Tramway Gas Station by Frey and Chambers is a modernist gatehouse for Palm Springs

Palm Springs Modernism Week kicks off today, and we’re taking a closer look at some of the city‘s best mid-century buildings to coincide with the event. First up is the Tramway Gas Station, designed by architects Albert Frey and Robson Chambers to mark the entrance into the modernist mecca.

The station is located on the northern edge of Palm Springs where Tramway Road – a single-lane track leading to the Palm Springs aerial tramway – joins the major State Route 111 highway.

Tramway Gas Station by Frey and Chambers
Photograph by Flickr user Gord McKenna

Completed in 1965, it remains one of the first buildings visible to those travelling south along the road from Los Angeles into the Californian desert city, which experienced a boom in architecture from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Having worked together for over 10 years as partners at their Palm Springs-based firm Frey and Chambers, Swiss-born architect Albert Frey and Robson Chambers from LA had already completed several projects as part of this modernist movement before working on the gas station.

Tramway Gas Station by Frey and Chambers
Photograph by Flickr user Gary Bembridge

Frey – who first established the firm in the 1930s – is also regarded as a founding father of the city’s “desert modernism” architectural style, which responded to the area’s bright and arid climate.

Built as an Esso service station, the Tramway Gas Station was one of the last projects the duo completed together and encapsulates many key elements of modernist architecture.

Its most prominent feature is the huge wing-shaped roof. Dipped in the middle, it rises up on either side to rest on slim poles and form a pair of verandas that offer shade from the desert sun.

Tramway Gas Station by Frey and Chambers
Photograph by Gregg Felsen

Other elements are designed to blend with its surroundings, including its low-lying form that resembles the flat landscape, while natural materials like stone walls match the hues of the hills in the backdrop.

The building functioned as a gas station up until the 1990s. Following its closure, it was purchased privately and transformed into an art gallery in 2000, when the circular white wall that wraps the building was added.

Tramway Gas Station by Frey and Chambers
Photograph by David A Lee

Since 2003, the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism has run the building as the Palm Springs Visitors Center, making use of its prime setting to introduce those from out of town to the area. In 2015, it was listed on the USA’s National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its architectural significance.

Frey and Chambers are among a host of Californian modernists who contributed to Palm Springs’ architectural boom during the mid-20th century, with others including John Lautner and Richard Neutra.

As a result, the city is home to one of the world’s best collections of modernist architecture, from which we will be spotlighting some of the most important examples during this year’s Modernism Week, from 15 to 25 February 2018.

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