Don Wexler came of architectural age in a town where stardom was taken for granted. But Wexler never dreamed he'd achieve stardom himself. Today, however, he is very much a star among devotees of modern architecture, especially those who are denizens of the desert, where he has done virtually all of his work.
Although best known for his neighborhood of steel houses, designed for the Alexander Construction Company in the early 1960s, Wexler devoted most of his efforts to public and commercial projects, including Palm Springs Airport, the city's police department and jail, schools throughout the valley, the Larson Justice Center in Indio, the Merrill Lynch Building in Palm Springs, and the original Palm Springs Spa Bath House, which he designed with his former partner Rick Harrison, Bill Cody, and Pierre Koenig.
All of these projects, except the bathhouse, were steel-frame construction. At least seven of the schools were 'all-steel,' meaning steel walls and roofs as well. "I didn't use much wood at all," Wexler says.
Wexler also designed dozens of custom houses, many of them award winners; the Green Fairway Estates subdivision for the Alexanders; and many condominium and apartment complexes, both on his own and with partner Rick Harrison, including the Royal Hawaiian, Sagewood Condominiums, Twin Springs Condominiums, and the Rose Garden in Palm Springs, and Rancho Estates and Tamarisk Court in Rancho Mirage. His most recent project was the elegant and much admired four-home project, Tropicana, in Palm Springs.
He also designed dozens of custom homes and perhaps 200 tract houses, more than he can remember. "I forgot I did so much work," Wexler says, in his small office at the Professional Park, an office-condo complex of his own design. "But I have to admit, I was always busy, for 50 some years that I practiced, or almost 50 years."
Today Don lives in Palm Springs. He had three sons -- a photographer, a graphic designer, and a psychologist -- with his first wife, Lynn. His second wife, Nancy, recently passed away. He remains active in architecture, as a consultant architect Lance O'Donnell of O2 Architecture, a longtime fan.
Don recently received the Palm Springs Modern Committee's Lifetime Achievement Award and was honored with a star on the 'Walk of Fame.'
Born in South Dakota and raised in Minneapolis, Wexler studied architecture at the University of Minnesota on the GI Bill, and then came to Los Angeles to work, briefly, with modernist legend Richard Neutra. Then architect Bill Cody invited Don to join him in the desert.
Q: How did you come to Palm Springs?
DW: When I had the opportunity to come down here, it was a job with Bill Cody working on Tamarisk Country Club. And once that project was over I just didn't want to leave. I just fell in love with the community -- this was in '52. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
It was a very small community when I came here, maybe 7,000 people. It closed down for four months in the summer -- there was nothing here. There were no doctors, no dentists. The first year there was one restaurant open. In the middle of July the safest place in the world to go to sleep would have been in the middle of Palm Canyon Drive at high noon.
Q: What appealed to you about the desert?
DW: There were things that were available to us that would not be available in any other community, things that we didn't even think about. We belonged to the Racquet Club. A lot of very wealthy people belonged to it, a lot of very famous people, a lot of movie people, and there was just no status thing. Everybody was friendly with everybody else.
The kids were free to go anywhere. We wouldn't think anything of them walking to school or being on their own. When they were growing up we didn't even lock the doors to our house. The milkman would come in at night and look in the refrigerator and see what we needed and put it in there. It's a different way of life.
We made our own entertainment. We'd get together with a bunch of other couples, play volleyball or swim. You could swim all night, be outdoors all night in the summer. There were about maybe ten couples we'd see all the time. We were involved in the junior chamber of commerce, which was very active. You couldn't ask for it any better.
Q: Were you friends with the stars?