Last Chance for Gas

Palm Springs refuels a gas station as a tribute to its modern architecture.

The Tramway gas station, co-designed by Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers

Credit: City of Palm Springs

Fans of retro, rejoice. In December 2002, the desert city of Palm Springs, Calif., purchased the mid-century modern Tramway Gas Station, co-designed by Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers, rescuing it from demolition. Now, after its renovation in November 2003, the eye-catching landmark building is the city's new visitors center, a symbol of the community's appreciation for its unique architecture.

Completed in 1965, the 2,300-square-foot space-age structure is the first building motorists see when they enter Palm Springs on Highway 111, the main road from L.A. Its dynamic, soaring roof and sleek lines cue travelers that the town they're entering is rich in modern architecture, an architectural style so suited to the arid landscape that in Palm Springs they call it Desert Modern.

Palm Springs' Plaza Theatre

Credit: Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism

"Architectural tourism is one of the fastest-growing draws in Palm Springs," says John Raymond, Palm Springs' director of community and economic development. "We're like the Colonial Williamsburg of mid-century modern."

Palm Springs has a year-round population of about 42,000, but those numbers swell in tourist season, November through May. "Tourism is our biggest industry," Raymond says. "We get three million visitors a year." He says the old visitors center averaged 500 visitors a day. Raymond expects that number to double or even triple at the Tramway Gas Station, in part because of increased parking but largely because of interest in the building itself.

Frey, born in Switzerland, studied briefly under Le Corbusier before immigrating to the states in 1930. In 1939 he moved permanently to Palm Springs. Alone, or occasionally with partners, Frey designed some 200 buildings in his adopted town and nearby communities. Along with the Tramway Gas Station, some of Frey's better known commissions include the Palm Springs City Hall, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station (co-designed by John Porter Clark), and numerous private homes.

In his 1990 book, Albert Frey, Architect, Joseph Rosa points out that "Frey's exploration of the roof plane as a sculptural element is best seen with the Tramway Gas Station." The dramatic roof is striking in its upward, sweeping design.

In the 1970s and '80s, however, when Palm Springs hit an economic downturn, many businesses, including the Tramway Gas Station, suffered. By the early '90s, the station was boarded-up, streaked with graffiti, and in danger of demolition. The private developer who bought the Tramway in 1996 "wanted to demolish it and use that corner as a gateway to a subdivision," says Peter Moruzzi, who chairs the Palm Springs Modern Committee, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving modern architecture and design in the city and surrounding communities.

Following community protest, says Moruzzi, the city council designated the station a "class one historic site," which blocks alterations to the exterior of a building without the city council's approval. When the owner objected to the designation, the structure was "de-designated two weeks later, at the next city council meeting," says Moruzzi. Residents were divided over the council's abrupt reversal. Some felt the derelict station was an eyesore; others considered it a treasure. 

A mid-century modern home typical of Palm Springs

Credit: Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism

But life turns on a dime, and sometimes the same can be said for the fate of a building. In what was a pivotal moment for the Tramway Gas Station, its lack of class-one status temporarily became moot when the developer's plans simply fell through. "It was preservation by neglect," Moruzzi says. "Thank God for it."

By 1998, the Tramway Gas Station, still boarded up and defaced, was for sale again. Two San Francisco men with an appreciation for Desert Modern, Montana St. Martin and Clayton Carlson, bought the building that year and spent months restoring it, keeping as close as possible to Frey's original vision. They reopened the spiffed-up structure in early 2000 as an art gallery.

Palm Springs City Council Member Christopher Mills was the architect on that first restoration. "Mr. Frey was alive at the time, and we met with him," Mills says. "We repainted to what he said were the original colors: an off-white exterior, and the underside of the steel deck [overhang] was changed to a lemon blue. I know he was pleased to see it being restored." Frey did not live to see the work completed, however; he died in November 1998.

By then, of course, interest in all things retro was burgeoning nationwide. Dry martinis, the Rat Pack, and the color pink were hip once again. For aficionados, Palm Spring's impressive concentration of modern architecture made that city the essence of cool.

Four years ago, the city council again designated the Tramway Gas Station a class-one historic site. This time, the designation stuck. And when the structure came up for sale last year, there was little debate about who should buy it. The city purchased the building for $638,000 and budgeted another $500,000 for restoration. Because of the previous work done by St. Martin and Carlson, the current restoration, which began in September, will be brief. The project includes drought-resistant landscaping and construction of a separate restroom set unobtrusively away from the existing building. 

"The people are the city": Palm Springs' City Hall

Credit: Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism

Tourists usually come to the desert to relax and play golf or tennis. But these days, many visitors are equally eager to observe up close the buildings they've seen pictured in such books as "Palm Springs Modern" and "Palm Springs Weekend," both lush valentines to the city's architecture. In the latter volume, published in 2001, authors Alan Hess and Andrew Danish call the desert city a "mid-century oasis" and "a mecca of Modernist design."

Council Member Mills agrees. "I think everyone understands we have a history here unlike any other town the size of ours," he says.

Nevertheless, Moruzzi offers this cautionary tale: Despite protests by the Palm Springs Modern Committee and others, the Palm Springs Biltmore, a 1948 modern luxury hotel designed by Fred Monhoff, was demolished earlier this month. The dilapidated Biltmore had been boarded up for years but still had many admirers. Like the Tramway Gas Station, the now-lost hotel is still listed in "Palm Springs Weekend" as one of 20 significant architectural works within the city limits.

So is eternal vigilance the price of modernity? "I think [what happened to the Biltmore] shows there's still a long way to go," Moruzzi says. He adds, however, "It's clear by the increase in property values that there's a very large group of people who appreciate Desert Modern. These buildings have added a cachet to Palm Springs. There's certainly value in modern design."

Jane Lotter is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

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