Destructing Modernism: Will Palm Springs School District Tear Down a Wexler Building?


On May 8th at 6 pm in the Palm Springs School District headquarters, a battle royale between concerned citizens and the School Board will erupt over the Board's decision to demolish a mid-century modern administration building designed by famed local modernists Wexler & Harrison. At issue is the demolition of a signature building by Palm Springs' most beloved architectural elder statesman, eighty-six year old Don Wexler. Following the demolition planned for this summer, the existing 6,000 sq. ft. modernist structure will be replaced by a new 9,000 sq. ft. performing arts center 1 at a projected cost of $4 million. The replacement building can only be described as a mediocre and humorless postmodern design by San Diego-based NTD Architects. Clearly design quality is not on the table for discussion, and never has been. Had the School Board chosen a local architect, the historic significance of the existing administration building would have been recognized before the current proposal was developed and financing was in place.

In a recent meeting with the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, school administrators seemed surprised at the idea that any of the existing buildings on the campus might be historically significant. In spite of considerable new construction on campus in recent years, there has never been a bona fide professional survey of campus buildings, many of which rise to the level of historic significance as groundbreaking examples of early modern educational facilities. The School Board appears to have successfully skirted the California Environmental Quality Act's requirements regarding historic resources. CEQA requires that historically significant properties receive appropriate treatment, as guided by the Secretary of the Interior's Standards; failure to do so results in projects with significant unmitigated negative impacts. Needless to say, demolition is not considered "appropriate" treatment.

No town in America is as closely identified with mid-century architecture as Palm Springs; the school buildings from the era were well-known and highly praised for their innovations. The School Board's unsophisticated attitude towards historic preservation reveals a complete disregard for the value and importance to the larger community of their many historic properties. Over the years they have demolished a number of important early modernist school buildings including a brilliant structural expressionist gymnasium (1950, Williams, Williams & Williams) on the high school campus which was replaced with nothing more than open space. Insensitive alterations have occurred to many other important buildings on campus and elsewhere in the school district.


The first building to be built on the Palm Springs High School Campus. | 1938, F. E. Brewster.
The first building to be built on the Palm Springs High School Campus. | 1938, F. E. Brewster.   

It is instructive to take a look at the evolution of the town's public school projects. Palm Springs' first High School building (1938) was built by the Public Works Administration (PWA), the ambitious New Deal agency that employed millions of workers to carry out public works projects, including school construction. It was most likely designed by local architect Floyd Emery Brewster. The reinforced concrete building was important locally because it ended the need for students to travel to Banning to complete their high school education. It originally contained two wings with a total of 12 classrooms in an arcaded Mission Revival-style complex that resembled the Mission San Fernando in Los Angeles. Continuous shaded arcades, appropriate to a desert environment, recalled the covered passages or cloisters typically used by priests for meditative walks. Much of that building remains and it is now used as an alternative school called the Ramon Academy.

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Architects Stewart, Roger and Harry Williams with model of the 1949 Palm Springs High School Master Plan. | Photo: The Willows Historic Inn archive.
Architects Stewart, Roger and Harry Williams with model of the 1949 Palm Springs High School Master Plan. | Photo: The Willows Historic Inn archive.

Between 1940 and 1950 the permanent population of Palm Springs doubled (from about 3,500 to 7,000) requiring an expansion of the original campus. The school board engaged the services of local architects Williams, Williams & Williams to create a master plan to direct future expansion. The plan retained the original Mission Revival-style High School buildings, but proposed a modernist campus that resulted in the construction of several signature modern school buildings, a number of which survive largely intact today. These important early modernist school buildings were designed by three important local architectural firms working in regional variations of the International Style that is now known in Palm Springs as "Desert Modern." Fundamental to these modernist buildings was the functional and economical aspects of construction and the elimination of applied ornament. Indeed, the style was originally embraced by the school board simply because modernism was cost effective.

The designers of these buildings were a virtual honor roll of local architects: Williams, Williams & Williams; Clark, Frey & Chambers; and Wexler & Harrison. Over the next few years, a modernist campus emerged that would rival anything built in the community, including the town's now famous and protected City Hall complex. But unlike City Hall, which survives largely intact, many of the original high school buildings have been demolished. The original modernist buildings completed for the campus included a gymnasium, cafeteria, auditorium and music building, library, administration building, and two steel classroom buildings. Some were linked by covered walkways - a modernist nod to the climate and also to the original Spanish style high school building. All of the extant buildings have served generations of local school children well, and continue to do so today.

In about 1989, the school board, utilizing the services of a large, out-of-town architectural firm, created a new master plan, embarking upon a change in direction that decimated the modernist campus in favor of an eclectic postmodern scheme. Postmodernism emerged in the late 1960s in America as a reaction to what some saw as the limitations of modernism. For some, modernist principles were seen as a failure to meet the human need for beauty. Form was no longer required to follow function, and was relegated to a secondary role as postmodern architects sought to communicate with the public by introducing historical architectural elements with humor, irony or wit. Being somewhat outside the architectural mainstream, Palm Springs was slow to respond to postmodernism. But in the late 1980s, a watered-down version of the style began to appear locally, largely devoid of the humor and wit that characterized the style's debut. The new campus architects embraced postmodernism, introducing applied ornament, eclectic details, and desert color to campus buildings. Today, postmodernism has run its course, and few architects were unhappy to see it go. The remaining practitioners of this style are the banal auteurs of strip malls and fast food chains. An educational opportunity for the students about the importance of both old and new architecture is now being squandered by the Board's pig-headed and ill-informed approach to their new project.

The postmodern entrance to the Palm Springs High School campus.
The postmodern entrance to the Palm Springs High School campus.

As dictated by the master plan, a postmodern solution rose in the late '80s to take the place of classic modernist structures. The result is an ersatz, pseudo-Spanish village super-imposed over a modernist compound and accented with a humorless postmodern elements. The campus entrance, relocated to the north side of the property, boasts a banal curved peristyle (columned porch) that leads to a circular courtyard at the campus center. The design required the demolition of the Williams firm's masterful, structural expressionist gymnasium. Architecturally eclectic structures with red clay tile roofs and red ceramic tile accents became the new motifs for campus buildings. Adding insult to injury, surviving modernist structures began to be decorated with postmodern details. As it now stands, proposed new construction on the campus will replace or remodel the modernist buildings into a matching pastiche of mediocrity.

During the design phase the school board concluded that future plans for the expansion of the existing auditorium and music building precluded alternative siting for the performing arts building. When the pending changes to the much-admired modernist auditorium become public, another battle is in the offing. Obvious alternate locations for the performing arts building (see aerial) were rejected by the board and their architects without coherent explanation despite significant opportunities for new construction elsewhere on the site.

The response to the proposed demolition from the preservation community has been loud and clear: the existing administration building can and should be saved and adapted for the new use as a performing arts annex. The school board's only response to the growing tide of opposition to the demolition to date is to state that that their actions are in the best interests of the students. They allege the project must go forward now, as currently designed, or project funding will be lost. No doubt with the encouragement and support of administrators and the school board, students and parents have launched an uninformed, aggressive and mean-spirited attack on the administration building's architect and his family - all of whom have been actively involved in the school's music programs, including find-raising for the new facility. They argue the building is unimportant; that the student's lives are in danger if they are forced to continue in the current facility; and if the current proposal is not built now, the funding will be forever lost and the music program will suffer.

Palm Springs has an embarrassing tradition of circumventing the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act as it applies to historic structures. In this respect, the school board is conforming to local precedent. In the process, they rob both students and parents of the educational opportunity that might result from an informed and objective discussion of what constitutes good architecture and how informed planning and analysis can serve the goals of the board, the students and the community.



1 It should be noted that the proposed project is not actually a Performing Arts building in the traditional sense of the word. The program for the 9000 sq. ft. building includes offices for director and staff; practice rooms including a large volume Band Room for 150 students; a recording room; locker room; dressing rooms (for the adjacent Black Box theater) restrooms and storage (for equipment, instruments, uniforms, wardrobe, props and accessories). No information was offered by the school administrators as to why many of these requirements could still be accommodated in the soon to be abandoned existing Music Building.


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Top Image: Palm Springs High School Administration Building (1957, Wexler & Harrison).

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