David Applebaum ’80 was lost. A year removed from receiving his bachelor’s degree in environmental design from Texas A&M University in 1980, Applebaum relocated to the Golden State to earn his master’s degree in architecture from the University of California-Los Angeles. Shortly before classes started, friends invited him to see a movie at the brand-new Beverly Center mall. There was only one problem: Neither Applebaum nor his friends could find it.
With Applebaum behind the wheel, the group circled iconic shops and scenery, but no one could remember the directions clearly enough to find their destination. Finally, Applebaum rolled down the window to flag down a middle-aged couple holding hands and strolling down the sidewalk. “Excuse me?” he said. To his surprise, the couple turned around, revealing themselves to be none other than Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner—two stars who, previously unbeknownst to Applebaum, were dating.
Wilder recognized the starstruck glimmer in Applebaum’s eyes and smiled as he approached the passenger door. “Are you lost?” Wilder said. Applebaum stammered but managed to admit that he and his friends could not find the Beverly Center. Wilder and Radner promptly keeled over laughing. “We’re not laughing at you,” Wilder explained. They too had once mistaken Beverly Drive for Beverly Boulevard—a parallel street just 200 feet away—and gotten lost the same way. The “Willy Wonka” and “Saturday Night Live” stars redirected the lost Texas kid to his destination, and Applebaum drove away feeling simultaneously enthralled and embarrassed.
Nine years later, Applebaum was working on a high-end home in Bel Air that required extensive groundwork—so extensive that he needed to secure consent from the neighbors. One house at a time, he went through the neighborhood until he approached a beautiful country estate. He rang the doorbell and, lo and behold, Gene Wilder appeared at the door. “Still can’t find the Beverly Center?” he asked, smiling.
Applebaum founded his architecture firm in 1988 and has made a career of designing bespoke homes and spaces for celebrities like Cuba Gooding Jr., Bob Hope, Seth Green, Diane Keaton and Rupert Murdoch. Rather than subscribe to a specific architectural style or movement, his designs focus on meeting his clients’ everyday needs. He works primarily in Los Angeles but has opened an office in Texas and is currently tackling three jobs in the state, one in Houston and two near Austin.
“When people think of architecture, they tend to think it is all about drawing a pretty façade for the walls in front of the house,” Applebaum said. “But nobody lives in that. We live and work in spaces that those walls create.” When Applebaum designs for a couple with a 2-year-old daughter, he designs the layout of the house not only to meet the family’s current needs but also the needs they will have when the same daughter is 16 and wants more space for herself.
Even though much of his job involves working with big names in Hollywood, he appreciates working with clients he can explore ideas with to create the best design, no matter how famous. His end goal with every project, he said, is a home that brings his clients’ personalities into physical space. “I don’t want people to walk into a house I designed and say to the owner, ‘Oh! You have a David Applebaum!’” he explained. “I want them to say, ‘This is so you.’”
Off the Beaten Path
Growing up in Houston, Applebaum did not know what he wanted to do for a living, but he knew he had options. In high school, he excelled at art and math and felt at ease working with others. Architecture emerged as a career path that challenged Applebaum to use his creative, technical and social skills to their fullest potential. During his senior year of high school, he considered following in his father’s footsteps at Rice University but was blown away while attending an open house at Texas A&M’s College of Architecture.
“As soon as I walked in, it was clear that the quality of work was stronger than anything I had seen at other colleges, and it was stronger than anything I saw afterward,” Applebaum said. He considered his options carefully, but the craftsmanship he saw displayed within the Langford Building compelled him to hone his talents in College Station.
Applebaum’s first design course at Texas A&M was taught by Dr. Rodney Hill, a veritable legend among faculty members, especially in the College of Architecture. “He helped each student understand that their future was what they made it,” Applebaum said. Where average instructors taught students how to recreate certain styles and techniques, Hill proselytized designing with raw creativity and human use in mind. His lectures were about more than architecture; they centered on teaching students how to draft a blueprint for their lives. One such lecture sticks out in Applebaum’s mind after more than 40 years.
The Mystery Drink
On a day like any other, students in Hill’s class were working on projects when their professor abruptly told them to stop. “Forget everything you are doing!” Hill said. “My friend just invented an energy drink, and he needs a design for a container to enjoy this drink in.” He explained that this mystery drink was aromatic, simultaneously sweet and savory, could be enjoyed hot or cold and gave users a jolt of energy to boot. Applebaum and other students dutifully took to the odd assignment, drawing wild designs that brought out the drink’s unique characteristics.
Three weeks later, Hill walked into his classroom and found his students quietly waiting. “Oh boy, everybody looks so bored,” he said. “Let’s have some fun and design coffee mugs.” Again, Applebaum and his classmates followed their mentor’s orders. They drew mugs that varied slightly in color and shape but ultimately did not deviate from traditional coffee receptacles. When they finished, Hill pinned each coffee mug drawing on the wall…right next to the mystery drink designs the students had made weeks prior.
“Students, what is the difference between an aromatic drink that is sweet and savory, can be enjoyed hot or cold and gives users a jolt of energy, versus regular old coffee?” Hill asked. “Look at how wonderful and innovative these first designs were. Then look at how each coffee mug you designed is square or round and has a handle. When you limit yourself to what everyone else is doing based on the title alone, you will never get the most out of your project.”
Applebaum was speechless. He felt his creative perspective shift within him that day. Even now, he rarely approaches a project without his mind wandering back to the mystery drink, the coffee mugs, and the wide gulf between creativity and complacency.
In the City of Angels
After receiving his degree from Texas A&M, Applebaum enrolled in UCLA’s graduate program both for a change of pace and a return to familiarity. Where Texas A&M taught him solid creative fundamentals, UCLA challenged him to explore his inner esoteric. Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ warm climate and bustling metropolitan environment reminded Applebaum of Houston. The Beverly Center incident notwithstanding, he took to Hollywood like a fish to water.
Upon earning his master’s degree from UCLA in 1983, Applebaum joined respected firms that entrusted him with special commercial and residential projects. At D’Urso Designs, he designed and managed the construction of fashion retailer Esprit’s flagship store as well as their showrooms in New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. In 1986, he took a position at high-end architect Edward Grenzbach’s firm. Under Grenzbach’s wing, Applebaum spent his 20s learning the ins and outs of Southern California’s luxury residential design industry firsthand.
While on the job, Grenzbach approached Applebaum with a striking question: “Do you get starstruck easily?” He explained that there was a small renovation project that fit Applebaum’s skillset, but he would only give Applebaum the job if he could remain calm while working with its clients: Barbara and Frank Sinatra. “It does not get much bigger than that when it comes to star clientele!” Applebaum said, laughing.
He took the project and miraculously kept his composure throughout. In the following years, he took on two more jobs for the Sinatras, and each interaction with Frank proved him to be exactly the man portrayed in popular media. “Some people are just larger than life,” Applebaum said. “He was one of them.”
Friends from Back Home
Now that Applebaum splits his time between Texas and California, he is happy to be closer not only to his childhood home, but also his chosen home: Texas A&M. Though it has been decades since his time in Aggieland, he still connects with a large group of Aggie friends every other week over video calls. Their alma mater and the memories they made there are strong ties binding their lives together. For Applebaum, each call is a reminder of the university’s power to build real human connections.
“These people are important to me,” he said. “These relationships have stayed with me for about 40 years, and they are foundational parts of my life.”
In addition to keeping up with Aggies from his time on campus, Applebaum occasionally touches base with the professors who inspired him, especially Dr. Hill. “He has touched tens of thousands of lives,” Applebaum said. “Every day, his former students put his lessons into practice without even thinking about it.” Indeed, Applebaum never forgot those lessons or where they came from; his homes are a testament to what Dr. Hill taught him all those years ago.
While working on another Bel Air home, Applebaum discovered his site was located right next door to—who else?—Gene Wilder. Snake-bit by their first encounter and rendered wiser by the intervening years since their last meeting, Applebaum avoided Wilder’s house as much as he could, determined not to embarrass himself in front of the comedic legend again. Near the project’s end, he had just gotten in his car and started driving away from the site when he spotted Wilder standing by the mailbox at the end of the driveway.
Applebaum considered pretending not to recognize Wilder and driving away, but it was too late: Wilder waved and signaled him to stop. Applebaum rolled down the window and did his best to save face. “I hoped I’d see you again,” Wilder said. “Remember the time you stopped by to get my signature for that permit?” How could Applebaum forget? He told Wilder as much and received an answer he never expected.
“You wouldn’t have known this then,” Wilder said, “but Gilda was very sick. She passed away a week after you came to the door. After you left that day, I made her a cup of tea. I must have still been giggling over our encounter because she asked who was at the door. I asked her, ‘Remember that guy who couldn’t find the Beverly Center when we were walking on Santa Monica?’ She smiled and nodded. I told her it was you and that you were a big-shot architect designing the house across the street. She laughed as we reminisced. That was one of the last times she laughed before she left us, and I wanted to thank you.”
Holding back tears, Applebaum thanked Wilder and offered his condolences. A few moments later, he bid the actor farewell and drove away, but only made it a block before he pulled over to the side of the road. He had learned from years of working with celebrities that, when the cameras went away, they were people with problems like anyone else. But he never knew what a difference he had made just by being at the right time and place to bring joy where it was needed most. Maybe Wilder spoke a deeper truth as Willy Wonka when he sang, “Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.”
To learn how you can help develop exceptional Aggie architects, contact Erik Baker, senior director of development for the College of Architecture, below.