The Eichler phenomenon

Publication Date: Friday Oct 1, 1999

The Eichler phenomenon

1950s-era homes capture vision of modern living--and the hearts of architecture aficionados

by Kendra Behling

Known for their sleek lines, open floor plans and casual-yet-hip sensibility, Eichler homes stand as an icon of modern living among their devoted fans. In Palo Alto, which boasts about 10 percent of the Eichlers built in California, owners of the architecturally distinctive dwellings view them as a source of community pride.

"They are very different from any other house you can buy around here,"said KC Marcinik, a Palo Alto architect and Eichler homeowner.

Such statements are common among those who own Eichlers. The homes have inspired a devoted following uncommon among suburban tract designs. Web pages, newsletters, coffee-table books, and a recent U.C. Berkeley photo exhibit have waxed poetic over the virtues of the modernist homes.

The homes are even part of Palo Alto's political landscape, as residents argue whether Eichlers should be included in the city's controversial historic preservation ordinance.

So what's the big deal? Devotees list a variety of reasons why Eichlers are so well loved.

Wally Fields, a Palo Alto native and self-confessed "Eichlerholic," traces his affection to a sense of nostalgia.

"It's a pilgrimage to my past," said Fields, who grew up in an Eichler that his family owns to this day.

He added that Eichlers were built at a time when suburban designs were still experimental. Generic tract designs had yet to be established, leaving room for some unique interpretations of futurism. People of that era, according to Fields, ultimately preferred more old-fashioned homes that mirrored their own childhoods.

However, said Fields, children who grew up in Eichlers now treasure the homes' futuristic looks.

"A lot of people criticize suburban architecture as being box-like," he said. "Ironically, a lot of Eichlers look like boxes yet are well-liked. They disprove the theory that box-like is unattractive."

Jerry Ditto, a Midpeninsula Realtor who specializes in Eichlers, said the homes attract a special sort of buyer.

"I don't think it's a single, monolithic thing," said Ditto. "For the most part, people that live in them and enjoy them have some sense of design, lines, texture and colors."

It is said that Joseph Eichler found inspiration to develop his unique homes while living in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Hillsborough. Originally in the wholesale dairy business, Eichler was known for his keen sense of style and appreciation for aesthetics. With his housing developments, Eichler sought to create a homes for the middle class that had the same conveniences and stylishness of his elite dwelling.

To realize his vision, Eichler hired young, modernist architects such as Claude Oakland, and the San Francisco-based firm Anshen & Allen to design the homes he built, distinguishing them from the proliferation of tract homes being created by builders and contractors.

The designs he commissioned featured several now-famous hallmarks of the Eichler style. Their floor plans are open, with the kitchen, dining and living areas typically being contiguous, connected without walls. At the same time, the kitchen was reinvented and designed as a place for the family to gather.

Another modernist motif found in Eichlers is the exposed architecture, where beams and support systems become part of the interior design. The ceiling is comprised of large, evenly spaced beams covered by flat roof decking. Extending a few feet beyond the house walls, the beams and decking provide shade from the sun as well as shelter from the rain. Simple, smooth lines flow throughout the house, creating a calm, cool and modern atmosphere.

Perhaps one of the most appealing characteristics of Eichlers is a sense of airiness, with floor-to-ceiling windows offering a view of spacious backyards. In addition, many of the homes contain an atrium--an enclosed patio at the center of the house. It serves as a prime place for tropical plants or ponds and accentuates the 20th century architectural idea of "bringing the outside in."

"The full glass walls, sloping ceilings, and putting the floor directly at ground level--it feels like there is very little separation from the outside and inside," said Marcinik.

When first built in the 1950s, Eichlers were unique, new and affordable. Today, the tract homes have become a valued historical commodity in Palo Alto, costing between $300,000 to nearly $2 million.

One of the largest communities Eichler built is Palo Alto's Greenmeadow neighborhood. Those in Greenmeadow and surrounding areas in south Palo Alto take living in Eichlers to heart. With an interest in preserving and promoting the uniqueness of their area, the residents of Greenmeadow formed a neighborhood association. The group prints a newsletter, has a board of directors and holds monthly meetings to discuss neighborhood issues.

The association has also taken the aesthetic preservation of their neighborhood into their own hands. Any remodeling plans must first be submitted to the architectural review and covenants committee, which enforces conformity to standard Eichler style.

The Eichlers' distinctiveness has spurred a fervent interest in Palo Alto, illustrated by the proposal to include the homes in the historic preservation ordinance, despite the fact they are less than 50 years old.

Marcinik, for one, considers them historic.

"They are unique,indigenous and architecturally developed for this specific area. They are high design and represent an important time in Palo Alto's history," Marcinik said. "While most historic homes in downtown Palo Alto are copies of East Coast homes, Eichlers are truly indigenous. They are 'the house of tomorrow'--today."

A photography exhibit, "Building the California Dream: Exhibit of Modernist Eichler Homes," is currently showing at U.C. Berkeley, Tuesdays through Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. at Worth Ryder Art Gallery, Room 116, Kroeber Hall. The exhibit closes Oct. 1. 

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