21 Aug A Forgotten Architectural Gem Rises in the California Desert
During Palm Springs Modernism Week, when thousands descend on this small desert town in California to bask in Midcentury Modern architecture, a coveted ticket is a tour of Frey House II, Switzerland-born architect Albert Frey’s landmark hillside residence.
But what about the first house Frey ever designed in Palm Springs—the one that set him on the path as a pioneer of desert modernism? In 2015, it sat uninhabited, mutilated by additions, with stained carpets and a gas leak. Local hotel owner Marina Rossi spotted it while house-hunting and bought it for $745,000, not knowing it was designed by the architect.
She wondered about her new house’s provenance. Because her hotel is in the historic district, not far from Frey House II, she had become aware of the local architectural landscape. When she called her contacts at the historical society, they excitedly reported that she had acquired what is known as the Guthrie House, built in 1935 soon after Frey first moved to town.
“It’s a hidden gem. It was the first house he learned how to build in the desert,” says Joseph Rosa, director of the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, who extensively interviewed Frey for his book “Albert Frey, Architect.” The architect died in 1998.
For the following three years, Ms. Rossi, now 55 years old, and her daughter, Avalon Rossi, 25, worked on a $600,000 renovation of the house. Their aim was to revive the original design while bringing it up-to-date.
The previous owners had altered what was a simple two-bedroom, adobe-like 1,600-square-foot house composed of three cubic volumes framed in wood and covered in plaster. They had carved out arched openings in the front, turned a garage into a bar and elongated the bedrooms to double their size. The concrete floors had been covered with Spanish tiles, one room had mirrors on the ceiling, and the exterior was coated in thick, pink stucco.
The Rossis bought every book they could find on Frey and studied his work. Then Marina called Mr. Rosa, who included a photo of the original Guthrie House in his book, to ask his advice. Should she get rid of all the additions or was it OK to keep some of the extra space? Mr. Rosa said Frey told him in his interviews that he expected his houses to evolve. “Houses live on,” Frey told him. Ms. Rossi was relieved.
Still, the project took three sets of architectural plans. The first, drawn by a San Diego architect, was too generic and contemporary, with an open kitchen and awnings. “It didn’t sit well with us,” says Avalon.
Next, they hired an Italian architect who gave the project a sleek and dramatic ethos, specifying steel beams for the frame. Fed up, and wanting to go back to what they saw as Frey’s mission of using interesting materials in a cost-effective and unique way, the mother and daughter redesigned the plans themselves, using a structural engineer when necessary.
When general contractors gave them bids over $1 million to do the work, the Rossis took on that role, too, with Avalon spending 12 hour days on site. Using their books on Frey as a guide during construction, they hired sub contractors to strip the floors, giving them a new layer of gray concrete with a glossy finish of epoxy. The pink stucco exterior was jackhammered off and replaced with a smoother stucco closer to the original off-white color. A concrete fireplace that had been covered with fake stone and then a wooden mantel went back to its original state. They painted all the interior walls and ceilings a soft white and made doors out of rusted corrugated metal, a nod to Frey’s later style.
“They are taking the house back,” says Caley Rhodes Sr., owner of Palm Springs Mirror & Glass, who worked with Frey on his houses and helped the Rossis with their windows.
The converted garage that had been a bar is now a second living room. The bedrooms have glass doors. Instead of tearing down a brick wall that separated the kitchen from a dining room added in the 1940s, Avalon painted each brick white, a nod to a photo they found of a painted brick wall in an apartment in Paris owned by Le Corbousier, whom Frey worked for.
Outside, they redid the swimming pool and added a small lounge area, then landscaped the 1/3-acre lot using slate pavers and boulders.
Marina grew up in Los Angeles, went to design school in Milan and started an eponymous clothing company when she moved back home in 1992. After her company folded, Ms. Rossi stayed home with Avalon for five years (she is divorced), then got her M.B.A. from the University of Southern California. When she graduated in 2001, she went into commercial real estate; in 2005 she began renovating her Palm Springs hotel, which her parents had bought years earlier.
Avalon studied English literature and film at the University of California, Los Angeles, graduating in 2016. She used the money she earned as a model and actress to buy a house in Silver Lake, which she fixed up and sold.
The mother-daughter team had formalized their working relationship in 2017 when Avalon joined Avi Ross Group, which Marina founded to develop, renovate and design properties. Coming up are two new boutique hotels: one in Malibu, Calif., and one on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii.
Now that the project is finished, Avalon has moved out of the Palm Springs condo they shared during construction and back to Los Angeles. Marina is living in the new house, though that is hard to tell. The interior is starkly minimal, averaging one piece of furniture per room. Her mantra is “What Would Albert Do.”