Donald Wexler – Iconic Mid Century Modern Architecture 1926-2015

Donald Wexler Steel House in Palm Springs
Donald Wexler Steel House, Palm Springs

Famous Palm Springs Architect

Architects Donald Wexler and Lance O'Donnell
Architects Donald Wexler and Lance         O’Donnell in Palm Springs

Donald Wexler practiced architecture during what he calls the “golden age” of California architecture from the immediate postwar years through the 1970s. This was a time when architects enjoyed considerable freedom to employ new materials and technologies in their search for functionally beautiful architecture.

The extremes of the desert climate forced Wexler to develop a sustainable architecture, which was not only successful functionally, but achieved a timeless aesthetic appeal. During a career that spanned almost six decades, he designed numerous houses, condominium complexes, as well as banks, office parks and schools.

Donald Wexler moved to Palm Springs in early 1953 to work with William Cody, a high-living socialite with a sense for solid design. He had intended to only stay about six months, but like many people, Donald Wexler fell hard for the Coachella Valley immediately upon arriving in Palm Springs!! After living here for six months “I didn’t want to live any where else.”

Donald Wexler lived and was educated in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and graduated from the University of Minneapolis. He also did a tour in the Navy in World War II. He still considered himself a mid-westerner.

Donald Wexler House in Palm Springs
Donald Wexler House in Palm Springs

Donald Wexler is about logic and efficiency. His architectural designed buildings fit together tightly, like machine parts. Nothing seems out of place and his details rarely distract from the whole design. Donald Wexler’s approach dates back many decades when architecture and design was supposed to be part of research and good thinking.

The Alexander houses that Donald Wexler designed almost four decades ago in North Palm Springs feature the “folded” metal roof that is his most famous motif design. It epitomizes the no-nonsense straightforward work of Donald Wexler. His designs are considered elegant, innovative, and very aware of climate.

Donald Wexler Steel House in Palm Springs
Donald Wexler Steel House in Palm Springs

Donald Wexler’s buildings have a quiet intelligence for human beings. His classic designs include El Rancho Vista Estates (1960), Alexander steel houses (1962) Dinah Shore House (1964), Palm Springs Airport (1966), plus many dozens more houses, commercial buildings, and schools. Many of them were built of prefab steel which was very innovative. He is thought of as being very detail-oriented, and his designs are very well thought out.

Steel and Shade Architecture

Donald Wexler considers steel, glass, and concretes the most appropriate materials for desert buildings, because they are inorganic according to him. They can take a beating of natural materials and do not require a lot of maintenance. The Alexander’s in North Palm Springs are perhaps the best-known example of Donald Wexler’s preference for inorganic construction materials.

Although, through his long career, which spanned the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, he always listened to his clients’ needs but he never compromised. Donald Wexler is described as being relaxed, pleasant, and open-minded. He believes these decades were the golden age of architecture before we had so many code restrictions on buildings.

Perhaps Donald Wexler’s legacy is still more remarkable because of the constraints he set for himself: To remain a small office and to build almost entirely in the Coachella Valley.

Donald Wexler's latest design in Palm Springs
Donald Wexler’s latest design in Palm Springs

Donald Wexler was disappointed that some of his buildings have been altered without sensitivity to his designs (these are houses that he will no longer enter). Donald Wexlerwas pleased about his career, particularly for the time when Palm Springs was a frontier of modernist building. In his words, “the buildings in the desert have stood up very well the only regret is that I am growing too old”

Heidi O”Neal

Sandpiper Condominium Circles 11 and 12 Designated a Palm Desert Historic District

Sandpiper’s circles are built around pools and green belts amid lush landscaping.

Sandpiper Condominium complex has just become one of Palm Desert’s most significant architectural residential communities.  This past spring, Palm Desert City Council unanimously voted Sandpiper Condominium Circles 11 and 12 – built in 1965 by the renowned architects Palmer & Krisel — as an Historic District.

Sandpiper's circles are built around pools and green belts amid lush landscaping.
Sandpiper’s circles are built around pools and green belts amid lush landscaping.

Palm Springs Preservation Foundation member Jim Harlan authored the nomination with the enthusiastic support of Sandpiper homeowners Barbara and Bernie Cain and Jim West. The process began last December and was successfully given approval this year.

Sandpiper was conceived as a low-density community and designed for maximum privacy and mountain views with pools, spas, a putting green and wide green belts amid lush landscaping.  Located at the west end of now famous El Paseo, today, it is within walking distance to some of the desert’s most trendy restaurants, galleries, shops, and malls.

While all of the buildings within the Sandpiper complex are designed in the modernistic style, they were built over time — from 1958 to 1969 – by different builders so that various circles have different characteristics.  But Circles 11 and 12, consisting of 16 buildings housing 32 units, were determined to “represent the most intact examples of modernist architecture,” according to the Palm Spring Preservation Foundation.

Sandpiper’s architectural features includes a flat roof, expansive use of glass, clerestory windows, and novel uses of then-new concrete screen block and Shadowall, multi-faceted concrete masonry.

In his report, Harlan notes that the complex Circles 11 and 12 are excellent examples of architecture built during the midcentury period with modern methods of construction.  In addition, they are the work of master architects, Palmer & Krisel.

“The architects’ successful site planning, landscape and architectural design create not only a unique but an early example of a multi-unit residential condominium project,” said Harlan in his report.Sandpiper 4

The two sections are a “singularly intact example of the significant modernist architecture for which the Coachella Valley is internationally known.”

Even when it was built, The Sandpiper complex was immediately recognized by the architectural community as an extraordinary effort that combined a sense of proportion, massing, refinement and use of modern materials and technology – a stylistic marker of the modernist movement.

Palmer & Krisel’s building design and site plan created a “built-environment” that attempted to combine the best of city and rural life in a utopian environment.

At the time, Sandpiper was advertised as “a new concept in carefree desert living” where “each Sandpiper apartment is cleverly arranged around a pool and garden area amid an oasis of tropical landscaping.”

Sandpiper unapologetically catered to the aspiring upper middle class, so that the feeling of the buildings had to exude urbanity but in a more informal resort setting.  Homeowners were promised a “garden apartment with maid, linen and other resort hotel services as your fingertips!”

The late 1950s were a sophisticated, optimistic and open time, a feeling still expressed by Sandpiper Circles 11 and 12’s design.  The buildings and site still retain a high degree of integrity and continues its association with the modernism movement that has made a significant contribution to the community.

Pamela Bieri





J.W. Robinson Department Store Gains Class 1 Historic Site Status

J.W. Robinson's Palm Springs. Courtesy of the Palm Springs Historical Society.
J.W. Robinson’s Palm Springs. Courtesy of the Palm Springs Historical Society.

Last week, the Palm Springs City Council voted unanimously to designate the J.W. Robinson’s Department Store building a Class 1 Historic Site.

The free-standing building on South Palm Canyon Drive at West Baristo with its dramatic elevated entrance and graceful pavilion style, is an important component of historic trends that have come to define Palm Springs as an epicenter of mid-century architecture.

Designed by the Los Angeles architectural firm of Charles Luckman Associates and William Pereira in 1957-58, the building received a National Honors Award that same year by the American Institute of Architects, one of the most prestigious architectural awards ever given to any Palm Springs project, commercial or residential. Continue reading “J.W. Robinson Department Store Gains Class 1 Historic Site Status”

William Krisel Papers Now Archived at Getty Research Institute

William Krisel and Dan Palmer, 1958; Julius Shulman Photo. Getty Musuem Archives
William Krisel and Dan Palmer, 1958; Julius Shulman Photo. Getty Musuem Archives

The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, one of the foremost libraries of mid-century modern architecture, recently announced its newest archive containing the William Krisel papers.  The collection consists of drawings, photographs and written documents that illuminate one of the region’s most prolific architects.

Krisel and his partner Dan Palmer — in collaboration with such developers as George Alexander, Leonard Drogin and J.C. Dunas — were responsible for some 40,000 homes in Southern California, particularly known for their iconic butterfly roof tract house designs. Continue reading “William Krisel Papers Now Archived at Getty Research Institute”

Modernism Celebrated In Desert this Fall

William Cody’s 1947 Del Marcos Hotel recently achieved a Class 1 Historic designation.

There is much Modernism to celebrate in the California desert, and things get underway in October  when seasonal temperatures drop to warm days with cool, balmy evenings.

The Palm Springs Preservation Foundation recently celebrated Del Marcos Hotel’s Class 1 Historic designation with a tour and ceremony.  The hotel was designed by William Cody in 1947 for then-owners Samuel and Adele Marcus.  Current owner are Lars and Kelly Viklund.

Built of native stone and redwood surrounding a swimming pool, special architectural features include an “organic” asymmetrical  entrance doorway and floor to ceiling glass.  The two-story hotel features luxury suites in a U-shaped plan centered around a courtyard that encourages guests to socialize. Continue reading “Modernism Celebrated In Desert this Fall”

Oops, There Goes The Neighborhood… Safeguarding Unique Mid Century Modern Tracts

Almost every development of modern homes faces the eventual challenge of keeping its architectural integrity.  But as Mid-Century Modernism wins more fans, residents are banning together to save their neighborhoods’ unique look and character.

Since Modernism is a subtle style, it is easily compromised:   Adding a carriage style outdoor light fixture in lieu of an original hour-glass one, or tearing down artistic block to erect an adobe wall can easily change a home or neighborhood’s look.

In an Eichler network story by Dave Weinstein, Streetscape Smarts, he notes that, “The other major challenge to preserving modern neighborhoods is their age.  Many landmarking laws only kick in if a building is at least 50.”

The City of Palm Springs is already way ahead of that game with its Office of Neighborhood Involvement that provides residents with “responsive, coordinated services that promote and support collaboration and communications through recognized neighborhoods.” Continue reading “Oops, There Goes The Neighborhood… Safeguarding Unique Mid Century Modern Tracts”

Palm Springs Art Museum Exhibits Capture Mid Century Art, Life

Blast from the Past: 60s and 70s Geometric Abstraction, now on exhibit in the Annenberg Wing at the Palm Springs Art Museum through December 23, is a vivid, powerful collection of geometric abstract paintings, sculpture and prints from the 1960s and 70s, a period known for its purity of style.

Some 100 artworks represent a variety of ideas in optical art (Op Art), kinetic art, minimalism, hard-edge and color field. Many of the works have rarely been or are on view for the first time in this impressive exhibit.

Purely abstract forms – square, rectangle, triangle, circle and geometric volumes such as the cube and cone — suggest architecture and geometry, while the artists’ use of primary colors, lines and compositional devices present a sensual experience, illustrating alternative ideas about art and principles of reality.

Op Art, a trend that uses optical illusions to simulate motion and other perceptual shifts, is seen in the experiments of Victor Vasarely, Carlos Cruz-Diez and Yascov Agam.  Bright primary colors finely interspersed with complementary hues, creates visual interactions between the colors that seem to give off light and vibrations.

In Jesus Rafael Soto’s classic work, the sensation of constant flux transforms color, space, line into a new perceptual experience. Continue reading “Palm Springs Art Museum Exhibits Capture Mid Century Art, Life”

A Swingin’ Affair Benefit December 11 Celebrates Frank Sinatra’s Birthday At Two Mid Century Modern Landmarks

Frank Sinatra’s former Twin Palms estate, designed by E. Stewart Williams,

A Swinging’ Affair on December 11, a benefit for the Alzheimer’s Association, celebrates Frank Sinatra’s birthday and promises gala-goers a taste of Sinatra’s swingin’ lifestyle at two of his favorite Mid-Century  hangouts.

From a cocktail party at Sinatra’s former Twin Palms estate to a grand gala at the Riviera Resort and Spa and late-night after party in the Riviera’s Starlite Lounge, guests experience the Rat Pack lifestyle for an evening .  At the Riviera, glitzy talent includes Frank Sinatra, Jr. with his 20 piece orchestra, singer Lainie Kazan with Matt Dusk and Daniel Joseph Baker from America’s Got Talent.  Actress Pamela Anderson is host of the Grand Gala.

The evening offers a rare opportunity to hang out and enjoy cocktails at listen to the live music of Buddy Greco Jr. Trio with Matt Dusk crooning at Sinatra’s former home, a modernism landmark  by noted architect E. Stewart Williams. Continue reading “A Swingin’ Affair Benefit December 11 Celebrates Frank Sinatra’s Birthday At Two Mid Century Modern Landmarks”

Historic Neighborhoods Preserve Architectural, Aesthetic Qualities and Retain Homes’ Value

Whether in a large metropolis, small city or country village, neighborhoods define a quality of life, a community, and offer a sense of belonging, of pride and place.

By some historic benchmarks, Palm Springs, incorporated in 1938, is relatively young.  But its explosive growth in the Mid-Century  — particularly innovative modern tract and custom homes — set in motion communities born from a sense of new frontiers, prosperity, and optimism that characterized the American spirit post World War II.

Desert Modernism became a style all its own as renowned architects adapted the International Style to the desert’s warm climate and arid terrain, creating an elegant yet informal quality.  Desert Modern residences tend to have post-and-beam construction, open floor-plans, glass walls that connect indoors to outdoors, and are designed on a more human scale, often integrating organic shapes, bold colors, and playful designs. Continue reading “Historic Neighborhoods Preserve Architectural, Aesthetic Qualities and Retain Homes’ Value”

Famed Architectural Photographer Julius Shulman Subject of Two New Books

Long before Palm Springs came to treasure its Mid Century Modern heritage, architectural photographer Julius Shulman began documenting California’s postwar contemporary homes and buildings with a mission to “sell architecture” and the idealized vision of California’s casual, sunbathed indoor-outdoor lifestyle to the readers and editors of consumer and architectural magazine.

Shulman’s iconic photography spread California Mid Century Modern throughout the world.

His roster of clients is an impressive “who’s who” in pioneering contemporary architecture: Rudolf Schindler, Gregory Ain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, Raphael Soriano, John Lautner, Albert Frey, Pierre Koenig, Harwell Harris and many others. Continue reading “Famed Architectural Photographer Julius Shulman Subject of Two New Books”