The desert environment shaped the architecture career of the renowned Donald Wexler— after building a house out of wood in 1955, he quickly realized it wasn’t the best material to use for the desert conditions. He turned to steel as a better option, and Wexler’s efforts to find a better material led to a decision that made its mark on Mid Century Modern architecture.
Wexler was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1926 and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1950. After college, he started to work for architect Richard Neutra and eventually moved to Palm Springs. He later started his own firm and lived in Palm Springs until his death six decades later.
Wexler was known for his pervasive use of steel in residential architecture— it was a cheaper material to use in construction at that time, and affordability was paramount. He even designed a series of 38 steel homes in 1961 to be manufactured offsite and then brought in to Palm Springs and constructed in as little as a four hours.
The country was impressed with this practical, affordable housing (homes sold for as little $13,000!). Tragically, his project was never finished, as the price of steel skyrocketed and it was deemed too costly.
The integrity of his structures was something that Donald Wexler ensured with all his projects. Although his houses were prefabricated, they were built to be extremely sturdy and withstand the harsh desert climate. “The steel houses will never come down unless someone bulldozes them,” said Wexler.
Wexler’s steel homes are steeped in curb appeal and a ‘cool-factor.’ His homes were typically one-story and had an effortless, streamlined look. The combination of steel, glass and rock he used was characteristic of other desert modern design, like Albert Frey’s Frey House II.
But don’t tell Wexler that— “[Desert Modern architects like myself] didn’t even think of [what we were building] as ‘Modern’ in terms of architecture for the desert. We did it to live with the environment, a matter of balancing orientation and views,” he said.
Some comment that Wexler’s homes almost seem to be floating— this is because of their openness and the indoor-outdoor living Wexler incorporated. By putting floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors in each home, the houses could welcome the outside in.
Wexler didn’t just design homes either— he designed a high school, banks, police stations and the main terminal of the Palm Springs International Airport.
Donald Wexler died in 2015 at the age of 89, but his structures carry on his legacy. One of his steel homes (Steel House No. 2) was placed on the National Historic Register and Wexler himself was given on a star on the Palm Springs Walk Of Stars in 2008. Often referred to as the “The Man of Steel,” the mark Wexler left on the world of Mid Century Modern design was certainly permanent.