At historic former gas station, lights shine bright at night thanks to efforts of a devoted preservationist

Peter Moruzzi was on hand in 2012 when the building was lit up for Modernism Week. The moment left a lasting impression and led to a special ceremony on opening day of this year’s 11-day event.
An iconic Palm Springs building best known as the Tramway Gas Station is now permanently lit at night.

Participants in a unique twilight tour of iconic Palm Springs buildings were in for a treat Thursday evening, witnessing a bit of history several years in the making.

Driving the news: Historian and preservationist Peter Moruzzi hosted a ceremony at the city’s visitor center off Tramway Road, handing Mayor Grace Garner a wireless switch after his remarks. With a flick of that switch, the building designed by Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers, better known as the Tramway Gas Station, will now be illuminated at night permanently.

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  • The event punctuated a special twilight bus tour of a dozen significant city buildings lit especially for Modernism Week under the direction of Tom Donohue. Roughly 30 participants in the tour, which was narrated by Donohue, were on hand for the ceremony.

Looking back: Moruzzi, a current member of the city’s Planning Commission who founded the Palm Springs Modern Committee in 1999, was on hand in 2012 when the 1965 building was lit up for that year’s Modernism Week. The moment left a lasting impression.

  • He was so taken by the building — the only one designed by Frey that features a hyperbolic paraboloid roof — that he nominated it for the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. 

In 2019, with encouragement from tourism officials, Moruzzi began a campaign to bathe the building in light permanently. He had plenty of support for the move, but none more energetic than former City Councilmember Dennis Woods, whose district contained the visitor center.

  • Woods suggested Moruzzi seek the $30,000 needed for the project using funds from Measure J, a city tax approved by voters in 2011 and used in part for beneficial community projects.

  • The City Council approved those funds in 2022 at the recommendation of the Measure J Oversight Commission.
Tom Donohue narrates one of the many double-decker bus tours he will be giving during this year’s Modernism Week. 

Why it matters: Preserving the building after the service station closed in 1989 was the first major battle in the modernism movement in Palm Springs.

  • It took until 1998 to finally secure permanent Class 1 designation for the structure, which at one point was destined for destruction when a developer hoped to build a sales office for a planned housing project.

  • The city purchased it in 2002, eventually turning it into the visitor center that now greets motorists along Highway 111.

What they’re saying: “The building still serves as a landmark at the edge of the desert and expresses the pioneering spirit of this resort community,” Moruzzi told the audience Thursday evening. “It is an emblematic billboard for Palm Springs modern design.”


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