Tomorrow’s house today

Icon of '50s cool seems fresh again
Peter Fish

I am walking with Carroll Rankin down Parkside Drive in the Greenmeadow neighborhood of Palo Alto, California. We are looking at the houses: sleek, angular, low-slung.

These aren’t just houses, Rankin corrects me: “They are a whole concept.”

They’re Eichlers, a name that in much of California conjures up a particular vision of 1950s suburban cool. Last year Rankin and a group of Eichler enthusiasts got Greenmeadow and the nearby Green Gables neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places ― the first subdivisions in California, and among the first in the nation, to be so honored.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, Joseph Eichler built more than 11,000 homes, mainly in the San Francisco Bay Area but also in Southern California. That was the age when new subdivisions were carpeting the American earth from Long Island to the San Fernando Valley. But only Eichler ― and the architects he hired, Robert Anshen, William Stephen Allen, A. Quincy Jones ― turned the subdivision into art.

“You’ll live better in the Wonderful World of Eichler,” promised the company’s promotional literature. That world was very different from the one inhabited by the standard tract house. Inspired by modernist icons like Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright, Eichler built homes that dispensed with basements, attics, and formal dining rooms. In their place were airy atriums and open kitchens so the woman of the house could converse with her guests while she cooked. Floor-to-ceiling windows carried the sunlit landscape into the living room. From the street, the redwood-clad exteriors established, in their casual California way, a vision of order as pleasing as that experienced on the Royal Crescent in Bath, England.

 

Still, as with hemlines and hairdos, tastes in architecture change. Eichler garnered acclaim and awards (including a number from Sunset), but then slid into financial difficulty as buyers opted for bigger, more conventional homes. “From the 1970s into the 1990s, Eichlers were out of favor,” says Barry Brisco, an Eichler enthusiast who helped get the Palo Alto neighborhoods on the National Register. When Jerry Ditto, a real estate broker in Saratoga, California, announced that he was going to specialize in selling Eichlers, he recalls, “The whole real estate community told me, ‘You’re nuts. Nobody cares for them.’ ”

They do now. Ditto and other Eichler realtors have clients clamoring for the houses. The website www.eichlernetwork.com lets thousands of Eichler owners share tips on maintenance and remodeling. New homes, like Sunset’s Glidehouse and Breezehouse and, opening this month, our Celebration Idea House, revel in their Eichler influences.

For fans like Brisco and Rankin, the revival is sweet vindication. The two worked for four years to get Eichlers on the National Register because they thought the homes offered lessons in 2006. “They’re the anti-monster house,” Brisco says. “They’re small, but they feel much bigger. They’re livable, but with classic style. Eichler is a cult. But a cult based on good design.”

I walk down Parkside with Rankin, admiring the clean façades. An architect himself, he says that from the moment he saw an Eichler, he knew that was how he wanted to live. Maybe, after decades of Tuscan McMansions, other people are ready to agree. Maybe we’re hungry for houses that don’t take up their entire lot to shout, Boy Am I Rich! Maybe we’re ready for something smaller, simpler, easier. Something like an Eichler.

Info: Visit www.eichlernetwork.com for an introduction to the world of Eichlers. Sunset’s Celebration Idea House can be seen at Celebration Weekend open house (May 20–21; $10; 800/786-7375).