During the period of the 1950s through the 1960s in California, and particularly in areas such as Palm Springs, a movement flourished in architecture that was known for it’s sleek lines and modern minimalist aesthetics, today referred to as Mid-century Modern.
In North Palm Springs there exists a modern oasis of seven homes known as the Steel Development Houses, designed by Donald Wexler of Wexler/Harrison, AIA, Architecture with structural engineer Bernard Perlin, and built by the Alexander Construction Co. in 1961–1962. These steel houses were developed to revolutionize contemporary housing design for the masses. The seven one-of-a-kind homes offered new, all steel technology designed specifically for the harsh desert conditions and featured innovative prefabricated elements for both cost reduction and ease of construction.
The seven existing Steel Development Houses were originally part of a larger proposed 35 home subdivision which unfortuantely was never realized due to rising steel prices in the 1960s and changes in the steel supplier, Rheemetal’s corporate structure. Forgotten after the project was abandoned, but now rediscovered, these iconic houses have stood the test of time and remain as potent reminders of the 1960’s futuristic dreams of tomorrow.
Thankfully in the 1990s all seven Steel Development Houses were designated as Class 1 Historic Sites by the Palm Springs Historic Site Preservation Board. In 2012 Steel House #2 received a Class 1 Historic Designation from the first National Register of Historic Places.
Today the Steel Houses are very much intact and all but one has been restored. Steel House #1, the first one ever built, has just been placed on the market to sell. With the support of local historical society and preservation members, hopefully it will be purchased by a new owner with the intention of restoring the house back to it’s former glory, thus completing the neighborhood circle of preserved Steel Development Houses for future generations.
Donald Wexler, FAIA remains today as one of the five most influential architects of the California desert, along with legends William F. Cody, Albert Frey, William Krisel and E. Stewart Williams. Responsible for the design of the Palm Springs International Airport and many other significant Palm Springs landmarks, Wexler originally worked for Richard Neutra in Los Angeles on projects such as the Lovell Health House, thought to be the first steel house construction in America. Wexler relocated to Palm Springs in the 1950s to join Cody’s architectural firm. Here he met Richard Harrison with whom he later started an architectural partnership called Wexler & Harrison. That partnership dissolved amicably in the early 1960s and Wexler formed his own architectural firm, Donald A. Wexler Associates in 1963. Wexler remains a resident of the desert today, some 50 years later. The community of Palm Springs holds him dear to their hearts and respects him as a great man and architect who helped change the landscape of the desert forever. Donald Wexler has left a significant lasting architectural legacy for future generations to be inspired by.
In 2011, the life and work of Donald A. Wexler, FAIA were celebrated with an exciting exhibit at the Palm Springs Art Museum. The exhibition was titled ‘Steel and Shade’ and showcased Wexler’s architectural contributions, particularly highlighting his works in steel construction as a practical solution to the extreme conditions of building in the desert. A complete full-scale replica of the front of one of his steel houses with the folded-plate steel roof design served as the entryway to the exhibit housing his fine architectural drawings and scale models.
In honor of architect Donald Wexler, FAIA. and his family, as well as the famous designs of the Steel Development Houses, I chose to draw an artistic impression of the Steel House #1 with it’s folded-plate steel roof design in chalk for the 3rd Annual Palm Springs Chalk Art Festival, March 16th, 2013, with the purpose of helping raise funds for the Palm Springs Unified Schools Art Programs.
Steel House #1 is located at 290 East Simms Road, Palm Springs, CA.
by Mark G. Picascio
Special thanks to Annalisa Capurro, Design Educator