With their squat stature, glass walls and deliberately modest designs, Eichler-style houses look nothing like the opulent mansions often associated with wealth and booming real estate values.
So when a Palo Alto property owner decided to take down an Eichler home and replace it with a larger two-story residence, the plan touched off a storm of protest from neighbors of his Midtown block, who successfully argued that the contrast between the home proposed for 3558 Louis Road and the Eichlers around it is much too stark.
At the heart of the opposition is the Eichler Swim and Tennis Club, which was designed by A. Qunicy Jones and opened in 1958, with builder Joseph Eichler himself cutting the ribbon, according to the club. Earlier this month, the Louis Road club's board of governors alerted its members to the change and voted to send a letter to the city, urging that the design be reconsidered.
"We are not opposed to a larger home being built on that site, but we believe that the structure as currently planned is not in keeping with the midcentury modern aesthetic that Eichler homes and the Eichler Swim and Tennis Club represent," Harvey Schloss, president of the club's board of governance, wrote in a notice to the members. "The 300 member families of the club are its owners, and we believe as owners we have a stake in ensuring that the club does not become a curious anachronism in its own neighborhood."
Disputes over Eichler renovations and demolitions are far from new in Palo Alto. The philosophy behind the popular homes emphasizes open spaces and natural light, and residents who live in Eichlers have expressed concerns about the prospect of multi-story homes going up next door and potentially impacting their light, privacy and neighborhood character.
In the Palo Alto Eichler neighborhoods of Fairmeadow and Greenmeadow, certain areas have zoning restrictions that prohibit two-story homes. Midtown doesn't have such restrictions, so residents are instead relying on political pressure.
Opponents of the proposed home, a bulky structure with two tiers of gabled roofs, sent what project architect Andrew Young called a "flood of emails," arguing that the new building isn't consistent with the Eichler aesthetic. The swim club itself filed an official letter with the city's planning department, noting that it just completed its own renovation and "at every turn have taken care to retain or restore the original look of an Eichler building."
"We recognize that things change over time, and it is not uncommon for a homeowner to turn an historic Eichler into a two-story home," the letter from the Club states. "We note, however, that owners in our immediate neighborhood have successfully honored the midcentury modern architectural legacy even as they significantly increased the size of their homes."
"We are concerned that our club not become an anachronism, divorced from its architectural heritage as an integral part of a neighborhood. We urge you and the department to take that into consideration as you review this proposal and others in the area, with an eye toward preserving an important part of Palo Alto's history and legacy."
Ami Knoefler, a neighborhood resident and club member, told the Weekly she is one of many area residents who are concerned about new developments threatening their neighborhood character. She and her neighbors have argued that the proposal isn't compliant with the city's guidelines for single-family neighborhoods and that the building's proposed mass, height and scale contrast with the other homes on the street.
"In addition, architecturally and stylistically, it's inconsistent with the historical swim club and its associated features," Knoefler said.
Her concerns aren't limited to this single proposal. Palo Alto should do a better job in general in protecting Eichler homes, she said. To that effect, she is considering launching a petition to create a single-story overlay district in the Midtown section near the club. The city, she said, should be a national leader in protecting Eichlers.
"Palo Alto has the largest concentration of Eichler homes in the region, and they're very quickly being destroyed for new construction," Knoefler said.
While the proposed design for 3558 Louis Road is still slated to be two stories, the residents' concerns have already had an effect. City planners and architects have agreed to defer the decision on the project and to change the design.
City Planner Lee Mei notified residents of the change in an email on May 23.
"In response to neighbor concerns and general discussion of neighborhood issues with planning staff, the applicant (architect) is revising the building design and has requested the (Individual Review) be deferred until after revised drawings have been filed," Mei wrote.
Young, principal architect at local firm Young and Borlik Architects, said the firm plans to make dramatic changes to "meet the expectations of the neighborhood."
The massing in the new plans will be "changed dramatically to be more in line with the surroundings," he said. The gabled roofs will be removed from the first floor and there will be more horizontal roof plans. The second floor will also be set back farther.
"The horizontal nature of the house is much more in keeping with the Eichler neighborhood," Young told the Weekly.
He stressed, however, that the traditional Eichlers of the sort that went up in the neighborhood in the late 1950s are nearly impossible to replicate today. Modern building codes have more stringent standards about everything from seismic safety to insulation and attic space, he said.
"Eichlers are a great style, but you could not build a true Eichler today under current guidelines," he said.
Even so, the revised design will aim to make the house "more contextual in terms of the design guidelines of Palo Alto and compatibility."
"We're sensitive to what the neighbors have to say," Young said. "We're definitely trying to address their concerns."