Palm Springs Life Magazine

A Last Test of Steel

Don Wexler was a giant of midcentury design, and even 
in retirement, said yes to one last project.

Lisa Marie Hart Modernism 0 Comments

Palm Springs Life Magazine
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAN CHAVKIN

“Yes” is a powerful word. It can save lives, unite countries, and dig a well of hope on dry sand. In this case, “yes” built a beautiful and significant house designed to stand the tests of time.

Not just anyone could have begged, cajoled, and ultimately persuaded the late Donald Wexler to leave his comfortable chair of retirement and add just one more of his steel-clad beauties to the Palm Springs landscape. Yet, here it stands. The home is a culmination of a long relationship between Marc Sanders and an architect, pushing 89 years old, who said “yes” to one more house, knowing it would be his last.

Palm Springs Modern Architecture

The home is positioned around a reflecting pool, one of its major features and an authentic throwback to Wexler’s original plans. Artwork from Imago Galleries.

Just in time for Modernism Week 2016 tours, the city greets the final residence that Wexler perfected before he left us last year. An eloquent postscript to the career of one of the greatest midcentury residential and commercial architects of his day, the steel-beam home captivated even its investors, contractor, and layworkers. From first glance, modernists will agree it well represents Wexler’s sensibility. Its orientation combines views and shade; its façade wears glass in all the right places. Wired for solar, the home also respects Wexler’s preference for sustainable, inorganic materials that boldly challenge the desert’s rigors.

“Less is best. I always go with that,” says Sanders, the home’s maestro. He teamed with Wexler on the concept, chose all finishes, and now serves as its real estate agent. “I like simplicity as long as it’s good architecture. This house is a sculpture. It’s a piece of art.”

If art’s essence is to conjure different ideas or feelings in different people, Sanders is on point. Although the 2,550-square-foot, three-bedroom-plus-den home is indisputably artful, it also holds personal meaning for each individual tied to its fruition. Some are paying to be part of it, some paid to complete it, every one invested to the core.

No one is calling this a spec home. That’s not how the players see it. Sanders and his crew visited the site manically, like close relatives of a newborn, scrutinizing, admiring, and problem-solving.

Wexler had agreed to help as much as he could. He also ensured that Sanders recruited additional pros to see it through. The Movie Colony’s new star prompted all who were involved to make decisions that honor the Wexler way, even when this century’s new building codes made them want to pull out their collective hair.

Palm Springs Modern Architecture

A colonnade to the front door marks the ultimate midcentury-style exterior entry. A blue BMW i8 in the driveway awaits action.

“It’s a simple post-and-beam home in the lineage of Don’s post-and-beam aesthetic, first experimented with in steel some 55 years ago,” says Lance O’Donnell of o2 Architecture, the consulting architect on the project “This being the last structure he directly had his hands on has made it all the more important to see it faithfully executed.”

Evolution of a Masterpiece

The last true Palm Springs Wexler also happens to be his only steel home completed since the 1960s. (Wexler’s original plans for the 2004 Krizman House resulted in a modified version.) Claiming one of the last undeveloped lots in the Movie Colony, the home symbolizes a 23-year-old saga of friendship, fate, and determination.

Donald Wexler, among his other roles, was a landlord of sorts. And a lenient one at that. “I met Don in 1993 when my partner and I purchased his family residence of 38 years, for which Don carried the note for five years,” Sanders explains.

Sanders sold the house in January 1998 and moved into the Sinatra House, which he had purchased and restored. Although Wexler was paid off, the two stayed in touch. Sanders spent two years pestering the owner of an empty lot next to the original Wexler family home to sell it. (Wexler, too, had tried.) When the owner relented, Sanders stopped by Wexler’s office to share the news. On the land next to the house they had each occupied, Sanders now fancied a steel home, similar to the architect’s icons in North Palm Springs.

Palm Springs Modern Architecture

The corner of the master bedroom. The lines of the house seem layered around the courtyard. The surroundings created by Desert Landscape Design follow in the same minimalist vein.

By then, Wexler had sold the business and retired. Taking on a 1960s-style steel home was not part of his plans. Sanders persisted until Wexler smiled and asked what he had in mind. The floor plan Sanders drew was very specific, right down to a master bedroom that looked across the pool to the mountains and a pop-up roof in the living room.

A month later, Wexler had a design. The city proved less expedient. After countless revisions per the Building Department, Sanders grew frustrated and abandoned his steel-house dream. He sold the lot (keeping a set of the plans and the rights to them) and eventually moved to Pasadena. (Several years and another owner later, the altered Krizman House sprung up.) “I remember Don calling me, upset. I knew one day I would build this house, and I expressed that to him,” recalls Sanders.

Resettled in Palm Springs, Sanders spotted a mountain-view lot  for sale in 2014, and the bells went off. Around the corner from the original Wexler home, the vacant land seemed to Sanders another lucky coincidence. Before being subdivided in the 1960s, the property was part of Frank Sinatra’s original parcel for his Twin Palms estate, where Sanders had once lived.

Palm Springs Modern Architecture

Donald Wexler and Marc Sanders relocated the double-sided fireplace from its original place. Now connecting the living and dining areas and acting as a subtle divider, it’s one of the revisions made in 2014.

“Even though the house wouldn’t be for me this time, I saw an opportunity to get it built,” Sanders says. “Don was thrilled. He couldn’t wait to go over the old plans again.” Wexler enlisted Hugo Cervantes, whom he had worked with before, to redraw the 15-year-old plans, aligning them to current codes.

A year later, things were shaping up when Wexler became ill. “He thought this would be a good distraction,” Sanders says. “He wanted to see this house finally stand. ‘We’ll have fun,’ he said. ‘This will give me something to look forward to.’”

Wexler’s structure bore no relation to the new lot. O’Donnell needed to adapt a home designed for a corner lot with streets on two sides to a noncorner lot. To optimize views and energy efficiency, O’Donnell rotated the home 45 degrees on the site. “It was a technique Don had used on the Dinah Shore house,” he says. “Don looked at it and said, ‘This is great. Let’s do this.’”

Palm Springs Modern Architecture

This Sanders house dares to leave steel columns exposed.

Wexler was fully on board, tweaking the specs even into his last days when he met with Sanders and Cervantes in May 2015, just before submitting the plans for city approval. “Don knew we were that much closer and he was excited,” Sanders recalls. This time, the home glided through the process. The city signed off on the architect’s encore in June 2015, three days before he passed away.

It was time to build a Wexler.

Pieces of the Steel Puzzle

Steel ain’t cheap. Wexler knew that when U.S. Steel promoted and helped fund his cluster of steel homes in the north end. Now Sanders knows it, too. “The home is probably costing $200,000 more to build than it would have in wood,” he shares, “and it’s more difficult getting plumbing and electrical through.” Sanders says the upside is “it’s the greenest way you can build a house. It always has been. It’s all recycled material, not trees.”
Sanders’ investors had asked him to keep them in mind if he had a good project. This more than qualified.

“We bought the land with the intention to build something gorgeous, sleek, green, and modern,” says co-investor Alan Finkle. “A few days into escrow, Marc spread out the blueprints. When he told me it was a Wexler, I think I said something like, ‘Oh, hell yes!’”

Finkle and co-investor Shawn Rost both hail from Wexler’s home state. Over the course of 20 years, they have partnered on developments and custom home construction. Both caught Wexler fever at first exposure to the words “a new steel house.”

Palm Springs Modern Architecture

The glass shower was equipped with sleek, modern fixtures from Ferguson that look as if they were designed especially for the house.

“Two longtime South Dakota entrepreneurs got a chance to be involved with a home by South Dakota’s native son and genius architect. How serendipitous is that?” Finkle says. Rost agrees.  “It’s been a great opportunity to blend today’s building codes, modern materials, efficiencies, and construction processes while maintaining the architectural integrity of Don’s design,” he says.

Contractor Mike Yakovich grew up in the desert surrounded by midcentury abodes. “I’ve worked on a ton of his houses, but Wexler was from a different generation,” he says. “When I got started in the 1990s, he was pulling the plug.” Yakovich fashioned his business, Better Built Inc., around his passion for restoring homes of the era.

The trick from the contractor’s end is making the home appear as effortless as Wexler’s design. “Tile, floor, walls: All of it has to be symmetrical and square. That’s a true midcentury house. It’s all about the lines. If you can’t hold a level up to the walls, it will show.”

Palm Springs Modern Architecture

Sunny days play into the shadow show that Wexler enjoyed incorporating in his designs.

Although Yakovich has worked with plenty of structural steel, usually no one wants to see infrastructure. This Sanders house dares to leave steel columns exposed. “I’ve never built a house with this much steel in my life,” says Yakovich. “And especially with steel, it’s got to be perfect. There’s no room for error.”

When Sanders originally approached Wexler in 2000, the home was designed for him to live in. It catered to his personal desires and lifestyle. Although his baby will be adopted by someone else, it lives the way he first envisioned it would.

You can sit in bed and look at the mountains. You can survey your own wardrobe in the massive master closet. You can entertain in the dining room. Instead of watching TV in bed, you can watch the fireplace.  Sanders rolled with Wexler’s affinities for a galley kitchen and old-school recessed showers. He’s intensely attached to the living room’s pop-up ceiling.

“I told Don what I wanted and he mastered it,” Sanders says. “I was in charge of the layout. His job was to make a stunning structure, which he did. It’s architecture at its best.” From tile to faucets, Sanders opted for supreme quality, as if choosing for himself.

Palm Springs Modern Architecture

Emtek knobs from Ferguson to add modern polish on interior doors.

The Man, The Legacy

Palm Springs Modern Architecture

“Don’t you find it interesting that someone from that era could come out of retirement and create something that is still so ridiculously cutting-edge and contemporary,” Finkle marvels. Even as an investor, he couldn’t keep away from the job site. He once counted 21 tradesmen toiling at once, like a theatrical production in prime season. “The job superintendant would look at me like, ‘You again?’ There are so many interesting, magical, and well-thought out components and elements. When they come together, you’re standing there like, ‘Wow! Look at that!’”

O’Donnell helped make the magic happen. “Lance is a lot like Donald,” observes Yakovich. “He holds everything to a higher standard.” Of his weekly site visits, O’ Donnell says, “I would put my Don hat on. So many details needed attention and rigorous thinking. I would ask, ‘What would Don do?’ then act within the range of what Don would have suggested. You’ve got to be proud of this home, and think that Don wants to be proud, too.”

Finkle sees the home as monumental. “If you think of the great midcentury modern architects lining up in a Mount Rushmore, I contend that Donald Wexler would be in the place of George Washington,” he says. “All the work these architects did looks stunning and timeless still. It never goes out of style.”

“Don’s legacy doesn’t need Don to continue,” O’Donnell explains. “You see it in Modernism Week. You see it in the notoriety he had late in life. You see it in this home.”

Sanders began buying and restoring houses a year before he met Wexler. To date, he has finished 27 homes, mostly contemporary. As part of his business, Restoration Design LLC, Sanders hopes to build 10 more steel homes. Options Wexler left open for this one might be reflected in subsequent versions. This one, however, will always be the “yes home.”

Take a tour from 10 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Feb. 19, or 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 20. Visit www.modernismweek.com/tours for ticket information.

Who Made It Happen

Bennion Deville Homes Real Estate Broker
Bennion Deville Homes Listing Agent/Marc Sanders
Better Built Inc. Building Contractor Sponsor
Blair Heating & Air Heating and Air Conditioning Sponsor
Desert Landscape Design Landscaping Design and Build Sponsor
Dunn-Edwards Paints Paint Sponsor
Ferguson Bath , Kitchen & Lighting Gallery Appliances, Hardware, and Plumbing Fixtures Sponsor
Flooring Innovations Tile Sponsor
Hot Purple Energy Solar Sponsor
Imago Galleries Fine Art Sponsor
Marc Sanders Design Director
Mod Modern/Alan Finkle & Shawn Rost Developers
Palm Springs Action Painting Painting Contractor Sponsor
Poggenpohl Kitchen Cabinet Sponsor
Soukie Modern Moroccan Rugs and Pillows

VIDEO: Watch the time-lapsed creation of the last Wexler home from start to finish.

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