It was April, 1963, and Grace and Ray Foster, young, full of hope, with two boys in elementary school and money in their pockets, were house hunting.
In Granada Hills, on an unpaved street that ran off newly rerouted Balboa Boulevard, they fell in love with a house in Balboa Highlands, a development being built by Eichler Homes Inc. of Palo Alto.
The house was unlike any they had seen before outside a magazine--a dramatically modern structure of glass and wood in which the open interior and the landscape outside seemed to merge into a single bright and verdant living space. It had four bedrooms, a "retreat," an atrium, a fireplace, a stunning view of the mountains and a price--$37,500--they could afford on Ray's salary as a pilot for Flying Tiger Airlines.
Then the salesman spoke up. "I'm obligated to tell you this is open housing," he said. "What does that mean--open housing?" Foster asked her husband. "I don't understand the phrase."
She suddenly realized what the salesman was trying to say. He meant blacks could buy houses here as well as whites like the Fosters. But as Foster, 54, noted recently, she was a veteran of one of the most thoroughly integrated institutions of the period, the New York subway in rush hour: "You don't get to pick and choose who stands next to you, and you don't even care as long as they don't stand on your foot."
"I was so taken aback," she recalled recently, in the house they bought 22 years ago. "Anybody who knows me will tell you it's unusual, but I was speechless. And then I was a little appalled. I said, 'This is California, not the South.' I look back and wonder at my naivete."
In 1963, Eichler's Granada Hills subdivision was the only one in the Valley, outside Pacoima, with a developer-backed policy of non-discrimination.
Almost universally, white developers, operating on the premise that blacks would ruin the neighborhood, found ways to avoid selling to them. But in 1954 the firm run by Joseph Eichler sold a suburban house to the first black family that asked. It quietly continued to sell its ultramodern houses to minorities who could afford them. Without rhetoric or incident, Eichler's coming to the Valley changed the lives of a hundred families.
It was, after all, a different world in 1963.
According to the 1960 census, 90% of the Valley's 9,833 blacks lived in Pacoima, which had been attracting blacks with suburban longings since a tract pointedly named Joe Louis Homes was built there in the late 1940s. Burbank, North Hollywood and Van Nuys each had black populations of 200 or 300, but fewer than 125 blacks lived elsewhere in the Valley.
That spring, the federal Civil Rights Act was still a year away. California would enact a fair-housing law in 1963 that would outlaw such practices as writing discriminatory covenants into deeds in order to exclude Jews or blacks or Catholics. Enforcement, however, would be another matter, in spite of such groups as the Fair Housing Council of the San Fernando Valley, organized in 1960.
Race Not an Issue
But on four steep streets on the northern edge of the Valley--streets perfumed in season by the vast orange grove below--race, religion and ethnic origin were not issues, said Foster and others who lived there. Parental friendships tended to spring up on the basis of whose children played with each other, or which kids had a pool.
As the neighborhood began to coalesce, Foster remembers talking with some of the other women, looking for the common thread that made Balboa Highlands quickly feel so special, so "vital."
It wasn't political unanimity, certainly, because there were Goldwater Conservatives living there as well as Kennedy Democrats. The key, they decided, were the houses themselves, which people either loved or hated on sight.
As Fay Law, 55, who lives on Lisette Street, said recently of fellow Eichler owners: "We're kind of a different breed."
Perhaps it was nothing more than a shared enthusiasm for wall-to-ceiling windows and Danish modern furniture, but as Grace Foster remembered: "Some of us developed a theory that only people with open minds could be drawn to this kind of architecture."
George Moreland, then a young, black physician in Pacoima, had unsuccessfully combed the Valley for a non-segregated neighborhood where he and wife Claudia could raise their two young daughters. Singer Billy Eckstine had been able to buy an expensive home in the white Valley, but such freedom was rare--a perk of stardom.
"Then there was no subterfuge," Moreland, 59, said recently. "People had no qualms about telling you, 'I'm not going to sell to you because you're a Negro.' There was no veneer then. There was no facade."
Moreland heard about the Eichler homes in his examining room from a patient, an engineer who had already bought one. The couple visited the models and, like the Fosters, fell in love with an avant-garde A-frame featuring such rational amenities as separate wings for the master bedroom and the children's rooms. The models, Moreland recalled, were beautifully decorated and had been air-conditioned to a degree that seduced summer visitors into thinking: "I've got to have one of these."
No Big Deal
The Morelands asked the salesman: "Do you sell to Negroes?"
"If they qualify," they were told. "Do they ever qualify?" Moreland asked, knowing, he recalled, "that was one of the ruses then." "Yes," the salesman said.
"That was the only subdivision that didn't make a big deal of it," Moreland said. "They just sold to people."
Edward Kussman, 74, was, and is, chairman of the housing committee of the Valley branch of the NAACP. Typically, he recounted, when black house-hunters ventured out of their suburban ghetto, they were asked by realty agents: "Wouldn't you rather live in Pacoima?" Sometimes they were given directions on how to get there.
In contrast, the Eichler houses were brand new, in an unstigmatized neighborhood, had first-class municipal services and were available to anyone whose money was green. Eichler didn't advertise in the black press, but, as Kussman said: "When you found an area like that, where you were given the same courtesies that other people were given, it didn't take long for word to get around."
Warning to Blacks
Robert Maxwell, then an engineer with Marquand Corp. in Van Nuys, was living in Canoga Park with his wife, Jean, and their three small children when the news reached him.
The Maxwells had moved into their house on Delco Avenue in Canoga Park in 1957--they were the first black family in the area. In 1963 the Maxwells put a deposit on an Eichler and a "For Sale by Owner" sign in front of their Canoga Park house. Their move into that neighborhood had been relatively trouble-free, smoothed by the intervention of a local Methodist minister who assured other homeowners that the Maxwells were decent people. Their move out was quite different.
As Maxwell, who now lives in Reston, Va., said recently: "One morning I was awakened out of my bed by the Fire Department. Someone had burned a cross on our front lawn, apparently to send the message to other blacks who might want to move there that it wasn't safe."
Enriched, Diverse Childhoods
The Eichler neighborhood was safe, an important consideration to parents who wanted enriched, diverse childhoods for their offspring, not necessarily heroic ones.
Before the Morelands moved into their new home on Jimeno Avenue, next door to a rabbi and his family, they frequently drove out to look at it. As they got out of the car on one such visit, Moreland saw an unfamiliar white man racing up the hill toward them. The physician told his family to get in the car and lock the doors as he headed over to the stranger.
"This guy was charging up the hill, and the climate of the time was that, when something like that happened, it was trouble," Moreland recalled.
The runner was Ben Pedrick, a commercial artist who lived with his wife, Jean, and seven children across the street. "I haven't had a chance to meet you," he said, as he thrust his hand into Moreland's and welcomed him to the neighborhood.
Eichler Homes Inc. has been credited with integrating suburban California. In a recent interview in San Francisco, Edward P. (Ned) Eichler, 54, recalled his late father's response when he was told that a black couple wanted to buy one of their houses in Palo Alto.
"His reaction was along the lines of, 'Why are you bothering me about this? I haven't got time for these little problems.' "
At the time, the younger Eichler, now a mortgage banker, handled the sales end of the family business, which was building tracts of contemporary houses for what he came to think of as Eichler people.
"They were young professionals; they read The New Yorker; they thought of themselves as different from people who bought conventional houses, but they didn't have the money to hire their own architect," Eichler said. Most were well-educated, and all were able to afford more than median housing.
Declaration of Independence
To buy an Eichler was to declare your independence from certain traditional values, he said. "You were already defying your in-laws and aunts and uncles, especially from the Midwest, who were going to say: 'What are you doing in this dumb house?' "
Eichler didn't seek out that pioneer black buyer. The West Indian wife of a black scientist on the Stanford faculty called the sales office one night when Ned was working late and asked if minorities could purchase in the development. Eichler said that the question had never come up before and that he would like to discuss it with his father.
Eichler maintains that the firm's revolutionary decision to desegregate their developments was not an agonizing one. It grew naturally out of the family's liberal views and Joseph Eichler's insistence on being his own man in business as well as in private.
Eichler recalled that his father was once confronted in Marin County by an angry group of Eichler owners who didn't want blacks in their new neighborhood. The builder reiterated his position--and offered to buy back the house of anyone who wanted out. There were no takers.
'Right Thing to Do'
"His position was, 'It's the right thing to do,' " Ned said. "It was a defiant, 'That's the way I run my life and if it's a problem, it's a problem.' Part of it was ego."
Joseph Eichler was 47 when he got out of the butter and egg business in 1947 and began building homes. An admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, Eichler was not himself an architect. Although universally known as Eichler houses, they were designed by A. Quincy Jones, Frederick E. Emmons and other prize-winning architects who shared the builder's passion for thoughtful, modern design.
"There was a key thing about my parents," Eichler said. "They were addicted to modernness." The trait ran in the family. His maternal grandmother immigrated to this country from Eastern Europe. According to family legend, her first act was to tear off the wig that married women traditionally wore in the Jewish community, throw it into the river and swear: "Never again."
Kept Policy Quiet
Once the family decided to sell to minorities, Ned Eichler developed a strategy for doing so. "It was very artificial," he recalled. "The salesman was to answer every prospective buyer's questions accurately but not to volunteer any information."
As long as discrimination in housing was legal as well as accepted, the Eichlers practiced their extraordinary policy as quietly as possible. A buyer was not told the race, religion or ethnicity of the people who had bought next door unless he or she actually asked. In the first desegregated Eichler communities buyers were requested to choose two house sites so bunching of minority families could be avoided.
The Eichlers went so far as to turn down awards from civil rights groups that wanted to honor them for putting their business on the line. "You're going to screw this up," Ned told those who wanted to bring the Eichler's practice to the attention of the general public.
By the late '50s, however, the Eichlers were well-known spokesmen for fair housing. The younger Eichler helped write the state's fair-housing law as chairman of the California Housing Commission.
Resale Values Not Hurt
On the basis of the firm's experience in Northern California, the Eichlers argued that open housing might not be good business but, as Ned was always careful to say: "I don't think it's bad business."
In most Eichler developments, including Balboa Highlands, no more than 10% of the buyers were black. That minority presence did not hurt resale values, according to a study the Eichlers made of their Bay Area homes. Today their houses in Granada Hills sell for $150,000 to $170,000, said a real estate agent active in the area. That's slightly less than comparable housing, largely, he said, because the homes are unusual and have to be meticulously maintained to compete.
Ned Eichler said his principal involvement in Balboa Highlands was to advise his father not to build there. Eichler spent several days examining the site at his father's request. "It was a tough site," Eichler recalled. He thought it would be difficult to grade properly, which proved true, as evidenced by mud slides and other terrain-related problems during the early '60s.
Did Not Translate Well
The house that had made Eichler famous in Northern California simply didn't translate well to Southern California, his son said. The vast windows brought heat as well as light into local Eichlers.
"The Valley is a really hot place," he said. "We made an experiment there in a new air-conditioning system. A problem in an Eichler home is that there's no place to put the air-conditioning ducts. We put the ducts right in the slab. It cost us a lot more money than we thought it would, and we had a lot of servicing problems.
"I remember going into people's houses and having them yell and scream at me that the air-conditioning didn't work very well, and it didn't."
Eichler Homes found it difficult to deal cost-efficiently with local unions and the rest of the Los Angeles construction establishment, especially long distance. Carpenters were critical to the success of an Eichler, and the firm had trouble putting together quality crews.
"It was not a very successful development from a business point of view," Eichler said. The firm built fewer than half the 250 houses it had originally planned, then sold off the rest of the 138-acre site, the former retreat of Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck, to other builders.
As Eichler Homes expanded its operations during the '60s, its fiscal troubles worsened until it eventually failed. Ned thinks the time of the Eichler had simply passed--that residential fashions changed even for the special breed that had caused the company to thrive. People who might once have bought an Eichler began to think in terms of restoring a Victorian.
"A few years ago I bought half a dozen old Eichler homes and fooled around with them to see if I could fix them," Ned said. He experimented, knocking out walls, updating utilities, even adding second stories. His conclusion was heresy.
"They were wonderful houses in a lot of ways but they haven't adapted well in some ways," he said. "It's ironic that an old-fashioned house is more adaptable in some ways than contemporary architecture. You can change rooms. You can change heating. There's something to be said for attics and crawl spaces and not having glass go to the floor so you have someplace to run the ducts."
Antithesis of Eichler Creed
Eichler left the family business in 1963. A year after his father's death in 1974, he became president of William Levitt and Sons, whose millions of cookie-cutter houses were the antithesis of Eichler's creed of construction as craft. "My father would have rolled over six times in his grave that his son should have anything to do with Levitt," Eichler said.
Eichler insists that open housing was never a major factor in the economic decline of the family firm. "It would have been easier not to do it," he said, looking back. "The number of houses we sold to blacks and people who liked us for it was certainly offset by sales we lost and by aggravation." But the company never considered turning back once it decided to desegregate. Joseph Eichler had articulated the firm's position: "It's the right thing to do."
Laura Pedrick, 21, still lives on Jimeno Avenue in a house her family affectionately describes as "energy-deficient." When she was little, the whole street played hide-and-seek or a game called "chase" on their bikes. "There were tons of tree houses and forts, and we were always wet and smelling like the creek," she said.
"We moved there because we really liked the house, and we didn't care what color the neighbors were," her mother, Jean, 59, recalled. "We thought it was irrelevant."
"Almost everybody in our neighborhood was some kind of minority, one way or another," she said. "If they had white skin, they were Jewish or Catholic or Mormon." As to the black neighbors, she said: "All of them were professional people or something, and they had to work twice as hard as anybody else to get there, so you knew they were class folks."
"We call it Camelot," said Moreland, who now lives in Northridge, recalling the old days in the neighborhood. "It was a marvelous experience for all of us, not just the children."
Jean Pedrick helped start a great books club. There were UCLA extension courses held in several homes. Van Gogh Elementary School had a PTA that could raise money for any educational aid it wanted. There were debates of the highest quality at block parties.
"We used to stand out on the streets and talk until 9 or 10 at night," Moreland said.
People moved to Balboa Highlands because they fell in love with a house. That's why Fay Law moved to Lisette Street. That and because she and her husband, Edgar, wanted their four children to grow up proud to be black but in an integrated neighborhood. "We wanted our kids to able to compete successfully with anybody," she explained recently.
No More Tree Houses
"I don't think we realized how marvelous it was until it all came to an end," said Moreland, who sold his Eichler after the Sylmar earthquake of 1971. Other first families left when the aerospace industry began to shrink.
The neighborhood has not changed so much as aged. Once-spindly trees tower over the low-slung homes. And something else is different.
There are no forts or tree houses.
"My parents noticed it at Halloween," said David Harris, 22, a law student back in his childhood home on Nanette Street, across from the Fosters. "They always used to buy three or four bags of candy. Starting about four years ago, they always had candy left over."