Sleek Donald Wexler home in Palm Springs revealed beneath its remodels
As boys, Kevin Lane in Kansas City, Kan., and Shev Rush in South Carolina were told the same thing by guidance counselors: You are not good enough in math to go into architecture. When Lane, an advertising executive, met Rush, who does tech industry public relations, in the Bay Area and they shared their histories, they realized that the passion they both still felt for architecture, particularly Midcentury Modern residential design, could no longer be contained.
The two have sensitively, some would say brilliantly, bought and restored half a dozen architecturally significant homes since 2000. “We fell into this,” Rush says, “because we were frustrated architects.”
One of Gregory Ain’s 1947 900-square-foot Avenel houses in Silver Lake was their first restoration. Then their romance with Palm Springs took off, first with the renovation of a 1959 Palmer & Krisel post-and-beam house. They moved on to a modular “Steel House” built by celebrated desert Modernist Donald Wexler in 1961, one of his seven 1,400-square-foot steel-and-glass houses in Palm Springs.
Their latest project, Wexler’s 3,777-square-foot 1954 Leeds-Howard House, capitalizes on the lessons learned from their 15 years of restoration work.
Lane and Rush had been looking to buy in Palm Springs’ older Las Palmas neighborhood when, in 2008, a 1950s modern house, remodeled in a vaguely Spanish Revival style, came on the market. It was one of several houses owned by the late writer Sidney Sheldon — his “playhouse” for when guests came to visit. Rush and Lane were intrigued.
They toured the four-bedroom, five-bath house separately, coming back together by the front door, discouraged. Awash in carpeting, heavy drapes, an enormous mirrored fireplace and a 3,000-square-foot glass-and-aluminum pool enclosure that took up more than half of the backyard, the house seemed a motley assortment of design elements.
“We couldn’t see anything modern or architectural about it,” Lane recalls. “And then I happened to pull up a piece of carpet, and I saw the terrazzo. We went back through the house again, using X-ray vision.”
They began to see hints of greatness: a hallway ceiling that lowers then opens up in the bedrooms in the style of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, extensive onyx-Italian marble terrazzo, 15-foot-deep roof eaves, beautiful hardware, a lanai covering that cants upward to release built-up heat. “We knew something was there,” Lane says. “We just didn’t know it was a Wexler.”
They bought the house from Sheldon’s widow, Alexandra, who didn’t know the architect but knew it had been built for actress Andrea Leeds and husband Robert Howard, son of the owner of champion horse Seabiscuit. An online search for Leeds’ name turned up an interview with Wexler in the magazine CA Modern, in which he mentioned designing a house for Leeds. “That confirmed it was a house by Don,” Lane says.
In fact, it was Wexler’s first residential commission as an independent architect. “It was a lost gem from that era,” Rush says. “It became important to save the house.”
From then on, renovation was “an exercise in archaeology,” Lane says, “with a carpenter’s pencil and a 1/16th drill bit.” The house had been remodeled extensively in the 1980s, which was “lucky,” Rush says. “Design then was so much about surface. We just had to take it all off.”
They found the original hand-troweled plaster walls under the drywall, beautiful black terrazzo flooring in the kitchen under three layers of carpet and linoleum tiles, a covered clerestory window in the master bath. Behind the mirrors lay the original slumpstone fireplace. On a hunch, Lane used a mirror to peer under the exterior stucco cladding. He found the original vertical groove siding.
“You started to see the visual textures Don used to break up monotonous planes,” Lane says.
The biggest challenge, and the only structural change, was removing the pool house, whose massive I-beam had to be lifted by crane over the house. Once the pool house was gone, the backyard revealed a spectacular view of the San Jacinto Mountains.
The one area in which they made deliberate changes was in energy efficiency, which “can’t be sacrificed for aesthetics,” Rush says. They had learned from the Steel House that it was essential to coat windows with protective, museum-quality UV film, which allowed them to eschew drapes and open the view to the outdoors.
Preserving the exterior of a historic house, they say, is only half the equation. Rush and Lane — who will soon open a restoration design business to be called, fittingly, Avocation — took great care to restore as much of the interior as possible to regain Wexler’s original concept. “The Steel House taught us a lesson in patience and learning about a space to make the best choices,” Lane says. “To do that, you have to live in the house for a while. It took us 2½ years to figure it out, but we were confident we knew what the correct details were.”
Donald Wexler’s icons of desert Modern
South Dakota native Donald Wexler arrived in Palm Springs as Midcentury Modernism was in full swing and then never left. Having worked for Richard Neutra and William Cody, Wexler became a dedicated desert Modernist, smartly designing both to compensate for, and take advantage of, the harsh environment. A pioneer in the use of steel in residential architecture, the architect made his imprint on Palm Springs in notable private and public buildings. Among his public works: Palm Springs International Airport (1965), Spa Hotel Bath House (1958), Royal Hawaiian Estates (1960), Union 76 Gas Station (1962) and Canyon Country Club (1963). He lives in Palm Springs.