Featured Architect: Robson Chambers

Robson Cole Chambers’ career was the embodiment of a Southern Californian architectural life. Chambers was born in Los Angeles in 1919, and after growing up in Banning, California, and graduating high school there in 1936, he attended the University of Southern California, graduating in 1941.

While at USC, Chambers was distinguished among his peers by a Los Angeles Times article dated March 24, 1938, titled Trojan Students Design New Type Desert Home.” In the article, Chambers’ work was cited as one of three chosen as “the best models” of the desert house “for people who live in a large city, with special attention given to the problem of outdoor living and recreation."

By graduation, Chambers was receiving accolades, such as an American Institute of Architects’ medal for the USC Class of 1941. During WWII, Chambers was in the US Marine Corps and helped design Camp Pendleton in Oceanside. He then spent five years at the Los Angeles firm of Myron Hunt and Harold Chambers, but the Coachella Valley beckoned.

In 1946, Chambers joined the Palm Springs team of John Porter Clark and Albert Frey. For Chambers, Clark and Frey, the untamed desert was a limitless canvas of opportunity, and while Chambers may be less known today than other regional midcentury architects, for more than 20 years in Palm Springs he worked on many of the earliest, most innovative buildings that today define Desert Modern.

His imprint on the desert was immediate. Chambers’ own 1947 house, designed with Frey, was published in A Treasury of Contemporary Houses by the editors of the Architectural Record, as well as in the Los Angeles Times story In Defiance of the Desert by architectural historian Esther McCoy.

Clark, Frey, and Chambers’ work incorporated imaginative design principles, resourceful materials, and creative construction methods in an array of the area’s most distinctive residential, commercial, educational, and civic projects. These included their work on the iconic Palm Springs City Hall (1952–57).

In 1956, Clark left the firm to establish a solo practice, focusing on commercial and public projects. Frey and Chambers partnered for another decade, until Chambers moved to Santa Barbara in 1966 to become the campus architect for the University of California, Santa Barbara. Upon retirement from UCSB, he moved to Borrego Springs, California, where he purchased the Hauser Residence - one of Cliff May's first post-war ranch houses, built in 1946 - and spent another dozen years, maintaining a small private practice until 1995.

Chambers combined professional responsibilities with civic duty, bringing a personal narrative of excellence to his community and the built environment. In Palm Springs and in outlying cities, he pioneered Desert Modern — designing, along with Frey, numerous sites praised in today’s international architectural history lexicon. Among them are schools, homes, shopping centers, churches, college buildings, libraries, fire stations, and more. Of particular note are the Carey–Pirozzi House (1956); Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station (1949–63); Salton Sea North Shore Yacht Club (1958); Palm Springs Fire Station #1 (1955); and the iconic Tramway Gas Station (1964), which now houses the Palm Springs Visitors Center.

Robson Cole Chambers passed away on June 18, 1999. Archives of his work can be found at the UCSB Art, Design & Architecture Museum.

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