as we're indulging our fantasies...

...let the ceratosaurus mingle with the triceratops...

...just as we humans mingle with all the dinosaurs in the garden (though we never actually had the chance).

As delightful as the garden is, there's only one reason why anyone ever goes back there—to climb into the mouth of the most infamous carnivorous king of the dinosaurs.

Mr. Rex was completed in 1986, just two years before Bell's death at age 91—although technically, he's forever unfinished. Bell envisioned a slide down the Tyrannosaurus tail, but he never got to see it through.

After climbing up a couple of flights through steel and concrete, holding onto a rebar railing for dear life as you ascend a narrow spiral staircase, you find yourself standing inside the head—just beneath the beast's glowing yellow eyes.

A few steps forward and another step up, and it's got you in its jaws...

...where you can look out on the freeway through its mighty teeth and feel the wind whipping through as day starts to wane.

The dinosaurs have gotten a recent paint job and are both cosmetically and structurally well-maintained, but there's a sadness to visiting the property—which is now incomplete.

Bell had built his dinosaurs primarily to attract customers to his restaurant next door, The Wheel Inn, which he opened in 1958.

Unfortunately, The Wheel Inn closed back in 2013 and was razed in 2016.

But Bell built the dinosaurs to last—in fact, to far outlast him. And they're well on their way.

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