The Eichler Groupies
Fans of Joseph Eichler's mid-century modern tract houses—with their signature glass walls and cork floors—nominate four of his California subdivisions to the National Register of Historic Places.
By Carlos Castillo | Online Only | Jan. 17, 2003
San Francisco Bay Area resident Wally Fields, a self-confessed "Eichlerholic," or devotee of Joseph Eichler's modern tract houses, traces his obsession back to 1996, when, while visiting a client in San Mateo, Calif., he found the house of his dreams.
When he was 10 years old, Fields dreamed he was sitting in a futuristic house at a rounded corner window. Just outside, he could see the ocean, hear the surf breaking against the rocks. "I had the whole planet to myself," Fields, now 41, recalls.
Realizing that his client's house had awakened something in him, Fields discovered that the house was similar to one his family had once owned, the place he spent his first three years. He learned that both houses were built by developer Joseph Eichler (1900-1974), who brought mid-century modernism to the masses with his bold, spare houses.
When he was 44, Eichler left his financial career and happened to rent a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Soon after, Eichler began commissioning architects, including Southern California legend A. Quincy Jones, to design elegantly simple houses that bottled California's vaunted sunny clime through glass walls, atriums, and interior courtyards. Between 1949 and 1974, Eichler built about 11,000 houses, most in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The growing interest in Eichlers inspired an event called "Celebrate Eichlers," held this November in Palo Alto, Calif. About 3,000 people turned out to soak up the Eichler story and hear accounts from participants in the Eichler revolution. A group of volunteers called the Historic Quest committee organized the event. The Eichler Network, a publishing venture that includes a newsletter, Web site, and other resources relating to the care and feeding of the houses, touted its new history book about the Eichler experience. Marty Arbunich started the for-profit, San Francisco-based network in 1993, and last year he and architect Paul Adamson collaborated on the book.
This month, the Historic Quest committee nominated four of Eichler's 40 subdivisions to the National Register of Historic Places: Greenmeadow and Green Gables in Palo Alto, Rancho San Miguel in Walnut Creek, and part of the Terra Linda subdivision in San Rafael. Committee member Barry Lee Brisco says his group wants to educate the public about the historic and architectural significance of the Eichler communities, which are among the first large-scale subdivisions built in the United States after World War II. (Levittown, N.Y., another post-war subdivision, was built in the early 1950s, around the time the first Eichlers appeared. While William Levitt's houses were cut from a traditional mold, "Eichler was building in a much more progressive, modernist style," Brisco says.)
If the subdivisions make the National Register, Brisco says, the designation will emphasize what makes an Eichler special and may serve to prevent ill-conceived remodeling efforts or outright demolition.
Most Eichler fans are all too willing to tell horror stories involving attempts to alter Eichlers. Catherine Munson, who worked for Eichler Homes, Inc., from 1958 until 1974 (the year of Joseph Eichler's death), recalls seeing a house that had been fitted with Victorian stained-glass front doors, which she says are "inappropriate for this kind of minimalist contemporary architecture. If they want an English cottage, they should go buy one." Munson now owns Lucas Valley Properties, a Marin County realty company that specializes in Eichlers. She believes the one-story houses' exteriors should never be modified. "A second-story addition is an abortion," she says. Brisco, too, criticizes owners who add a second story to an Eichler, explaining that this type of addition departs from the intent of the original design. The city of Palo Alto has a single-story overlay zone that prohibits second-story additions that would conflict with the look of the rest of some neighborhoods.
Eichler enthusiasts agree that the ultimate desecration is demolishing a healthy house to put up a monstrosity at odds with the rest of a lean, low Eichler neighborhood. "The architectural idea was one of unity from the street," Munson says. Fields remembers owners who demolished two Eichlers in one neighborhood. "They put up two little McMansions," he says. (Teardowns have become such a threat to historic neighborhoods nationwide that the National Trust included the trend on its 2002 list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.)
In the 1970s and 80s, Eichlers had fallen out of a favor; for a time, they were valued less than a comparably sized house, Brisco says. One complaint is that the houses are too small, says Jim San Jule, 90, one of Joseph Eichler's original business partners. He recalled running into resistance from building officials when he sought design approval for Eichler Homes, Inc., during the early 1950s. San Jule laments that the craft of constructing houses has evolved little in the past 100 years. "The only thing that has happened is that houses have gotten bigger," San Jule says.
Fields cites other oft-mentioned Eichler deficiencies, real or perceived, such as fire risk (due to hollow interior walls, some covered with Phillipine mahogany veneer), poor insulation, and leaky roofs. Munson admits that her Eichler gets chilly eight or 10 days out of the year, but she just puts on a sweater or builds a fire. "It's a lifestyle choice," says Munson, who has noticed that more of her clients are asking to see Eichlers nowadays. Brisco says the houses, with open floor plans and a symbiosis with the outdoors, epitomize the California lifestyle. "They wouldn't work in Minnesota, and they'd be foolish to build them there."
Since he became an Eichler fan seven years ago, Fields, who writes a column called "The Eichlerholic" for the network's newsletter, has learned so much about the housing style that he's almost exhausted the subject, much to his chagrin. Says Fields: "I miss my Eichler virginity."
Carlos Castillo is a writer and filmmaker based in Aptos, Calif. He is currently producing a biographical documentary on boxer Bobby Chacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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