Wexler (Deskin-Wagner) House

 

 

Survey Number: T-399
Year Built: 1940
Architectural Style: French Provincial Ranch

SUMMARY
The 1940 Wexler (Deskin / Wagner) House is significant for its association with Tempe’s 1924 Park Tract addition and for its association with Charles Wexler, a longtime mathematics instructor at Arizona State University. The house is also significant as a rare local variant of Transitional/Early Ranch style residential architecture, the obscure French Provincial form.

LOCATION
The historic Wexler (Deskin/Wagner) House was built in 1940 in the core of the Park Tract subdivision. Located at the southern extent of the original Townsite, Park Tract was subdivided in 1924 in response to a housing shortage in Tempe. The subdivision was intended to provide comfortable and modern family housing to meet a continually increasing community-wide demand. Similarly, the Ranch style homes that came to define the Park Tract subdivision were designed to help fulfill requirements for affordable and efficient housing.

Park Tract Subdivision is identified as a Cultural Resource Area in Tempe General Plan 2030. These areas are considered culturally significant to the character of Tempe and General Plan 2030 states that it is desirable to maintain the character of these areas. General Plan 2030 further states that the underlying zoning in place at the time the plan was adopted should remain as the highest appropriate density for Cultural Resource Areas. Accordingly, Cultural Resource Areas are indicated on the GP2030 Projected Land Use Map with the density of the zoning in place at the time the plan was adopted on December 4, 2003. The 1940 Wexler (Deskin/Wagner) House is located on Lot 4 of Block 3 of the Park Tract Subdivision and Tempe General Plan 2030 projects the existing residential density categorized as Low to Moderate Density (4 to 6 dwelling units per acre) forward. Subdivision of Park Tract predated adoption of a zoning ordinance by the Common Council of the Town of Tempe. This property is zoned R-2: Multi-Family Residential in the Tempe Zoning and Development Code as amended.

Laying between Maple and Mill Avenues the interior of Park Tract consists of large lots. Two of these adjacent to the south of the subject property have been consolidated for redevelopment and replatted as a separate subdivision. One of the historic homes has been demolished and the other was set on fire by transients. The property is now vacant resulting in loss of integrity and an on-going source of nuisance at the core of the historic neighborhood.

CONDITION
The 1940 Wexler (Deskin/Wagner) House has been generally well maintained. The historic front façade has been carefully preserved and remains intact. A large addition was made to the rear of the house circa 1990 at which time the detached garage at the rear of the property was converted to a rental dwelling. These changes were made sensitively and do not destroy the historic integrity of the property. In addition, the historic flood-irrigated landscape is properly tended and the property makes a positive contribution to the Park Tract streetscape.

AGE
HPO records indicate 84 extant properties date to 1940, including the subject property. Significantly, 1940 also marked the end of the established prewar delivery system of residential development by small builders and local developers. From 1940 to 1950, Tempe’s population increased 235%--from 2,906 to 7,686—and by the end of the decade the community was thoroughly engaged in a sustained post-war population expansion. Based on data from HPO files and Maricopa County Assessor’s Office records, 254 standing properties predate the historic 1940 Wexler (Deskin/Wagner) House, having year-built dates of 1939 or earlier. Statistically, this property is therefore in the top 99.5% of all Tempe properties in terms of age and survives as a rare example of pre-World War II residential construction in Tempe.

SIGNIFICANCE
Like many properties in Tempe’s oldest intact residential neighborhood, the 1940 Wexler (Deskin/Wagner) House achieves significance under multiple National Park Service Criteria. The property is considered eligible for historic designation and listing by the Tempe Historic Preservation Office under National Park Service Criteria A, B, and C.

Under Criterion A, the historic 1940 Wexler (Deskin/Wagner) House is significant for its association with Park Tract subdivision. The property is also significant under Criterion B; as the former home of Charles Wexler, who served as a mathematics professor at ASU for almost five decades, and for association with his wife Helen Wexler, who was very involved in community activism and philanthropy. Finally, under Criterion C, the property provides an early example of a rare local variant of Ranch style residential architecture in the somewhat obscure French Provincial Ranch form.

Under criterion B, the property is significant for its biographical association with a person who was important in the development of the local Tempe community and Arizona State University.  Dr. Charles Wexler was the founding member of the Department of Mathematics at ASU. For eleven years from 1930, he was the only member of the Department, and as such he did it all: teaching, mentoring, tutoring, and above all always planning for the future of the department. He conducted his tutoring sessions every afternoon on the second floor of the Old Main building where students crowded the place working on the blackboards battling mathematics under his astute eye. Wexler would observe and from time to time offer someone a piece of advice, correct an error, or give a helpful hint. Problems ranged from simple algebra to graduate level mathematics, yet he could jump from one topic to another with ease; instantly understanding student’s difficulties and seamlessly leading them to find their own answers. Wexler began to offer graduate classes in 1940. He was Chair of the Department until 1958, and retired in 1977.

Helen Wexler was born in Poland in 1903 and immigrated to the United States in 1913, at the age of ten. She married Charles in 1928 in Massachusetts prior to their move to Arizona. After establishing their residence in Tempe, Helen became an active member of the local community, taking a strong interest in gardening and the natural environment. In October 1936, the Tempe Garden Club was founded by approximately 30 local residents, led by Mrs. R. J. Hight and Mrs. George Gibson. After its initial founding, Helen Wexler served as the Club’s first president. The Tempe Gardening Club has continued in its role of community activism ever since. In the 1930s, with Helen Wexler at the helm, club members helped to construct a park at the corner of Curry and Mill, only the second roadside park in America at that time. Later, in the 1960s, the Club once again rose to the occasion and pressured civic leaders to develop the Birchett Park at the Apache Boulevard curve. Helen Wexler died on January 26, 1999 at the age of 96, having outlived her husband Charles by 22 years.

Under criterion C, the house was built in 1940, near the beginning of the Ranch Style stylistic period, the house exemplifies characteristic features of the mainstream architectural style while, rather uniquely, adding elements of the somewhat obscure French Provincial form. The Wexler (Deskin/Wagner) House is one-story, wood frame, and irregular in plan, sitting on a concrete foundation with stucco walls topped by a medium-pitched, hipped roof with overhanging eaves. The house boasts a covered corner single-leaf entryway supported by wood posts, with rectangular window openings and steel casement windows, decorative shutters, and awnings on the west elevation. The primary elevation has changed little from its original configuration, when this Ranch Style house first made an important addition to the neighborhood. The historic 1940 Wexler (Deskin/Wagner) House continues to convey the architectural qualities of design, workmanship, materials, and feeling that are necessary for historic designation.

The historic 1940 Wexler (Deskin/Wagner) House is significant as one of the earliest examples of French Provincial Ranch style houses in Tempe. The property embodies the distinctive characteristics of the historically significant Ranch style of residential construction that would go on to become widely popular five to ten years after this house was built and remain so for decades thereafter. Lake other Ranch styles, the French Provincial variant has the same elongated floor plan and horizontal form as the California Ranch, and distinguishes itself from the typical stylistic expression primarily by the use of detailing from French domestic architecture. For example, the Wexler House has the characteristic full hip roofs and the long horizontal front façade of the typically L shaped plan is punctuated frequently by small, shuttered, multi-paned windows, while at the entry, a small front porch is emphasized by decorative wood posts and pilasters. As the earliest known example of the French Provincial Ranch style in Tempe, Wexler House is considered eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion C at the local level of significance.

INTEGRITY

Location – This property exists in its original location. The Park Tract Subdivision encompasses a collection of historic resources directly associated with the early growth and development of Tempe and the Salt River Valley. The evolution of Tempe over the past 139 years holds national, state, and local significance for its important role in the development of the Salt River Valley as a center of commerce and education, as a critical link in transportation networks during settlement of the territory, and for its associations with important local figures. Tempe’s unique heritage is exemplified in its significant residential architecture and infrastructure, which are exemplified in the subject property and throughout the Park Tract Subdivision.

Situated in the 1200 block of South Maple Avenue, the historic 1940 Wexler (Deskin/Wagner) House occupies land that was included in the boundaries of the original 1894 Tempe Townsite. Although not subdivided until thirty years later, the Park Tract Subdivision was never annexed into the corporate limits of Tempe but was instead an integral part of the community from the onset. Located near the southern portion of the original Townsite, the historic Park Tract Subdivision survives today as a busy and vibrant residential neighborhood. Wexler House on its original lot of approximately 0.21 acres would typify the small house on the large lot ubiquitous throughout Tempe’s Cultural Resource Areas but for the significant additions made to the rear of the property in the 1990s. Today, with over 2100 square feet of livable space under the main roof, the property provides a case-study of how an historic home can be adapted to support a modern lifestyle while continuing to convey its historic significance.

Design – Design is the composition of elements that constitute the form, plan, space, structure, and style of a property. As an upscale version of the typical Ranch style house, the French Provincial form may offer more expensive window styles including bay, corner, or large picture designs, or as is the case here, simply more as windows occur with great frequency in the principle façade and are embellished with both shutters and awnings. At Wexler House a small front porch is enhanced with more elaborate detailing in the wood columns and pilasters. Because properties change through time, changes may acquire significance in their own right and therefore do not necessarily constitute a loss of design integrity. Here changes have occurred in the modern period after the Wexler family sold the property. Fortunately, these changes maintain the original spatial relationships between major features; reinforce visual rhythms; layout and materials; and respect the relationships of other features as originally constructed and developed. Design aspects typifying the original building are present in abundance and continue to distinguish the French Provincial variant from the more typical Ranch style and thereby portraying the design aspect of integrity.

Setting – Setting is the physical environment of an historic property that illustrates the character of the place. Although integrity of setting is not a condition precedent to designation in this case, the property nevertheless retains connections to the physical environment of its surroundings. The interior section of Block Three of Park Tract and the adjacent Block 6 to the west is arguably among the most intact loci of the modern Maple-Ash Neighborhood. One exception was noted above, where two lots adjacent to the south of the subject property have been consolidated for redevelopment and replatted as a separate subdivision. One of the historic homes was demolished and the other was set on fire by transients. At the subject Wexler (Deskin/Wagner) House, however, original relationships of buildings and structures to the streetscape and landscape; layout and materials of alleyways and sidewalks; and the features of flood irrigation and other infrastructure exist with their integrity intact.

Materials – A property must retain key exterior materials dating from the period of its historic significance. Integrity of materials determines whether or not an authentic historic resource still exists. Wexler House retains key physical elements as they were originally configured to reveal the preferences, to indicate the availability of particular types of materials, and to exemplify building strategies and technologies characteristic of the period. The one-story, wood frame, irregular in plan house sits on a concrete foundation with stucco walls topped by a medium-pitched, hipped roof with overhanging eaves. While all that is typical of the Ranch style, Wexler House additionally boasts a covered corner single-leaf entryway supported by wood posts, with rectangular window openings and steel casement windows, decorative shutters, and awnings on the primary or west elevation, which exemplifies the materials palate of the French country home and which has changed little from its original configuration, when the house first made an important addition to the neighborhood.

Workmanship – Workmanship is the physical evidence of the crafts of a particular culture or people during a period in history and is important because it evinces the technology of the craft, illustrates the aesthetic principles of an historic period, and reveals local, regional, or national applications of both technological practices and aesthetic principles. Built in 1940, Wexler House helped mark the end of the established prewar delivery system of residential development by small builders and local developers. From 1940 to 1950, Tempe’s population would increase 235%--from 2,906 to 7,686—and by the end of the decade the community was thoroughly engaged in a sustained post-war population expansion. But from a more gentle time before mass-production turned housing into a commodity and divorced craftsmanship from the jobsite, Wexler House continues to convey physical evidence of the crafts attendant upon residential construction in the 1940s American Southwest.

Feeling – Feeling is a property's expression of the aesthetic or historic sense of a particular period of time. This property expresses an aesthetic sense of its prewar period of significance. Taken collectively, the physical features of the property are sufficiently intact to convey their significance to someone familiar with the original property, as well as to persons throughout the community to whom the property distinguishes itself as historic. Retention and good maintenance of original design, materials, workmanship, and setting as described above is sufficient to create a discernable sense of place or feeling at the historic property.

Association – Association is the direct link between an important historic event or person and a historic property. Although under Criterion C this property is not required to maintain integrity of association, it nevertheless retains a direct link with the early development of Arizona State University inasmuch as the original owner of the house, Charles Wexler, served as the longest-tenured faculty member in the university’s history. Wexler was both a founding member of the university’s Department of Mathematics, as well as the department chair for 28 years. His academic legacy is now immortalized through the annual issuance of two Charles Wexler Awards for excellence in mathematics at ASU.

HISTORIC CONTEXTS

Charles Wexler, Arizona State University Department of Mathematics, 1930-1977

Charles Wexler was born in Fall River, Massachusetts in July 1906 to Samuel Wexler and Mamie Balotz Hornstein. In 1930, at the age of twenty-four, Wexler became a professor of mathematics at what was then called Tempe State Teachers College. He was the founding chairman of the school’s Department of Mathematics and, for the first eleven years of his career (1930-1941) was the department’s only tenured faculty member. Wexler served as department chair for twenty-eight years, from 1930 until 1958, and ultimately retired in 1977 after an astounding forty-seven years of service (the longest tenure of any ASU faculty member to date).

One of Wexler’s former students, Ben Picone, nostalgically recalled many years after graduating from ASU that, “I was the kind of student who did not realize at that time what a great teacher he was. He did it all: teaching; mentoring; tutoring. Dr. Wexler conducted his tutoring sessions every afternoon on the second floor of the Old Main building. I can still see him sitting in the student’s chair with his feet propped up on the chair in front of him. He was facing the blackboards, windows on his right hand [side], playing with the rubber bands he seemed to always carry around his left wrist. Students crowded the place working on the blackboards battling their mathematical demons. He observed and from time to time offered someone a piece of advice, corrected an error, [or] gave a helpful hint. We all worked on problems ranging from simple algebra to graduate level mathematics. He could jump from one topic to another with ease; he instantly understood our difficulties and seamlessly led us to find our own answers.”

In 1977, the A-Wing of the Physical Sciences Complex was named after Dr. Wexler in appreciation of his outstanding service to the university. Today, ASU offers the annual Charles Wexler Awards to “outstanding faculty and students in the School of Mathematical & Statistical Sciences.” The awards are funded by the Charles Wexler Memorial Endowment, which was established in 1977 through a gift from his widowed wife. This fund is used to recognize and reward two persons annually: one outstanding teacher of undergraduate mathematics classes (the Charles Wexler Teaching Award), and one exceptional undergraduate student (the Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize). The first awards were given by the Department of Mathematics in 1978.

Charles and Helen Wexler acquired Lot 4, Block 3 of Park Tract in October 1939. The couple mortgaged the property in January 1940 and built the house at 1215 South Maple Avenue soon thereafter.

Evolution of the Ranch Style House in the American Southwest, 1932-1945
The Early Ranch style emerged among the prototypical Southwestern architectural forms during late Depression years and its successor, the Ranch style house, eventually reigned as the region’s dominant postwar style. Accounting for nine out of every ten new houses throughout the American Southwest; the Ranch style eventually spread nationwide as an authentic artifact of postwar American culture. The Early Ranch style is not the Ranch House of postwar America but rather a nascent form coming into existence with as many references to historical antecedents as it had elements of the ultimate pure form. Early Ranch style is obscured in the literature, as it is largely overwhelmed by the ubiquitous final form.

Architect Cliff May is credited with building the first Ranch Style house in San Diego, California in 1932. May had little architectural training and minimal building experience, but he succeeded in bringing his vision to life throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Considered by many to be the father of the California Ranch style house, May is noted for combining the western ranch house and Hispanic hacienda styles with elements of modernism. “The ability,” wrote May, “to move in and out of your house freely, without the hindrance of steps, is one of the things that makes living in the [Ranch style] house pleasant and informal.”

In the Southwest, California and Craftsman Bungalow styles were common and affordable house types that preceded introduction of the Early Ranch style. The modest forms of the National Folk styles—often referred to simply as “the Economical Small House” or the “Basically FHA House”—sought similar markets. Many of the cost-saving materials and methods that would become hallmarks of post-war Ranch style houses would not appear until after World War II. In this regard, the Early Ranch style continued building traditions from earlier styles, but adapted new and distinctive configurations. Rooted in the Spanish colonial architecture of the 17th to 19th century North America, the Early Ranch style used single story floor plans and native materials in a simple style to meet the needs of their inhabitants. These low slung, thick walled, rustic working ranches were common in the Southwestern states.

SOURCES
Tempe city directories and telephone directories

Property records on file at the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office

http://math.asu.edu/WexlerAwards

RESOURCES 
Research Report to Historic Preservation Commission : : Neighborhood Meeting at HPC

Staff Summary Report to Historic Preservation Commission : : Public Hearing at HPC

Staff Report to Development Review Commission : : Public Hearing at DRC

Staff Report to City Council : : Public Hearing at CC

Staff Report to City Council : : Public Hearing at CC

ORDINANCE NO. 2012.05

Gage Addition & Park Tract Historic Contexts : : Nathan Hallam / Tempe HPO 2012