The meticulous restoration of Albert Frey’s 1955 Cree House
Step inside this meticulously restored 1955 Albert Frey home.
Architect Albert Frey was born in Switzerland and,
during his early career, worked under Modernist pioneer Le Corbusier. Frey came to Palm Springs in the 1930s and went on to live and work in the desert city, creating many iconic buildings and homes including Palm Springs City Hall, The Aerial Tramway Valley Station and Frey House II. Though not quite as well- known— the home is often referred to as “The Forgotten Frey"— the Cree House was built in 1955 by Frey for real estate developer Raymond Cree and serves as a gorgeous example of Frey’s residential work.
Sam Harris, owner of local favorite Sherman’s Deli & Bakery, spent some time growing up in the Cree House during the 1970s when his father owned the home. Sam went on to rent it from his stepmother in the late ’ 80s/ early ’ 90s and spent about four to five years living there, noting “When I was there, it was perfect.” Eventually he moved out, and the home changed hands several times but stayed within the family. When Sam bought the house back in 2017, he set out to meticulously restore the home with the help of builder and contractor John Vugrin.
BELOW: THE FIREPLACE WAS CLEANED BY HAND UNTIL THE BLACK GROUT WAS RESTORED, BUT IT TOOK A BIT OF EXTRA EFFORT TO ACHIEVE THE ORIGINAL WHITE COLOR. “THEY HAD BURNED A LOT OF WOOD FIRES IN THERE OVER THE YEARS, AND THE SMOKE HAD RUINED IT, AND THEN SOMEBODY VARNISHED OVER IT. SO AFTER I STRIPPED IT, IT STILL WASN’T GOOD ENOUGH, SO I MADE A FAUX PAINT,” EXPLAINS JOHN.
WHERE TO BEGIN
Due to rust, all the piping had to be redone. Sam notes that gas, plumbing and electrical are all new. While not a lot of work was required for the exterior of the house, the whole winding road leading up the hillside had to be completely redone. To avoid damaging the creosote plants on the road edges, they were carefully removed before the large machinery went up the hill, then replaced. “Those same trees are there that have been there forever,” says Sam.
The majority of the vertical grain Douglas fir paneling throughout the home’s interior needed to be redone. John pulled off the panels that were damaged and brought them to a lumber company, where he searched through “reams of plywood to pick out ones that match the original.” Not only were those damaged panels helpful in finding replacements, but John was able to reuse them. “In the kitchen we saved the drawer fronts and everything the best we could, but we had to make some new ones, so what I did was I took the old [ panels] and stripped them and used that to make the doors in the kitchen. So, the kitchen is all original paneling, but it came from different places in the house,” explains John.
Restoring the original hanging General Electric
refrigerator, unique in its design and color, was one of the biggest challenges.
A CHILLING CHALLENGE
Restoring the original hanging General Electric refrigerator, unique in its design and color, was one of the biggest challenges. After taking the heavy unit down, Sam says he “took it to a friend of mine’s autobody shop and had the whole thing all repainted, the vents taken out of it, and then we had a new compressor put in it and had all the shelving redone.” Getting the fridge off the wall was the easy part, but the team had to be extremely careful when replacing the unit. “We had to ramp it all the way up, over the top of the counter. And all the wood had already been put in, so we had to be very careful not to scratch anything when we put it back,” he remembers. Thankfully, the hard work paid off, and the fridge is not only functional, but restored to its original rich hue.
“It was lot of it was a work;
it was crazy.“
— Sam Harris
ON THE FENCE
The yellow fiberglass corrugated fencing that surrounds the home is original but had seen some damage and had been painted green over the years. While the green color helped to camouflage the house, Sam decided to restore the fence panels back to their 1955 yellow. John explains the painstaking process: “I took off the paneling; I just made a huge 10- foot long sink and soaked the fiberglass panels in acetone and stripped everything and put it back together.”
The Cree house shines once again, thanks to the detailed and thorough work of Sam and John. “It was fun; it was a lot of work; it was crazy,” Sam says of his restoration experience. “When I got this house, I didn’t really realize what I was getting into, but once you start you can’t stop!”