Jon Michael Schwarting on the Thirty-Seven-Year Effort to Save a Modernist House

A small modernist house with a desert landscape behind
The Aluminaire House in Palm Springs (photograph by Guillaume Goureau, courtesy of the Palm Springs Art Museum)

Where do preservation and architecture come together in practice? One clear example can be found in the saga of the Aluminaire House, which in its nearly one-hundred-year history was first constructed in New York, skirted demolition, and sat disassembled in storage for many years only to end up in the safe hands, at last, of the Palm Springs Art Museum—thanks to the herculean efforts of 1970 Fellow and Trustee Emeritus Jon Michael Schwarting. The museum held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the house, as a permanent exhibition, to the public on March 23.

The Aluminaire House, designed by architect Albert Frey and Architectural Record editor A. Lawrence Kocher, was the first house in the United States to be constructed entirely from metal. (Frey had worked for Le Corbusier in France, including on the Villa Savoye, and helped to bring many of Le Corbusier’s ideas to the US.) A modest 1,200 square feet and cubic in form, the Aluminaire House offered a proof of concept for mass-produced, modern, and affordable homes. More than one hundred thousand visitors viewed the house when it was unveiled at a 1931 exhibition by the Allied Arts and Industries and Architectural League of New York. Even more people were awed a year later by images of the house in the Museum of Modern Art’s influential show Modern Architecture: International Exhibition. Its cutting-edge design set the tone for much of the modern architecture that defined the twentieth century.

Following its exhibition, Wallace K. Harrison—famous as the Rockefeller family’s preferred architect and the master planner of both Lincoln Center and the United Nations headquarters—purchased the house for $1,000 and relocated it to his estate in Huntington, Long Island, where it eventually became a guest house and saw modifications.

By the 1980s, Harrison’s estate had been subdivided and the new owners of the Aluminaire House wished to tear it down. When efforts to make the house a protected landmark failed, the architect Jon Michael Schwarting (1970 Fellow, 2012 Affiliated Fellow, and Trustee Emeritus) stepped in with his wife and fellow architect Frances Campani (2016 Affiliated Fellow) in 1987.

“I had studied the house while an associate in Richard Meier’s office with regards to metal panels and had seen it with my students at Columbia GSAP,” Schwarting told AAR. “I was taking on teaching and chair of the Central Islip Campus (fifteen miles from the house in Huntington) of New York Institute of Technology when it was announced that it was to be demolished, so I jumped at the chance to save it with students.”

To do so, they received a grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation—the first awarded for the preservation of a modern structure. Then, once again, the house was disassembled, transported, and reassembled, this time at the New York Institute of Technology’s Islip campus, all with the help of students, for whom the process served as a pedagogical tool. In addition to moving the building, the students also carefully documented the house and researched the 1931 materials.

Disaster struck again about twenty years later; the institute announced plans to close its Islip campus. In 2011, Schwarting, Campani, and Kenneth Frampton created the Aluminaire House Foundation to ensure the house’s preservation. The house was dismantled and stored in New York as the foundation hunted for a new home. The cause resonated with residents of Palm Springs, a city closely associated with Frey, and in 2020, the Palm Springs Art Museum agreed to accept the house into its permanent collection, with supporters raising $2.6 million to erect the house on land adjacent to the museum. The museum weatherproofed the house and added air conditioning to ensure it could survive a desert climate it was never built for. Schwarting and Campani served as consulting architects on the project.

The Aluminaire House was influential not only for its aesthetic contributions to what became known as the International Style, but also for the democratic goals of the project. “We have worked from the beginning to have it recognized as a study in affordable housing as one of its agendas,” stated Schwarting. “It has an important place in the history of modern architecture’s concern with this issue.”

Schwarting is pleased with the house’s new home and its warm reception. “Now it is in a great place with good caretakers, and it started as an exhibition house and is again an exhibition house.” He also believes that appreciation for modernist architecture—and the need to preserve it—has grown over time, in part due to organizations like Docomomo International, the Iconic Houses Foundation, and Palm Springs’ Modernism Week. He also pointed to Italy, which “expends so much work and financing to save things,” as an example that the US can learn from. Like Italy, he said, “we need more public awareness and interest.” 

We asked Schwarting if there was another modernist building that he might like to work to preserve. “This took thirty-seven years; that was enough,” he replied. “Although it would be nice to see someone—students?—rebuild the Kocher and Frey Canvas Weekend House that was in Northport and demolished.”

A new book on the Aluminaire House, written by Schwarting and Campani, will be published in November 2024 by Gibbs Smith.

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