Architect Donald Wexler reposes, 89


I really like Wexler’s work.  It seems now that the American steel and glass man Donald Wexler, died d on Friday, June 26, 2015, at his Palm Desert home. He was 89. His son Gary confirmed his death.

He was  a disciple of the California architect Richard Neutra, went to Palm Springs in the early 1950s to work for William Cody, a leading practitioner of the style known as Desert Modern.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Wexler and his business partner at the time, Richard Harrison, teamed up with Calcor, a maker of prefabricated steel panels used primarily in public schools, and a local developer, Anderson Homes, to design a master plan for dozens of modest-size (1,400 square feet) prefabricated steel houses. Also involved were U.S. Steel and Bethlehem Steel, which wanted to expand into the residential market.  Too bad that didn’t work.

“With steel you get clean, sharp lines that will look good forever,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1968. 

Only seven of the houses were actually built, all aimed at middle-class buyers and they could be built in 30 days or less. They were immediately hailed as brilliant expressions of the Desert Modern style: light and elegant, with floor-to-ceiling windows, fluid interior layouts, multiple sliding doors opening onto exterior living spaces and pools, and design features, like deep overhangs, that accommodated sunlight and shadow.

“We just wanted to do the most livable house we could, within the design criteria, keeping it as open as possible,” Mr. Wexler said .

After parting ways with Mr. Harrison in 1961, Mr. Wexler took on a variety of public projects, notably the main terminal of the airport, which he envisioned as a dramatic point of entry, with 27-foot-tall glass windows looking onto Mount San Jacinto, that would express the city’s identity as a desert oasis.

“The center of the main terminal is almost a temple of glass that frames the mountain,” said Michael Stern, who has written widely on Palm Springs modernism. “When you arrive at that airport, you have arrived. It was Donald Wexler’s love letter to Palm Springs.”

Born on Jan. 23, 1926, in Sioux Falls, S.D., and grew up in Minneapolis. After serving in the Navy from 1944 to 1946, he attended the University of Minnesota on the G.I. Bill and graduated in 1950 with a degree in architecture.

He served as  draftsman at the firm of Neutra & Alexander in Los Angeles, he took a job with Cody’s firm in Palm Springs doing the working drawings for a country club in Rancho Mirage. “After six months, I didn’t want to live anywhere else,” he told Palm Springs Life in 2011.

He formed his partnership with Mr. Harrison, a draftsman in Cody’s firm, in 1952 to carry out residential work that included the Lilliana Gardens Glass House (1954) and the post-and-beam Leff-Florsheim House (1957).

Their first large project was El Rancho Vista Estates (1960), 75 low-slung single-family houses with decorative concrete-block walls and floor-to-ceiling glass walls oriented toward the mountains, some with the folded “butterfly” roofs that became one of Mr. Wexler’s signatures.

Their Royal Hawaiian Estates, 40 Polynesian-inspired co-op units, completed in 1960, became, in 2010, the city’s first residential historic district.

Dinah Shore house from Wexler

For the Desert Water Agency Operations Center, in the 1970s, he incorporated solar energy into the design. In his public projects, he began moving toward a more sculptural style in the brutalist mode, using rough concrete that he softened visually with plaster painted in earth tones

He also did custom residential work for clients like Dinah Shore, for whom he designed a house in 1964 that blended wood ceilings and stonework in open, glass-walled rooms. That house was purchased by Leonardo DiCaprio last year for $5.2 million, click here to see more from Zillow.

Mr. Wexler’s work was the subject of an exhibition, “Steel and Shade: The Architecture of Donald Wexler,” at the Palm Springs Art Museum in 2011, and a documentary film, “Journeyman Architect: The Life and Work of Donald Wexler” (2010).

In 2004 he was named a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Besides his son Gary, he is survived by two other sons, Glen and Brian; two brothers, Arthur and Jerry; and five grandchildren. He was married twice, to the former Marilynn Maidman and the former Nancy Unterman, both predeceased him.