During the 1940s and 50s, young GIs returning home from World War II and the Korean War longed for the recreation and leisure they had experienced in the South Pacific Islands. Hollywood movies, including South Pacific, a 1958 American musical film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, portrayed spectacular island sunsets, grass shacks, volcanoes, exotic adventure, and romance. James A. Michener also helped ignite America’s fascination with Polynesian culture with his best-selling book, Hawaii.
Donald Wexler was one of several young architects who saw an opportunity to link the recreation and leisure lifestyle with indoor/outdoor living possibilities in Palm Springs. Wexler began his apprenticeship in Los Angeles with the famous International Style architect Richard Neutra, whose work he admired. Wexler relocated temporarily to Palm Springs to work with William F. Cody. The temporary move became permanent in 1953 when he formed a business 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 and Harrison received a commission from New York developer Philip Short to design the Royal Hawaiian Estates.
The Royal Hawaiian Estates west side opened January 1, 1961. There was no development along the eastern side of South Palm Canyon between the Royal Hawaiian Estates and Desert Skies Condominiums. Ownership was restricted to Jewish buyers over the age of 55. Famous residents included Hollywood agent Michael Levee, whose clients included Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; Technicolor Cinematographer Milton Krasner, who won the 1954 Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Three Coins in a Fountain; and actor/comedian George Jessel who was known as “The Toastmaster General of the United States.” Jessel also starred in The Jazz Singer on Broadway.
Jessel’s elaborate Royal Hawaiian Estates pool parties featured glamorous bouffant-haired Last Vegas showgirls and models wearing makeup, teeny weeny bikinis, and 6-inch heels. The girls were floating on huge blocks of ice, posing for photo ops, or carrying perfectly balanced trays of very dry martinis.
The Royal Hawaiian Estates fell into disrepair in the 1990s. Short, now in declining health, was no longer able to maintain rigid control over the architectural integrity. Without his oversight, significant Tiki-modern architectural elements were torn down rather than maintained.
I visited Palm Springs in 1999 to look at real estate. My agent drove me by the Royal Hawaiian Estates and I refused to stop. However, Don Wexler was rumored to be one of the architects so I finally agreed to take a look. After opening the corniced gold brocade drapes in one of the development’s 40 units, I walked onto the patio facing the San Jacinto Mountains. It was at that moment I knew that I had found my new Palm Springs home.
Still unsure of the architect after visiting the Palm Springs planning department, someone suggested I walk across the street and ask Don Wexler. I assumed I would be lucky to get an appointment to see him at a later time. Instead, Don came out of his office immediately and cordially welcomed me. When I mentioned the Royal Hawaiian Estates, he remembered designing the property in conjunction with Richard Harrison.
I became president of the HOA in early 2000. In 2002, we had our first home and grounds tour, which was featured in the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation tribute journal, Desert Polynesia: A Tiki Weekend in Palm Springs. Since then, the Royal Hawaiian Estates been featured in many significant historic journals, magazines, newspapers, and international books.
For the past two years, we’ve had fund-raising events during Modernism Week to bring awareness to historic site preservation, education, and restoration. The funds raised during those events were used to help replace some of the elements that were previously destroyed: Flying Sevens, Tiki-apexes, and Fascia of the Gables. Several generous grants from the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation enabled us to start the Tiki-apex restoration project. The last event provided the funds to fully restore the remaining Tiki-apexes. Also, private homeowner funds were used to refabricate and install two sets of Fascia of the Gables. To date, three homeowners have applied for tax credits available through the Mills Act.
– Bill Lewallen