George and Robert Alexander – Builders of Modernism in Palm Springs

Palmer & Krisel Twin Palms tractr home. Photo by Julius Shulman. Getty Museum
Palmer & Krisel Twin Palms tract home. Photo by Julius Shulman. Getty Museum archives.
Alexander Builders in Palm Springs
Alexander Builders in Palm Springs

Palm Springs’ great houses for Kaufman, Frey, Sinatra, Elrod, and others are all handsome expressions of the Modern Era. But as custom designs limited to one site and one incarnation, they lack one significant characteristic of Modernism; repeat-ability.

Embedded in Modernism is the ideal of mass production. The repeatable object, each equal in quality, form and use, is the essence of the twentieth century in contrast with handcrafted artifacts of previous centuries. The impact of the democratization of goods, services, and architecture – from cars to movies to billboards to McDonalds – was tremendous. It is the point where the machine and mass production bring Modernism to the mass audience; it happened in Palm Springs when father and son George and Robert Alexander brought architects Dan Palmer and William Krisel from Los Angeles to the Coachella Valley to design the first extensive tract subdivision in Palm Springs. Strikingly Modern with exposed concrete block, butterfly roofs and open plans. Palmer and Krisel’s designs proved pure Modernism would sell in the marketplace. Continue reading “George and Robert Alexander – Builders of Modernism in Palm Springs”

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

Wexler’s Steel Development House No. 2 Now Listed on National Register of Historic Places

Architect Donald Wexler’s Steel Development House No. 2 — located on North Sunny View Drive —  is the first midcentury structure in Palm Springs to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The house received national distinction March 30, 2012 after current homeowner, Brian McGuire, a member of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, applied to the California Office of Historic Preservation, providing many qualified letters in support.  The nomination was unanimously recommended, and the director of the National Park Service accepted the nomination. Continue reading “Wexler’s Steel Development House No. 2 Now Listed on National Register of Historic Places”

The Legacy of Steel and Shade Architect Donald Wexler Celebrated at Palm Springs Museum Through May 29

One of the highlights of this year’s Modernism Week is a continuing retrospective of architect Don Wexler’s 60-year career titled Steel and Shade: The Architecture of Donald Wexler at the Palm Springs Museum, on view through May 29.

A symposium on Wexler’s legacy will be on Saturday, February 26 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the museum.  Museum architecture and design curator Sidney Williams and co-curator Dr. Lauren Weiss Bricker will moderate a discussion of contemporary architects who continue in Wexler’s legacy of environmentally sensitive, innovative designs.

Wexler’s iconic designs such as the folded plate roof lines of the Alexander Steel Homes, overhangs that shade walls of glass, clerestory windows that bring in natural light, and prefabricated all-steel structures are some examples of active and passive solar energy uses and sustainability that Wexler employed long before these concepts were trendy.

Celebrated as one of Palm Springs’ most prolific architects of this time, the exhibition features a full-scale sectional steel model illustrating Wexler’s prefabrication system, and which gives visitors the experience of inhabiting a Wexler-designed home.  Drawings, photographs and models from the architect and models built in collaboration with architecture students and Cal Poly Pomona are also part of the exhibit.

Wexler’s all-steel Alexander houses, designed in 1962 with structural engineer Bernard Perlin, were affordable, elegant and quick to assemble on site; the perfect answer to the postwar housing boon.

“Steel, concrete and glass are ideal materials for the desert,” Wexler said. “They are inorganic and don’t deteriorate in the extreme temperatures of the desert.”

Wexler’s innovative pre-fab system could be configured in a variety of ways, using a post-and-beam structural steel frame, a system of panelized opaque steel walls, and steel framed glass windows and doors.   Several prototype model homes were build and these relatively maintenance-free homes are still pristine after nearly 50 years.

Wexler attended the University of Minnesota School of Architecture in the years following World War II.  He graduated in 1950, one of the first generation of American architects trained in the concepts of modernism.

Wexler moved to Palm Springs in 1952 after working with acclaimed Modernist architect Richard Neutra in Los Angeles.  Wexler recalls that “there was a collective sense that we could do anything; we could accomplish anything; we could experiment.”

Wexler is all about logic and efficiency, according to a feature  by Morris Newman, The Quiet Elegance of Donald Wexler, in this month’s Palm Springs Life.

“His buildings fit together tightly, like parts of a machine.  Nothing seems out of place, and details rarely  distract from the whole.  His approach to building dates back several decades, when the elegance of architecture was supposed to be a byproduct of research and good thinking.  He is as interested in building technology as a general contractor and as aware of cost as a developer,” writes Newman.

Just as his early work was influenced by Neutra, William F. Cody, Eichler and others, Wexler also inspires a young generation of architects such as Lance O’Donnell,  Taalman Koch Architecture, Narendra Patel and Ana Escalante. (search under Wexler)

His work is still very visible and viable today in numerous public projects including his largest, the Palm Springs International Airport, a building that is both welcoming and functional.

“Can you imagine walking though the building’s doors and the first thing you see is Mount San Jacinto?” said Williams.

Wexler 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 Rick Harrison, 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.

Wexler hasn’t stopped working.  Currently under construction is Hamptons Modern, bringing California modernism to the East End of Long Island.  Developer Marnie McBryde has plans to build up to 50 Wexler-designed houses, which are adaptations of the 1964 Dinah Shore house.

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:  The 10th Alexander Weekend, March 25-27, 2011, celebrating the Alexander tract homes’ architectural importance.

Pamela Bieri