Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - February 15, 2013

The rebirth of the Eichler

Real-estate agent re-envisions Joseph Eichler's 'dream homes' for today's world

by Carol Blitzer

The moment she saw her first Eichler home in Sunnyvale in 2008, Monique Lombardelli fell in love.

"I was driving down the street and came upon them. I felt like I landed on the moon! I was immediately in love," she said.

Initially it was just because they're so different.

"I had never seen anything like that before. People have that reaction to them: It's so out of this world; you don't see (them) anywhere else," she said.

"For me, it was sort of like when you meet a soul mate; you have an instant connection. It's not just the style; it's the spirit of them. It's like a euphoric feeling. It's hard to explain," she added.

Today, Lombardelli doesn't just want to live in or own an Eichler; she wants to build them for others. And not copies. The real thing, only better: energy efficient and made with sustainable materials.

The Eichlers that struck Lombardelli's fancy were mostly built in the mid-1950s by developer Joseph Eichler — 11,000 homes in the Bay Area, including Palo Alto (2,700), Sunnyvale (1,100), Lucas Valley (900) and San Mateo (800), and a smattering in Sacramento and southern California.

Working with a series of architects (S. Robert Anshen and William Stephen Allen, Claude Oakland, Aaron Green, all of San Francisco, as well as A. Quincy Jones and Frederick E. Emmons of Los Angeles), Eichler created a distinctive midcentury modern look that included post-and-beam construction, an open courtyard or atrium, large glass windows and sliding doors, radiant floor heating, an expandable kitchen counter and a laundry center in the bedroom wing.

While not at the lowest price point for post-World War II housing (homes in Palo Alto's Fairmeadow neighborhood went for under $16,000 in 1951, with Atherton's Lindenwood houses selling for $42,500 in the 1950s), the homes were accessible to the average person. Eichler's target homebuyer was a 32-year-old junior executive with two children who earned between $420 and $500 per month, according to a 1954 newspaper account.

The homes quickly garnered architectural kudos from the Housing Research Foundation, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Sunset and Parents' magazines and the St. Louis University Home Building Institute. They were even named Life Magazine's House of the Year in 1953.

As a Realtor in Menlo Park for the past four years, Lombardelli, 34, has seen first-hand how seldom Eichlers turn over.

"Eichlers are so hard to find; the average days on market is nine," she said, noting that one can find seven homes on the market in a good month all over the Peninsula.

"Normally there are just two or three in Palo Alto," she added, noting that she has clients waiting four or five months for the right atrium model to come on the market.

The passion for Eichlers seems relatively new. "Before, Realtors were embarrassed to list an Eichler," she said, and seldom posted photos of the front of the home. Instead, they'd feature the living room or dining room.

"A lot of Realtors five or six years ago would not even show Eichlers. They didn't want to show (buyers) something that looked like a trailer," she added.

But in the last two years, sales have soared even as home prices in general have risen.

Nancy Goldcamp, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker, Palo Alto, acknowledges pent-up demand and multiple offers. She could only find about 30 Eichler sales in Palo Alto in 2012, along with another 50 or so "contemporary" homes. Her listing on Cork Oak Way drew three offers and went for xx above asking price in mid-January.

"It seems in the last five years there's a greater preference for things contemporary (with) cleaner lines. ... Renewable materials — cork, bamboo, recycled glass — lend themselves to simple execution," Goldcamp said.

"If you go back and look at Eichlers, they were very simple — plain lines, easy living, not-complicated flooring, windows without moldings that didn't obstruct the view. There's a real desire for that look again.

"People are looking for more open spaces, less-defined eating areas. They like things more open, especially in the social areas of the house," she said.

Whether it's hitching onto the Mad Men craze or the desire for midcentury modern, Eichlers are making a comeback.

Lisa Knox, an agent with Midtown Realty, agreed.

"Everything comes in cycles. (Eichlers are) that retro, futuristic, optimistic sensibility that appeals to us in these troubling times," she said. "And they're beautiful — quintessentially California."

Today, Lombardelli specializes in selling only Eichlers through her Mid Century Modern Homes company in Menlo Park. But she's also recreating the Eichler Homes Development Corporation, complete with the original architectural plans (she's gathered about eight of the original 100 or so) and marketing materials.

Her goal is to work with local architects and contractors to individually build 2013 replicas of Eichlers, complete with atrium, radiant-heated floors, foam roofs and masses of double-paned glass. She's already contracted with Ned Eichler, Joseph Eichler's son, who provided her with original marketing materials.

She met him while she was researching a film, "People in Glass Houses: The Legacy of Joseph Eichler," which she made after interviewing clients and friends who had Eichlers. Her passion for Eichlers comes through in the trailer, which can be viewed at eichlermagazine.com.

Lombardelli was entranced with hearing how the original Eichler Homes Development Corporation came about. Ned Eichler, 82, who now lives in Tiburon, recalls working for his dad as a day laborer putting up homes in Sunnyvale while going to college. After the Korean War, Ned went into sales and later became marketing director.

"After World War II, there was enormous pent-up demand (for housing). ... Local governments were very receptive, and there was a big highway program and favorable financing.

"My father ... set out to prove that you could follow the tenets of (architect) Frank Lloyd Wright and make it work," Ned said.

Joseph Eichler was also renowned for his sense of social justice: He sold his homes race-blind, offering African Americans and Asian Americans an equal opportunity to buy at a time when restrictive deed covenants excluded them in other parts of town.

Ned said he advised his father against expanding geographically or building high rises.

"None of the things we were good at could be applied to high-rise building. Unfortunately, I was right," Ned said. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1967, although a few Eichler homes were built through the early 1970s. Joseph Eichler died in 1974.

Ned went on to become president of Levitt and Sons, another large home developer.

Forty years later, along came Lombardelli.

"She's devoted herself to making herself the Eichler expert. She has a tremendous amount of energy," he said.

While not a full partner, Ned "agreed to teach her what worked. I would inspect the plans to see if they stood up to aesthetic (standards) and inspect the construction. For that I will get a share of the profits," he said. He will be assisted by his son David, who's a photographer.

No one else had ever approached Ned about reviving the company.

"She's making it work. I'm not an investor or a partner, but I'm very pleased she's doing it and will help her as best I can," he said.

His son wholeheartedly concurs.

"I think it sounds like a great idea," he said. "Many of (the original Eichlers) are old at this time and require a lot of work to renovate. If you could have something ready to go that fits that aesthetic that's brand new, why not?

"I think it takes someone with real interest and passion for the homes. There are a lot of people selling homes and builders building contemporary-style homes, but I think it takes somebody who's really dedicated and enthusiastic (about Eichlers), in addition to seeing a simple business opportunity," he said.

Lombardelli wasn't born or raised an Eichler aficionado. She grew up in a ranch-style home in Portland, Ore., then studied media broadcasting and went to work for MTV in New York.

"I learned a lot about film, got an agent in L.A., started working on films in L.A., but I always loved architecture," she said.

"I realized that not a lot of people knew what Eichlers were or didn't like the style or thought they were ugly. I wanted to do something that showed how beautiful they are," she said.

Serendipitously, she had the opportunity to rent part of the Bazett house in Hillsborough, the very Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home that inspired Joseph Eichler to produce his simple, indoor/outdoor homes for the masses.

"I basically experienced what he did; he lived there and came up with the idea to develop them. People say I'm weird and insane 'channeling Joseph Eichler,'" she said.

Joking around one day, a colleague said, "What are you, a reincarnation of Joseph Eichler? Are you going to start building them now?"

"And my response was, 'Why not?'" she said.

So far, Lombardelli's real-estate practice is fueling her entry into the building industry. And she's starting small, planning to build individual homes rather than tracts as Eichler did.

She's scouting for property and would even consider a teardown, as long as it isn't an Eichler, she said.

Finding the right lots is Lombardelli's greatest challenge right now. She's seeking land that's already been developed, with utilities in place and that is flat.

Knox, who lives in a Greenmeadow neighborhood Eichler, noted:"You can't just build them everywhere. You don't want to be surrounded by a two-story house when you're made of glass."

The next biggest issue is how to improve on the 1950s designs to make them more energy efficient and reliable. Being able to site the homes to take better advantage of sunlight is one advantage of not building in a tract.

"The (old) wiring is awful, more than half of the home is glass, and then you have the roof — a huge issue of leaks. We have to do a foam roof ... with solar heating, solar panels," Lombardelli said, adding that she's aiming for certification by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Lombardelli insists on including radiant heating, despite that system's history of problems in original Eichlers.

"It's part of the Eichler culture; these people grew up in them like this," she said. When selling an older Eichler that no longer has radiant heat, her clients just sigh, she added, pointing to "one of the joys of having an Eichler — putting your feet on warm floors."

One thing she will replace is the glue that held the paneling in place; turns out it was highly flammable, she said.

But she insists on going back to the original palette, which Joseph Eichler took a very personal interest in. Those exterior colors included earthy tones of oak brown, Coast Guard gray, spruce blue, desert sand and aspen green, with accents in turquoise, sunflower, pumpkin or paprika.

She retold a story from Ned in which his father allegedly knocked on the door of someone who had painted his front door a color his dad didn't like. Joe told the man he painted the wrong color blue. The guy said, "This is my house, and I can paint it whatever color I want to," but Joe just told him it wasn't his house.

So far, Lombardelli's accumulated eight of the original plans, which were either designed by Claude Oakland or Anshen and Allen. Her sleuthing led her to visit the Palo Alto and Berkeley city planning departments to find out who the original architects were so she could contact the heirs and license use of the plans. Once she's paid the fee, she then can pass on the plans to an architect who can redraw them, reflecting changes in code relating to earthquakes, insulation and wiring, for example.

She's managed to track down the creators of three- and four-bedroom atrium models, a gallery model and several A-frames. She's still missing the source for a double A-frame. She's hoping an original owner may have the plans with the name of the architect.

Today, Lombardelli's company is still in the design phase, gathering information and working on fine-tuning building costs, code requirements and product availability.

Costs won't be low because even Joseph Eichler used expensive materials at the time, said Mark Marcinek, a Palo Alto architect who has done extensive Eichler renovations. He's designed homes damaged by fire for which the insurance covered replacement costs plus code upgrades — which is similar to what Lombardelli is attempting. He can replace the old cork tile flooring but would need to find a substitute material for the asbestos tiles, perhaps using slate. Marcinek said the old Thermador stoves were very high-end at the time.

But building homes one at a time is always more costly than erecting a tract. Eichler "got into mass production, had a block, poured all the slabs. He was building like Henry Ford. That's how he could offer a reasonable cost," Marcinek said.

Without those efficiencies of scale, each home will reflect today's building costs.

"If the money is there and the desire is there, you can make it work," he said. "With a cost-plus contract (where a contractor is paid for expenses up to a set limit plus additional payment to allow for a profit), she can't lose."

Knox agreed: "I think that sounds like a great idea — as long as you could get it to a price point to where it would be comparable to a remodeled Eicher."

But will a true Eichler aficionado buy one?

Deborah Simon-Lurie, a second-generation Greendmeadow neighborhood homeowner, says she's not sure.

"Some might think it's better, and some might get stuck on it not being an authentic Eichler," she said.

She agreed with Knox that the cost difference in building a brand-new, energy-efficient version, compared to buying an older Eichler and redoing it, could be a deal killer.

Other longtime Greenmeadow Eichler owners were enthusiastic about Lombardelli's project — especially since she's focusing on improving their energy efficiency.

"A new architect needs to pay attention to tightening up the Eichler. They're very hard to heat," said Laura Rankin, a Greenmeadow resident since 1964.

Nonetheless, she called the idea "marvelous."

Rankin had worked with her late husband, Carroll Rankin, to get the neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

She pointed to the many Eichler imitations around. Developers who shared some of the aesthetic included Mackay, Brown & Kaufman, Coastwise and Stern & Price — who mainly built one-story, flat-roofed, ranch-style homes in the 1950s.

"It doesn't take much creativity to duplicate it because it's very simple," she said. But what made Eichlers unique was their use of materials, such as redwood, which are now too expensive or no longer available.

Greenmeadow resident Walter Hays said he "can't see why anyone would have any objections (to the project). ... My own feeling is that Eichlers have a lot of nice aspects — the indoor/outdoor feeling and light. The problem has been that there's no thought given to energy efficiency. Sounds like she's improving on that. That'll make it even more attractive."

Hays and his wife have already converted their windows to double-pane and added insulation, accessing a $10,000, interest-free loan from the city. His one regret is that they didn't change the tar-and-gravel roof to foam, he said.

Lombardelli hopes to eliminate the need for people to buy and renovate an old Eichler. And if she's successful in building individual homes, she's not averse to trying a modern-day planned community, possibly in southern California.

"My goal is to really stretch down there. I think there's a huge market down there in L.A.," she said.

"It's my job to put people together and make it happen."

In the meantime she's got her eye on an Atherton Eichler that she calls "her dream. I'm not going to say where it is, but it's my favorite so far. I told the owner to think of me when they want to sell."

Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be emailed at cblitzer@paweekly.com.

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