Fall Real Estate 2004

Publication Date: Friday, October 1, 2004

Eichlers reborn
New owners are updating Eichler homes for the 21st Century

by Allen Clapp

The 1970s weren't kind to Eichlers.

During the decade of self-expression, owners transformed their modernistic dwellings into Arts-and-Crafts bungalows, country French cottages, even Tuscan villas.

The '80s weren't much better: Mediterranean tile, southwestern color schemes and second-story additions proliferated.

In their 50 year history they have been stuccoed, texturized, ignored and shingled.

But a new breed of Eichler owners is out to change all that. Convicted by the belief that these architect-designed modern marvels are worth being preserved, they painstakingly restore the homes while outfitting them for the 21st Century.
"The designs are so simple," said Chris Loew, owner of an Eichler on Charleston Road in Palo Alto. "There's an unbreakable logic to them."

Chris and wife Kris knew the house was special before they bought it. Theirs is a one-of-a-kind, steel-framed Eichler designed by famed mid-century architect Raphael Soriano.

But they also knew there would be big challenges in restoring it to its former glory. Originally a single-story study in open space and clean lines, a former owner (probably a Soriano disciple) added a second story, built of the same steel and glass. Later owners enclosed the carport, added an office and eventually encased the entire exterior in shingles.

"People have tried to destroy it," Loew said, "but the spirit of the house is still here."

Inside the house, the sense of space is luxurious. With no need for load-bearing walls, "rooms" are defined by furniture placement and textural changes. A living room area is demarked by a low-slung sofa, a coffee table and two Marcel Breuer chairs. The kitchen is only defined by the fact that the cooking appliances are all in one specific location, and a family room coalesces against a wall of built-in mahogany cabinets.

It all glides fluidly between a sea of gray concrete and a sky of white steel.
Of course, it didn't look like this when they bought it in 1997.

"They had built a box for the kitchen," Kris said. "I felt like I was trapped in there whenever I was cooking. And when I was done, I could finally leave and join the rest of the world."

The Loews excavated the kitchen, ripped up the huge octagonal ceramic tiles that covered the concrete floors, and knocked down a wall dividing the living and family room areas.

Chris, a freelance industrial designer who recently split off from IDEO, struggles with the next steps in the rescue of the house. "Since the additions were made, there is no slam-dunk solution," he said.

Kris, a freelance marketing graphic designer, says the next item on the agenda is the removal of the shingles.

"I keep threatening to have a shingle party. Just invite all our friends over and start taking them off. The only problem is we're not sure what we're going to find underneath," she said.

The couple plans to eventually restore the monochromatic plywood siding, spruce up the landscaping -- an important design decision because most of the house's walls are glass -- and modify the loft-like second story, which they use as a master suite. Oh, and then there's the removal of stained-glass windows in the office addition.

"Sometimes I just don't know what people are thinking with these remodels," Chris said. "If you don't want to have a modern house, don't buy a modern house and then ruin it."

A few miles away on Greer Road, IDEO engineer and team leader Tom Eich agrees. "No other builder used noteworthy architects and built so many well-designed houses, and they can be updated for the 21st Century," he said.
Not keen on buying someone else's vision of a remodeled Eichler, Eich had been "circling like a vulture" waiting to buy one he could restore himself.

He bought what he describes as "the worst house in the neighborhood." A 1957 model, most likely designed by architects A. Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons, the house had been a rental property for about 30 years.

Eich, a longtime fan of early California modernists Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, set out to right the wrongs and bring the house into the present, but had to sacrifice some key original elements to make it happen.

"There was just a huge absence of maintenance everywhere -- obsolete kitchen and baths, and beat up and irreparable (Philippine mahogany) wall panels," Eich said.

The cinderblock fireplace was an original feature he wanted to keep, but almost 50 years of settling in that corner of the house was jeopardizing the radiant-heating system in the slab floor.

Being an engineer has its advantages. Using the basic plan of the house as a guide, he designed custom maple cabinets for the kitchen that double as paneling for the adjacent living room, and a matching entertainment center off the kitchen that offers privacy from the front entrance.

By shifting the middle bedroom about two-and-a-half feet, he created more space for the notoriously small Eichler master bath.

A luminous blue wall separates the living and sleeping areas, creating a cool backdrop for an iconic mid-century furniture collection that includes an Eero Saarinen Womb Chair and an Isamu Noguchi coffee table. It all floats on newly installed cork flooring -- a historical nod to a flooring option builder Joseph Eichler offered his original clients.

Outside, Eich is in the process of designing a landscape built around a long, rectangular water feature that appears to run underneath the house. It's an ambitious project involving the extension of the concrete slab he's not sure he should have started.

"It will get finished eventually. I made the mistake of trying to do it myself," he laughed.

Whether it gets done sooner or later, the remodel is a tribute to the spirit of the original design. And his enthusiasm for the style is contagious.

He convinced good friends to buy the Eichler next door to his Greer Road home and designed the remodel for them. And it was Eich who originally told the Loews about the steel-framed Soriano Eichler.

"Eichler had a vision of how people could live on the West Coast, and people still want that vision," Chris Loew said.

"It's like a Volkswagen Beetle. You can describe a Beetle in one sentence. It's two humps. It's good design. Most home builders -- they'd be stuck if you asked them to describe what they're doing. You can describe an Eichler house. That's why people are so passionate about them."

Assistant editor Allen Clapp can be reached at aclapp@paweekly.com