Donald Wexler dies at 89; leading Midcentury Modern Palm Springs architect

One of the most celebrated Midcentury Modern architects, Donald Wexler designed classic buildings in the spot that became ground zero for that era — Palm Springs.

He designed the main terminal of Palm Springs International Airport with its soaring view of the mountains, the Royal Hawaiian Estates development on a Polynesian theme, and Dinah Shore’s home, purchased last year by Leonardo DiCaprio, which could be the ultimate “Mad Men” house with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls, sunken bar and massive stone fireplace.

Thousands of visitors yearly flock to see Wexler’s designs — which also include medical buildings, schools, offices and even a gas station — during Palm Springs’ Midcentury Modern design events.

But not long ago, Wexler’s most revolutionary creation, in the north end of Palm Springs far from celebrity homes, was almost neglected.

It was there in the early 1960s that he planned modestly priced homes with stunning Midcentury Modern features, primarily using steel.

Wexler, who was nicknamed “the Man of Steel” for the now-treasured homes and the rest of his work, died Friday at his home in Palm Desert after a brief illness, said his son Gary. He was 89.

As recently as 2007, Donald Wexler was still designing homes, long after many of his contemporaries in architecture had died.

“Don really was the last of his generation,” said Lauren Weiss Bricker, a professor of architecture at Cal Poly Pomona who co-wrote the catalog book “Steel and Shade: The Architecture of Donald Wexler,” which accompanied a 2011 Palm Springs Art Museum exhibition on Wexler’s works.

Wexler was widely known as a modest man who shunned large architecture practices.

“One of my biggest goals was to stay small and keep busy,” he said in the 2009 documentary film “Journeyman Architect: The Life and Work of Donald Wexler.”

He couldn’t recall a time when a client turned down one of his designs. But Bricker said Wexler was far from the kind of architect who overwhelms clients.

“It wasn't an imposition of anything dogmatic by any means,” she said. “That would be the antithesis of Don's approach to architecture.”

If there was one factor that influenced his work, it was the desert environment. He learned first-hand that materials used in most parts of the country might not be ideal for Palm Springs.

“When I built my own home in ‘55 it was an all-wood house, and I found out that wood isn’t the best thing in the world for the desert,” he said in an interview for KCET-TV’s “Artbound” program.

“When I had the opportunity to work with metal, I thought it was great for the desert because I really believe that three materials that are dominant in the desert are steel, glass and concrete.”

Steel was at the heart of his relatively low-cost residential project that consisted of seven prefabricated homes.

The steel walls were constructed in Los Angeles and shipped to the desert, where they were erected in place in four hours. An entire home took only about a month to complete. And even though the houses were technically prefab, they were sleek structures that captured the look of Midcentury Modern.

“These steel houses that Don designed are just almost floating because the material allows that to happen,” architectural historian Peter Moruzzi said in the documentary. “You can have this glass, you can have this indoor-outdoor flow that is almost beyond anything you could find of wood.”

Despite the aim of producing them on a budget, the houses were made sturdy enough to stand up to the harsh climate. “The steel houses will never come down unless someone bulldozes them,” Wexler told the Riverside Press-Enterprise in 2006.

Alan Hess, an architect and historian, said there was nothing about the houses that looked run-of-the-mill.

“The spaces, the room, layout, the way that the outdoors were made part of the living space were all really beautifully done,” Hess said in an interview Wednesday. “When you take modern materials and use them to create beautiful spaces for living, that's the ideal in modern architecture.”

The National Register of Historic Places recognized one of the steel homes in 2012, saying it demonstrated “the possibilities for rapidly assembled and affordable homes for the middle class.”

Except that the middle class never had much access to them, except on tours. Though the homes were a tremendous success architecturally, only the initial seven were built because the price of steel rose to the point that they were not practical. Eventually, several of the homes fell into disrepair, only to be saved when buyers who recognized their architectural significance snapped them up as midcentury design was rediscovered in the late part of the century.

A steel home in the project initially sold for about $14,000. In 2013, one of them went on the market for about $700,000.

“If it wasn't for the fact that the cost of steel increased,” Moruzzi said, “there would probably be thousands of steel houses in Palm Springs.”

Donald Allen Wexler was born Jan. 23, 1926, in Sioux Falls, S.D. When he was a toddler, his family moved to Minneapolis.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, but he wasn’t sure about a major. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to be,” he told the Desert Sun in Palm Springs in 2010.

Luckily, an aptitude test pointed him toward architecture and he graduated in 1950.

One of his idols was the great Los Angeles architect Richard Neutra. “I came to L.A. on a vacation,” Wexler told the Press Enterprise. “I wanted to meet Mr. Neutra.”

He went to Neutra’s office on the pretext of a job interview. To his shock, he was offered work.

After about two years, Wexler moved to the Palm Springs area to work for modernism architect William Cody. He eventually established a firm with Richard Harrison and then went solo.

Though his work was in demand, he thought of himself as a journeyman architect. But when midcentury design was widely rediscovered, he finally received renown and the homes he designed jumped in value.

“He’s gotten a kick” out of real estate ads for ‘‘ ‘Wexler-like’ homes,” Wexler’s son Brian said in the documentary.

In addition to his sons Gary and Brian, Wexler is survived by another son, Glen; brothers Arthur and Jerry; and five grandchildren. His first wife, Marilynn Wexler, died in 1988. His second wife, Nancy Unterman, died in 2007.


Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


8:26 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with more background on Wexler and his work and comments from architectural historians.

An abbreviated version of this article was published at 3:01 p.m.