Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison

by Patrick McGrew

don-bill-croppedDuring the 1930’s and 40’s Palm Springs became a haven for Hollywood celebrities and creative, moneyed people followed by a generation new young architects such as Lloyd Wright, John Porter Clark and Albert Frey. In the 1940s and 50, America underwent cataclysmic changes generated by both World War II and the Korean War that led thousands of young men to foreign shores. The returning veterans deserted the nation’s large cities for suburbs as they developed an appetite for new sources of recreation and leisure. Dozens of novels and films that portrayed the romance of grass shacks and exotic, tropical settings captured America’s emerging fascination with Polynesian culture that featured sunning at poolside and nights of love under the stars.

Some of the first generation of Palm Springs architects saw the opportunity to link the fantasies of Polynesia with indoor/outdoor living possibilities in Palm Springs. Among these was Donald Wexler (1926-present), a graduate of the University of Minnesota who came west and began his apprenticeship in Los Angeles with the famous International Style architect Richard Neutra whose work he admired. Later, curious about William F. Cody’s Tamarisk Country Club Project in what is now Ranch Mirage, Wexler relocated to Palm Springs to work with Cody. Although he planned to stay only for one summer, Wexler ultimately relocated permanently to Palm Springs where, in 1953, he formed a partnership with Richard Harrison, a colleague from Cody’s office. Their firm, Wexler & Harrison was very successful and lasted until 1961.

Shortly before the firm’s dissolution, Wexler & Harrison received a commission to design the subject property, a complex of 40 housing units located on a five-acre site. In the design of the Royal Hawaiian Estates, Wexler & Harrison make a statement that reflected the spirit of their times. Throughout their careers, both Wexler and Harrison shared ideas that have been single-mindedly directed toward the clean, modernist lines of the International Style adapted to the desert scenery and climate. Wexler’s apprenticeships with both Neutra and Cody guided this consistent vision of clean horizontal lines leading the eye to open vistas. At the Royal Hawaiian Estates, Wexler & Harrison’s aesthetic is expanded through the use of color and Polynesian-derived forms to enhance the recreational aspect of desert architecture.