Designed by Albert Frey and Lawrence Kocher and completed 1931, the Aluminaire House represents one of the earliest examples of European-inspired Modern architecture in the eastern United States. The Aluminaire was one of only six American buildings chosen by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Phillip Johnson in 1932 for the New York Museum of Modern Art’s International Style exhibition and book, and of those six, it was the only private residence other than Richard Neutra’s Lovell House (1927–29). Like the Lovell House, the Aluminaire represented a merger of advanced building technology and advanced architectural expression, and as such, it exemplified many of Le Corbusier’s five points of architecture. This was mainly the result of the contributions of Albert Frey, a Swiss-born designer who worked in Le Corbusier’s studio before imigrating to the United States in 1930. Co-designer Lawrence Kocher, a Beaux-Artstrained architect from California, was managing editor of A rchi-tectural Record at the time of his partnership with Frey, and it was through the journal’s contacts that the firm received the Aluminaire commission.
Designed for the 1931 Allied Arts and Building Products Exhibition in New York, the Aluminaire House was intended as an attention-getting display to draw in the public. Eventually, more than 100,000 visitors toured the full-scale model of what the architects described as “a House for Contemporary Life,” filled with light and air (“alumin”+“aire”). To be occupied by a couple living near a city, the house contained a covered porch, entrance hall, boiler room, and garage on the ground floor; a kitchen, living and dining rooms, bedroom, bathroom, and exercise room on the second floor; and a skylit library, toilet, and terrace on the third floor. As a model dwelling, the Aluminaire was intended as a prototype for prefabricated housing that, if produced in adequate quantities (10,000 units),, would have been relatively low cost ($3,200). As a three-story block with pilotis, ribbon windows, a roof garden, and freely composed facades, the Aluminaire House had much in common with a building that Frey knew firsthand: Le Corbusier’s detached single-family house (1927) in the Weissenhofsiedlung (the exhibition of domestic modern architecture initiated by the German Werkbund in Stuttgart). If the Aluminaire lacked the spatial complexity typical of a Corbusian plan libre, it nonetheless featured a combination living and dining area that stretched the full width of the house, with a double-height ceiling above the living space. This gave the house a feeling of openness despite its small size, a perception augmented by folding screens and translucent partitions that transformed individual rooms into flexible, multiuse spaces.
Using lightweight skeletal construction, the house was erected in the exhibition hall in less than ten days. All building materials, many of which were experimental, were donated by national manufacturers eager to associate themselves with modern architecture. Of these materials, aluminum and steel were prominent in the structure and fittings. Six five-inch aluminum pipe columns set in concrete supported the entire weight of the building, with many columns left exposed. Fastened to the columns was a framework of channel girders and steel beams supporting steel floor decking and steel stairs. Steel-framed windows were used throughout the house, as were steel-faced, chrome-trimmed doors, including the overhead doors of the drive-through garage. The non-load-bearing, exterior walls were only three inches thick, consisting of a steel frame, wood nailers, and insulation board. They were sheathed in three-foot panels of corrugated aluminum fastened with aluminum screws and washers. Practically, the panels’ vertical corrugations added rigidity, and the polished surface deflected the sun’s rays, but they also gave the Aluminaire a desirable metallic sheen and a gloss of the modern.
A similar effect was evident inside in the nontraditional details and finishes. Fabrikoid covered the walls in the living spaces, and black Vitrolite clad those in the bathroom. Neon tubes running above the windows lit the interior with dial controls, allowing the occupant to adjust the level and color of illumination. The house also featured built-in metal, glass, and rubber fixtures designed by Kocher and Frey to save space and minimize maintenance. Beds were suspended from metal cables. A combination china cupboard and retractable dining table had legs on wheels to allow easy extension. A suite of air-filled rubber chairs could be deflated for easy storage; although never fabricated, these designs anticipated the inflatable furniture of the 1960s.
Public response to the Aluminaire House was generally positive, as evident in the extensive coverage the house received in the general and architectural press in the early 1930s. Local journalists were impressed with its ease and rapidity of construction, dubbing it the “zipper” and “magic” house and heralding it as a portend of future dwellings. In The Modern House (1934), British architect F.R.S.Yorke praised the weather-resistant qualities of its laminate wall structure and noted that its design was well adapted to standardization.
After its display at the Allied Arts exhibition, the Aluminaire House was dismantled in only six hours and transported to Syosset, Long Island, to the estate of architect Wallace K.Harrison, who had purchased it for $1,000. In the spring of 1931, it was reerected as Harrison’s weekend retreat, but it was structurally compromised because of construction delays. Harrison altered the house during the next decade, adding two one-story additions, enclosing the roof deck, and relocating it to a hillside site that transformed the first floor into a basement. The Aluminaire gradually deteriorated in the ensuing four decades, and in 1986, after the Harrison estate was sold, it was threatened with demolition. Although the Harrison estate was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Aluminaire House itself did not have the individual local listing needed to ensure its protection. Largely through the efforts of Joseph Rosa, an architect researching a book on Albert Frey, the architecture community in New York City rallied to save the Aluminaire House, deeming it too significant a landmark of American modernism not to be preserved. In 1987 the house was moved to the Central Islip campus of the New York Institute of Technology, where, under the auspices of the School of Architecture, the Aluminaire is gradually being reconstructed and restored to its original condition.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1 (A-F). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2004.