Don Wexler Interview - Page 2

Architect Don Wexler traces his long road -- from humble beginnings to Palm Springs 'Walk of Fame'

DW: You'd see an awful lot of them. The only one I got to know well was Dinah Shore. I did work for Frank Sinatra. I did the Sinatra Medical Educational Center. He was just one tremendous guy. He was great.

Q: This was before the era of the paparazzi?

DW: It may have gone on in other places but not in Palm Springs. You'd see Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Jeff Chandler walking down the streets. Red Skelton had his own parking space downtown. Nobody bothered them in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. That's why they were here.

Q: What made you think you could make a living in the desert?

DW: I haven't the slightest idea. In fact the first year that Rick [Harrison] and I were in business, I was single and he was married and had a kid, we grossed $5,500 and we didn't suffer at all. I used to get Kraft dinners that lasted me for three meals. I think they cost seven cents at the time.

Rick and I started out on North Palm Canyon, right across the street from the old Doll House. That was fabulous, very famous -- everybody went there. The food was great.

Q: Could you afford to eat there?

DW: We could afford to buy a beer. At five o'clock every night the Guadalajara Boys would start playing there. We knew it was time to quit.

Q: How did you get jobs?

DW: When Rick and I first start out, we had nothing. We would get a few small houses from developers. That kind of grew. We kept getting more of them. Then we got some individual clients. Ever hear of Andrea Leeds? Old-time movie actress. She was married to Bob Howard, the Howard family that had racehorses and a Buick agency. We did a house for them, and for Alan Ladd. It was just meeting people and talk to them.

The first job I actually went after was school work. That was a matter of going in and talking to the school board members. Finally they gave me a little job, then a bigger one.

I really enjoyed working on schools, to accomplish good schools, and know they were being put to good use.

By the mid to late '50s, my interest became more schools and public works. Rick was more into the housing and developer work. So, we were really running two offices in one office. That's when we decided we would be better off having two separate offices and running them properly. And it worked out well for both of us.

Q: How many houses did you design?

DW: More than I remember. And the only reason I say that is, I'll get calls. Someone will say, 'We bought a house, we understand it's one of your houses.' Sometimes I'll remember, sometimes I won't. I say, 'I'll have to come and take a look at it.' And yeah, I did it. I'm amazed.

When Rick and I first started out, we did houses for developers more so than custom houses. Rick and I did the original two projects for [developer] Roy Fey. We did the steel houses for Bob and George Alexander, and work for individual developers who built a few houses here and there.

We didn't do many custom houses. I did Dinah Shore's house, and I did a home for a friend of mine. My own. Then when Rick and I were partners, we did a home for Sue Ladd and Alan Ladd, and we did a house for Bob Higgins that eventually became Kirk Douglas's house. But most of the rest were builders' houses.

I felt houses were very personal. You got very involved with people. It's different than doing a public building or a commercial job. It's hard to judge a house just by its appearance, if it's a custom house for somebody. Do they enjoy living there? If they don't like the house, you haven't done a very good job.

Q: Why were you interested in steel?

DW: The seven houses in Palm Springs, which I designed with engineer Bernie Perlin in conjunction with U.S. Steel, are all steel -- exterior, walls, roof, some exposed steel inside. But the walls are drywall. Actually the houses are mostly glass. I saw steel as ideal for the desert. In the desert, steel concrete, and glass are the only materials to build with. They're inorganic and they don't deteriorate in the extreme temperatures we have.

Q: Tell me about your other residential projects in steel.

DW: We had just finished the seven steel houses, and U.S. Steel contacted Bernie Perlin and myself to develop a steel house at Los Coyotes Country Club at Buena Park, near Anaheim, from off-the-shelf steel products. They wanted it as a display house to show people what could be done. I'm very proud of the house. It worked out very well.

Q: I heard you designed a tract of low-cost steel homes near San Diego?