Fall Real Estate 2005

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 12, 2005

An Eichler enclave with both history and tradition

by Terry Tang

Owning a house in Greenmeadow truly means owning a few acres of history. In July, after a four-year effort spearheaded by residents, the enclave was one of two Palo Alto neighborhoods to receive a place in the National Register of Historic Places. Bestowed by the National Park Service, the landmark status is a first for modern suburban tracts in California.

This home on Shasta Drive is located in the Greenmeadow neighborhood, which was recently granted historical status.

"It was a case of a good design which got done by a merchant builder," said retired architect Carroll Rankin, who served on the eight-person committee campaigning for historic recognition.

In 1945, at the age of 45, Joseph Eichler became a home builder after selling his family's wholesale butter and egg business. Partly influenced by a three-year stay in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, he instantly set himself apart from other real estate developers by hiring architects, not site-planning engineers, to fashion abodes that were comfy, functional works of art.

As a post-WWII housing demand quickly rose, Eichler and his design team were the driving force behind Palo Alto's southward growth. They erected single-family, subdivision homes in a motif that came to be dubbed "California Modern." Post-and-beam structure, glass walls, an open floor plan and atrium created a cutting-edge design that took advantage of the West Coast climate. The single-story outfit appears to still cater well to today's nuclear family.

Glen Story, stands in front of his home on Shasta Drive in Palo Alto.

Ray Narragon, who moved his family to Greenmeadow four years ago, was surprised by how well an Eichler fit him, his wife, and a brood that includes three teenage boys.

"We thoroughly enjoy it -- the openness, the light coming in, the garden house feel of it. The bedrooms are enormous -- there's enough room for people to retreat to," said Narragon, president of the neighborhood association. "We're real fortunate; the people who lived in it before us put in this incredible garden."

By the mid-1950s, most Bay Area denizens knew what an "Eichler" was and it became the epitome of the American dream. Although based on identical layouts, architects could make a house look dramatically different from its neighbor simply by altering things like the roof configuration. Also, an owner's color and landscaping choices have an impact.

Eichler homes, such as this one on Mackay Drive, are the heart of the Greenmeadow neighborhood, which was built in the 1950s.

"When you drive around, you're not hit by the fact that these are all repetitious. They're differentiated by the people who live in it. They put their own personality in it," Rankin said.

Another product of Eichler's vision was centering subdivision homes around a community center. He simply shaved off a small square footage of land from each tract to create the necessary space. This central hub usually consisted of a community clubhouse, a swimming pool and park where residents would come into each other's orbit. In the case of Greenmeadow, this arrangement helped the many young couples establish a camaraderie that went beyond borrowing a cup of sugar.

Greenmeadow facts

CHILDCARE AND PRESCHOOLS: Discovery Children's House - Montessori, 303 Parkside Drive; Palo Alto Infant Toddler Center, 4111 Alma St.
FIRE STATION: No. 4, 3600 Middlefield Road
Library: Mitchell Park branch, 3700 Middlefield Road
PARKS: Greenmeadow Park (private); Mitchell Park (nearby), 600 East Meadow Drive
POST OFFICE: Main, 2085 E. Bayshore Road
PRIVATE SCHOOLS (NEARBY): Palo Alto Prep School, 4000 Middlefield Road; Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, 450 and 470 San Antonio Road
PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Fairmeadow Elementary School, J.L. Stanford Middle School, Gunn High School
SHOPPING: Charleston Center, San Antonio Shopping Center

"They even loaned each other vacuum cleaners," said Laura Rankin, who, with husband Carroll, has lived in Greenmeadow since 1964. "There was also a community floor polisher. Floor polishers were so expensive; somebody would keep it...and we all shared it."

Grass-roots unity among Greenmeadow dwellers emerged not long after its development. In 1955, disconcerted residents approached Eichler about purchasing the community center rather than watch him rent it out. The newly formed Greenmeadow Community Association (GMCA) bought the property for $10,000 -- thanks to a $50 pledge from each resident.

Over the years, the GMCA has sustained its love-thy-neighbor philosophy across the entire neighborhood, bordered by Alma Street, East Charleston, Middlefield and San Antonio roads. New residents can expect an official welcome from someone on the membership committee, an explanation of neighborhood amenities, as well as their own profile in the monthly "Meadowlark" newsletter. There are also designated "blockheads," representatives who survey their block's opinions on issues affecting their area.

"It's such a common term in our neighborhood that they forget the name-calling connotation," said Glenn Story, who runs the neighborhood Web site.

An annual membership fee into the association entitles homeowners to use of the swimming pool and the private Greenmeadow Park. There are also separate rules for tenants living in a rental home or those who have no interest in utilizing the pool. In order to maintain the facility, people outside of Greenmeadow are eligible to pay for pool entry. Residents also get priority on the waiting list for the Discovery Children's House, a pre-school located in the community center.

Even before the crusade for historical preservation, Greenmeadow's citizens have been fiercely protective of the area's architectural integrity. A homeowner's deed comes with specific covenants, codes and restrictions. The neighborhood's architectural review committee must sign off on any remodeling or building plans. In keeping with the Eichler look, residents are not permitted to add a second story or change the facade in a way that strays from the contemporary style.

"Some Eichler neighborhoods don't have those covenants and they put the second story on," said long-time resident JoAnn Revis. "In my opinion, it's destroyed the look of the neighborhood."

Greenmeadow's middle-class cul-de-sacs have grown in affluence over the last half-century. Three-bedroom Eichlers that once cost $17,000 are now worth about $1.1 million.

With more children and young couples mingling alongside older residents, the neighborhood association has strived to maintain a feeling of small-town sweetness. Greenmeadow traditions include an Easter egg hunt, Halloween party and a Labor Day picnic. Like a scene out of "The Music Man," their annual Fourth of July parade presided over by the mayor enthralls throngs of families year after year.

New residents are strongly encouraged to participate in association meetings or join any of the 12 subcommittees. Groups oversee areas ranging from emergency preparedness to the Greenmeadow Marlins swim team, which consistently draws numerous neighborhood children to its four-month summer program. Many Greenmeadow-ites anticipate the community activism and togetherness to stay as well-preserved as the Eichler exteriors.

"We operate with a board elected by the community and continue to maintain a community feeling," Laura Rankin said. "It's unique in America. I don't think there are many communities that operate like this."