Palm Springs Modern Architect Donald A. Wexler


A Closer Look At Palm Springs Modern Architect Donald A. Wexler.

Palm Springs Modern is practically a genre in its own right:  Light, spacious steel-and-glass masterpieces  reflect a “golden era” of Mid-century desert architecture that ingeniously adapted industrial technology into now classic civic and residential buildings.

Celebrated  Palm Springs architect Donald Wexler’s contributions to Coachella Valley architecture are plentiful and exceptional.

While he may be best known for his neighborhood  of steel houses designed for the Alexander Construction Company in the early 1960s (, most of Wexler’s works are found among public and commercial projects including one that first greets Palm Springs  air travelers – the Palm Springs International Airport.

Bold and striking with steel integrated  in every part of the house — walls, roof, fascia, trim — its beams, channels and columns were designed to fit together quickly and securely, to be erected in a matter of hours instead of days. Light weight but strong steel frame homes allowed more floor space and floor to ceiling windows to capture the breathtaking desert and mountain landscapes.  Many of Wexler’s homes featured a folded plate or zigzag roof line that today seems almost a signature “W” for his innovative design.

In an interview by Jack Levitan for CA-Modern Magazine ( ),  Wexler  said, “‘I saw steel as ideal for the desert.  In the desert, steel, concrete and glass are the only materials to build.  They’re inorganic and they don’t deteriorate in the extreme temperature we have.”

Back in the Mid-1950s and 60s, the steel homes were designed to be affordable (when steel was cheap), saving labor and materials, and  low maintenance — a garden hose the only maintenance tool required.

An advertising feature in Home Builder’s Journal, dated August 1962, ( touted steel homes as being termite and fire-proof, longer lasting, acoustically superior, and snugly fitting to keep out dirt, insects, and hot or cold air with “consequent lower maintenance costs.”

This sounds hauntingly like today’s quest for energy efficiency, sustainability, low-maintenance and affordability. The famed architect also designed the Palm Springs Police Department and Jail, the Larson Justice Center in Indio,  the Merrill Lynch Building in Palm Springs, the original Palm Springs Spa Hotel’s Bath House (a joint venture with then partner Rick Harrison, architect William Cody and Pierre Koenig), the Desert Water Agency, El Rancho Vista Estates, Royal Hawaiian Estates (Palm Springs’ first residential historic district), Palm Springs Medical Clinic, Union 76 gas station, numerous schools and celebrity homes (

Wexler’s celebrity homes included the stunning Dinah Shore and Leff/Florsheim houses, actor Alan and Sue Ladd’s home, one that eventually became Ann and Kirk Douglas’, actress Andrea Leeds and her race-horse and Buick agency owner husband Bob Howard, and a project for Frank Sinatra.

“I felt houses were very personal .  You got very involved with people.  It’s different than doing  a public building or commercial job, ” said Wexler in the CA-Modern Magazine interview.

This past January, the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation ( celebrated a three day Wexler Weekend, showcasing his work in honor of his 84th birthday.  The weekend kicked off with a showing of the film “Journeyman Architect: The  Life and Work of Donald Wexler”(available on YouTube)  by Design Onscreen (

The homes tour included 14 Wexler-designed tract home properties in El Rancho Vista Estates, Wexler’s original Palm Springs Home, the Krizman, Douglas and Shore residences.  Visitors toured the 2004 restored Leff/Florsheim house (built 1957) which was taken down to the slab and rebuilt using Wexler’s original blueprint while incorporating modern day conveniences and upgrades.

Some fascinating books on Wexler available through Palm Springs Preservation Foundation include the Wexler Tribute Journal, and Donald Wexler: Architect by Patrick McGrew (

More Palm Springs Modern events coming up:  Modernism Week, February 18-27, 2011 ( ) and the 10th Alexander Weekend, March 25-27, 2011, celebrating the Alexander tract homes’ architectural importance ( .

Pamela Bieri

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