The house is a low-slung mid-century modern beauty, set at the foot of rolling golden hills. Sunlight streams through swathes of plate glass. A few choice pieces of classic Eames and Herman Miller furniture adorn the open-plan living spaces. Outside, a large wooden deck and landscaped garden give on to a glittering, kidney-shaped pool that invites thoughts of cocktails at sundown.This is California living as we imagine it. It’s suburbs with style. And for those in the San Francisco Bay area who have rediscovered the homes of Joseph Eichler, it has become attainable.
Eichler was an idealistic and somewhat idiosyncratic developer who, in the 1950s and 1960s, built more than 10,000 houses in northern California. One might compare these with the homes designed by well-known architects, such as Richard Neutra or Pierre Koenig, also in the same area and now much coveted. But, unlike these, an Eichler home is still relatively affordable.
Tim Brown, chief executive of design company Ideo, moved to the US from the UK in 2000 and knew immediately that he wanted to buy an Eichler house. “It was hard to get excited about anything else,” he explains. “I’m always looking for authenticity. In England we had a Georgian house and here we have a house that is a natural fit with its environment.”
His family rented “the perfect Eichler in the perfect neighbourhood” in Palo Alto, before finding one to buy and restore a block away.
Noriko Takiguchi, a writer, rents an Eichler in the Greenmeadows neighbourhood of Palo Alto. She says the clean lines and lack of decoration remind her of Japanese homes. “I like the fact that the house favours simplicity,” she says. She also appreciates the skylights, which “keep the light very stable”, and the open spaces that can be partitioned to suit her needs. Takiguchi is looking for a house to buy with her partner, journalist Dan Gillmor, but says the task is proving difficult. “It’s very hard to look for a house after living in an Eichler. Everything else looks so ordinary.”
If these houses seem progressive today, they were even more so when Eichler built them. Influenced by the European modernist movement and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, his vision was to provide affordable, elegant modern design, if not for the masses then certainly for the burgeoning middle class, after the second world war. Over a period of more than 20 years, he created dozens of residential sub-divisions. He used a basic tract housing template and an assembly-line approach to construction to keep costs low. But he also employed gifted architects, such as A. Quincy Jones and Anshen & Allen, and respected landscapers, including Thomas Church and Kathryn Stedman, to ensure high aesthetic standards.
The result was a significant departure from the traditional suburban houses of the time and ran counter to the way most developers made a profit. “Eichler’s insight was that the tradition established in the 1920s with the school of California modernism could be opened up to people other than the [wealthy] patrons who hired architects to design one-off homes,” says Paul Adamson, co-author with Marty Arbunich of Eichler: Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream.
The single-storey, flat-roofed houses came in a variety of off-the-shelf models but shared certain fundamental characteristics. They were centred on the idea of indoor-outdoor living to take advantage of the benign Californian climate and blur the line between home and garden. There are flexible open-plan living areas, floor-to-ceiling walls of glass, skylights, sliding glass doors and built-in furnishings. Some of the more spacious models are built around a central, glass-walled atrium echoing the inner courtyards of Mediterranean homes.
The extreme aesthetic didn’t immediately appeal to the day’s homebuyers. But Eichler anticipated this and created a pioneering marketing scheme that went beyond advertising homes and promoted, instead, the entire lifestyle. Stylish photography by Ernie Braun formed the backbone of press campaigns and brochures that showed children happily playing with toy trains and roller-skating in the airy, open-plan spaces, and glamorous couples hosting dinner parties on their back decks, the women clad in chic, figure-hugging 1950s frocks.
There was also a socially conscious element to Eichler’s community building. Inspired, it is said, by a photograph of two schoolboys, one African-American, one Asian, walking home from school arm in arm, he practised a policy of non-discrimination at a time when many builders in the US were still drawing racial lines. Eichler’s views were in tune with the emerging post-war culture of the Bay area. Soldiers who had served alongside recruits from a variety of ethnic backgrounds were returning with a different world view, many of them with federal loans to spend on starter homes.
Not everyone shared Eichler’s utopian vision and there are tales of families baulking at the idea of living in racially integrated neighbourhoods. But “Eichler had a strong personality,” says Carolyn Lenert, a real estate agent with years of experience buying and selling Eichler homes, who also lives in one herself. “Supposedly he told people he would buy back their house if they didn’t like their neighbours.”
Lenert says today’s Eichler homebuyers come in many guises. Families are attracted to the neighbourhoods because they often boast good schools and have been designed as functional communities. Brown lives in an area actually called Community Center and includes at its heart a leisure complex with swimming pool, children’s theatre and zoo. “It’s like a village. My two daughters walk to school. And the quality of life is great,” he says. Conversely the single-storey houses also appeal to an older generation who want to scale down and live on one level.
In 1953 an Eichler home would have gone on the market for between $14,000 and $20,000 – “a little pricier than the average home at the time but still affordable, and [with] the architectural attributes of much more expensive homes,” Adamson says.
Today’s prices depend on location, size and the condition of the house. Lenert recently sold a three-bedroom model in San Rafael’s Terra Linda neighbourhood for $280,000. Brown bought his four-bedroom home for $1m and spent a good deal refurbishing it. The Bay area has a notoriously inflated property market and the closer the commuting distance to San Francisco or Silicon Valley, the higher the cost will be.
Margaret Chester and her partner bought a 1964 atrium-model Eichler in Concord, about 30 miles east of San Francisco, a year ago for $680,000. She says they were immediately smitten. “When we walked through the front door, we were both taken aback. The atrium floor was covered with Travertine tile. We could see through the atrium and living room to the back garden. It was love at first sight.”
The couple, who both work full time, relish getting home at the end of the day. “We gravitate to the back yard if for nothing more than to stick our feet in the pool and enjoy a cold beer,” says Chester. “We didn’t know that mid-century modern was a big deal until we had moved in. The style of the house makes us feel balanced. It’s just a good fit for us.”
Creative types such as designers and architects were drawn to Eichler homes when they were first built and continue to be a core group of buyers. Brown estimates at least 10 of his staff at Ideo live in Eichler homes. Larry Cheng is one of them. He says he chose his Palo Alto house “because it is beautiful and extraordinary”. He particularly loves seeing the reflection of the home’s roof beams in the window at night and “the illusion that my house is outside”. “It’s such a different answer to the question: ‘what should a house be?’,” he says.
The homes are not without their problems, however. Age and the fact that they were built on a budget mean that restoration and maintenance can be expensive. Lenert also points to the fact that they are not fire resistant. “Once the glass breaks, the camp fire is fed,” she says. “I don’t suggest Eichlers to people who enjoy a candle lifestyle.”
Built in an era of cheap energy, the homes have minimal insulation and their flat roofs and trademark radiant heating systems often need overhauls. “You should see the expression on people’s faces when I tell them what work is required to get their house in shape,” says architect Joe DeCredico, who has refurbished many Eichlers. He says costs can run as high as $800,000, as much as would be needed to build from scratch.
Yet such drawbacks have not deterred for the many aficionados who meet online at the Eichler Network’s Chatterbox Lounge (www.eichlernetwork.com) to exchange tips on knowledgeable tradesmen and where to find parts for the homes’ original Thermador ovens.
Marty Arbunich, who co-founded the network in 1993, says the level of interest for Eichler homes is climbing every year. “In part this has been brought on by the dotcom and real-estate boom in California,” he says. But he also thinks the homes fulfil a nostalgic craving for “better and simpler times”.