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Each Wexler house has a unique hat, such as this one, with its folded-steel panels. The roof design depends on the placement of the glazing on the north-south orientation. The Barlow House was remodeled during the early 1980s and became adobe for a while. ODonnell + Escalante Architects did major surgery on this house during the latest restoration, peeling off layers of concrete block and wood siding to get down to the original structure. At the end of the job, the project lost half of its square footage and was sold for twice its purchase price.

In the early 1960s, Don Wexlers graceful steel houses revolutionized home design and made the California desert sparkle with Modernist gems

By Barbara Lamprecht

ow many times have we heard that the future dle class. The glass-and-steel, terrazzoof the American home lies in steel? Or that oored homes sold for around $15,000 the customized factory-built house is right (about $91,000 today) and were the rst around the corner? Whether its the sexy and lastbuilt in a proposed housing post-and-beam framing of the Case Study House proproject of 38. The radical houses attracted gram or the stucco-clad steel-stud framing that a lot of press. Plenty of steel-trade journals promises youll never know its steel! the stories are and architectural magazines, including frustratingly futile. Wood always wins. architectural records Record Houses Most midcentury houses that deed convenof 1963, featured the project by Wexler tion prevail only as pedigreed collectibles. Nonetheless, and his partner at the time, Ric Harrison. supporters are still out there, arguing for them not as Whats unique is that we utilized the artifacts but as robust prototypes. In Palm Springs back light-gauge panel system structurally, so it in the early 1950s, well-known local architect Don An arid desert landscape sets the scene. acts as bearing wall, shear wall, and roof Wexler recognized he could harness an innovative new diaphragm. I developed it, tested it, but system for school classrooms devised by Bernard Perlin, a civil Don made it aesthetically viable. I remember going to his office with a test engineer, with steel fabricator Calcor panel. He fell in love with it and took it from there, said Perlin. Corporation. Faced with a rapidly The engineers system is simple, sturdy, elastic; the architects Project: Barlow House, Palm increasing population, the local school compositions asymmetrical and complex. With the punishing climates Springs, California district challenged the two men to propensity to warp wood beams, a twisting that can telegraph to the roof Architect: Don Wexler design classrooms cheaper than $10 per construction, I thought that steel was ideal for the desert, said Wexler. Renovation architect: ODonnell + square foot. The steel-panel system Calcors kit of parts used interlocking, 16-inch-wide steel panels ranging Escalante ArchitectsAna Maria they delivered also proved quick to from 18- to 22-gauge with 3-inch anges or ribs at each end. The panels, Escalante-Lentz, AIA, partner in charge; build, aesthetically striking, and, above typically spanning 13 feet, were screwed, pop-riveted, or bolted together Lance C. ODonnell, AIA, codesigner; all, durable for generations of kids and and placed into a steel channel raceway inset into the concrete oor slab Martin Brunner-Ethz, Rosalinda Chapa, maintenance workers. to hold walls. Identical roof panels received steel tabs every three panels to Marco Garcia, design team Then the two turned to hous- hang ceilings and mechanical runs. Where columns were necessary at General contractor: Pacic West ing. U.S. Steel and Bethlehem Steel openings or corners, instead of electing more expensive hot-rolled strucContractors provided funding, and an experienced, tural steel, Perlin employed the systems galvanized cold-rolled steel for Kitchen remodel: Les Matzek open-minded residential developer, hollow square tubes with 316-inch-thick walls. (The tubes also became Size: 3,600 square feet (existing); the Los Angelesbased Alexander handy vehicles to drain roof water, something todays re ratings pro1,400 square feet (after restoration) Construction Company, provided the hibit.) Insulation consisted of pieces of drywall set into the cavities Date built: 1962 land. Built for less than $8 per square overlaid with berglass batt and an added .5-inch-thick drywall, which Date renovated: 2001 foot ($45 today), the seven mass-pro- deadened the unresidential sound of a light metal building, Wexler said. duced Steel Development Houses rose Like the classrooms, Perlins own 1960, Wexler-designed, 3,400-squareSources in a few days in 1962 in a notoriously foot home also included an added 24-gauge painted steel liner for its Metal/glass curtain wall: Calcraft windy northern corner of the city. The Company tracts unprecious title t the scruffy, Barbara Lamprechts second book on Richard Neutra will appear in March. She Kitchen tile: Ann Sachs generic neighborhood as well as its practices architecture, teaches architectural history, and writes for publications Appliances: Amana; Fisher Paykel market: low-cost housing for the mid- including The Architectural Review and Fine Homebuilding, among others.

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Although air-conditioning was added to all the restored Wexler houses, the light-gauge steel-panel walls still get hot. ODonnell + Escalante Architects designed the adjoining studio to have a conductive break made of plywood lining the interior steel-paneled walls.

Project: Isermann-Blomster House,

Palm Springs, California

Architect: Don Wexler, owner-restored

house. Studio addition designed by ODonnell + Escalante ArchitectsAna Maria Escalante-Lentz, AIA, partner in charge; Lance C. ODonnell, AIA, codesigner; Martin Brunner-Ethz, Rosalinda Chapa, Marco Garcia, team Engineer: Peyton-Tomita & Associates General contractor: Wallace & Assoc. Size: 1,400 square feet (existing); 433 square feet (new construction) Date built: 1962 Date renovated: 1998 Date studio addition added: 2002
Sources Carpet, heart-shaped chairs:

Verner Panton
Conference table: Knoll Credenza: Raymond Loewy Side chairs: Eero Saarinen

California codes for historic buildings forbid additions from touching the original house. The new pavilion for the Isermann house has a roof that gives the illusion of touching the original house. The studios roof overhangs the original structure with an inch to spare (this page).

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durabilityWhen they were little, our kids would just throw [metal] stuff at the walls and it would stick, said Perlin. The liners, however, were deemed too costly for the houses. The exterior walls and the factory-built, 9-by-36-foot core of two bathrooms and a kitchen supported the roof, permitting exible interior congurations. Like architect Gregory Ain and developer Joseph Eichler, Wexler animated the site plan by ipping oor plans and variously orienting the houses. Different roof congurations, folded and at, further individualized the modest orthogonal buildings. Wexlers designs possess a grace and easy affability with the outdoors despite their efficient spaces and factory-built mechanical cores. In their asymmetry, deep cantilevers, and opposing directions of shifting lines and planes of painted steel or glass, the designs also show some debt to Wexlers early employer, Richard Neutra. Playing off the 9-foot ceilings, the light-colored walls, and the white and beige gravel landscapes, the daylighting in the houses is bright but soft. In recent decades, both neighborhood and buildings deteriorated so badly that Wexler avoided the area. Today, all but one are restored, protected as a Class I Historic District. Now touted as Modernist gems, one sold for $465,000 in April and another is quietly listed for substantially

Wexlers idea for these houses in this region was to be able to use a basic floor plan and create a unique elevation for each house by rotating the plan, mirroring the plan, or flipping the location of the carport.

Project: Lane-Rush House, Palm

Springs, California
Architect: Don Wexler, owner-

restored house. Restoration drawings by ODonnell + Escalante Architect Size: 1,400 square feet (existing) Date built: 1962 Date renovated: 2001

higher. One owned by artist Jim Isermann boasts a new, freestanding addition using the system by the Palm Springs rm ODonnell + Escalante. Principals Lance ODonnell and Ana Escalante said that after trying to get it right quickly, they slowed down to analyze. With Wexlers encouragement, they took six months to understand the system, said Escalante. It was an investment. Now, with three projects under way employing the system, its much faster. The rm adapted the system for todays energy requirements, thickening the wall section with an inch of rigid insulation and plywood as a thermal break for good reason apart from codes. The thin-walled 1962 houses are uncomfortable in summer and expensive to air-condition. Isermann said the original walls were noticeably hotter where the steel anges conducted heat through the drywall, adding that the houses had typically been sold as second homes for temperate desert winters. He has retreated to the studio for the summer. But the question remains: If the system was so good, why havent we seen any more in 50 years? asks architect Bill Krisel, a friend of Wexler and award-winning designer of some 40,000 living units throughout the western states, including many for Alexander. He mentioned several reasons. Construction costs for contemporary wood homes ran as low as $6.50 per square foot, so the prot margin was much higher. Unions didnt like prefabricated mechanical runs and cores, even forcing them to be dismantled and reassembled on the site. Workers were uninterested in learning new techniques. They found it decidedly unpleasant to handle the metal in the scorching summers, exactly when developers wanted to build so that houses were ready for buyers escaping cold, dreary weather. For Perlin and Wexler, in the desert, steel will rule in the long run. My dream was to be able to go to a lumber yard and buy the sections, the panels. It made sense. To this day, it makes sense. Maybe were a little old for it, but someone is going to do it, Perlin said.
For more information on these projects, go to Projects at

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