A rousing encore for the Eichlers
WHEN Greg Allen was ready to buy his first home, the place he and his wife would raise their family, he could have chosen a number of architectural styles on almost any street.
But what caught his interest was a light-filled midcentury modern home on the curve of a cul-de-sac in Orange. The single-story had a massive living room outlined in windows that streamed into the backyard so seamlessly that it was hard to know if the dog was inside or out.
From the sofa, he and Holly could supervise the comings and goings of their four children: through the front door, in the kitchen, at their bedroom doors, even off to school through a gate in the back fence.
The house offered the kind of eyes-on parenting that Allen was familiar with: He grew up in a look-alike house right next door, where his parents, who bought it new in 1964, still live. The houses were built by Joseph Eichler, the influential, uncompromising developer and liberal taste-maker to the midcentury middle class.
“I like the view out the windows, the light, the way the house functions and that it doesn’t make me feel closed in,” says Allen, 43, a civil engineer.
Eichler was the first California builder to hire progressive architects to translate Frank Lloyd Wright’s and the experimental Case Study House custom designs into affordable tract houses.
From 1949 to 1974, Eichler Homes mass-produced 575 houses in Orange, Granada Hills and Thousand Oaks as well as 60 in Sacramento and 10,365 in the Bay Area.
Although Eichler was not an architect, the homes his company built are known as “Eichlers” in the same esteemed way people refer to “Schindlers” and “Neutras.”
Many original owners such as Allen’s parents, who took a chance on the then-radical style, have stayed put. And now, the Eichler promise of clutter-free living is attracting a new crop of young families drawn to the dwellings’ livability, adaptability and timeless design.
“One of the great achievements of Eichler homes is that they are permissive and have a chameleon capacity,” says Matt Kahn, who decorated the interiors for the Eichler models a half century ago. “The structure isn’t dictatorial. It can change moods with the inhabitants, from generation to generation.”
Over the decades, the functional houses have evolved, as Eichler expected his do-it-yourself-energized owners would change them. Master bedrooms have been enlarged, kitchens updated and laundry rooms converted into home offices.
But the cornerstones of unobstructed movement from room to room and visibility inside and out remain the same in many of the houses.
Eichler enthusiasts such as Greg Allen’s parents, Phil and Carolyn Allen, shake their heads at “gaudy” modifications. Some buyers have attached bay windows, hollow columns and fake stones to a once-simple silhouette. Second stories have been erected on top of pleasingly flat rooflines. Redwood siding has been stuccoed or ginger breaded, and arches carved out of straight-lined walls.
And the landscaping -- so important to the streetscape and especially to inhabitants of dwellings with 16-feet-high windows -- ignored.
More tragic to Eichler fans is when the unpretentious, but stylized houses are torn down and replaced with towering lot busters.
But residents are stepping up to keep the tracts intact. In January, about 100 Eichler houses in Granada Hills were granted protection by the city of Los Angeles. An interim control ordinance prevents owners from razing or significantly altering the exterior without approval.
This tract is waiting to be declared an official Historic Preservation Overlay Zone. The oldest tracts in Northern California have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Fortunately for Eichler houses everywhere, they are benefiting from the surge of interest in midcentury modern homes. Although Phil and Carolyn Allen paid $29,000 for their new four-bedroom house, similar ones today have waiting lists and start around $800,000. There are books, websites, repair services and real estate agents who focus only on Eichler houses.
Kahn says the houses’ bare-bones approach and exposed beams are appealing because “we have gotten tired of being overdressed and we want to be naked again. Modern architecture is like a nudist colony. It strips down to the essentials and gets character from those essentials.”
The most distinguishing features of Eichler houses from the street are flat roofs interrupted in the center by an A-shape to accommodate an atrium, and there are few, if any, windows in the front.
Unlike the traditional ranch-style house, there is no grand picture window that puts people in the living room on display.
Once past the facade’s front door, however, the Eichler house is like a glass box set outside. The interior atrium, surrounded by glass walls, sometimes opens to the sky. Plants grow from cutouts in the concrete floor.
A sliding glass door leads to the continuous living room, dining room and kitchen, all with views of the generous yard. Hallways are sometimes defined by translucent partitions. A ribbon of clerestory windows tops bedroom walls.
Eichler’s use of nontraditional post-and-beam structure needed fewer structural supports than wood frames with load-bearing walls. This efficient construction approach enabled him to build the houses he wanted -- comfortable, open spaces for families to be together.
His architects included in the floor plans a forward-thinking multipurpose room for the family to watch television or listen to the hi-fi. Bedrooms, usually three or four, wrapped around the atrium. A popular Eichler innovation was to have a second “kids’ ” bathroom that had another door to the backyard.
Eichler also introduced his buyers to new technology and industrial materials: foam insulation, acrylic skylights and concrete slab foundations with pebble floors inside and out.
He also installed conveniences that seemed, in their time, straight out of “The Jetsons.” Cooktops were built into a low-lying counter that swung out to become a long snack bar. Instead of forced-air heating and furnaces, hot water flowed through pipes underneath the slab floor to heat the house (a system Frank Lloyd Wright thought was futuristic). Cabinets were painted orange and gray in a washable, high-gloss Zolatone finish.
Academics in San Francisco as well as architects and aerospace engineers in Southern California instantly understood the new materials, inventive design and the liberating feeling of these houses with a minimum of interior walls.
Other buyers were seduced by the breezy California lifestyle of endless cocktail parties and barbecues as illustrated in Eichler’s advertising and photographic spreads in home magazines.
Still others bought because of the suburban location, family-friendly size and reasonable price. The first Eichlers started at less than $10,000.
“I’ve heard so many stories over the years from original owners who thought it would be a steppingstone to another home down the road,” says Marty Arbunich, director of the Web-based Eichler Network and a contributor to the book “Eichler: Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream.”
“Well, that didn’t always happen. So many of them stayed on because they really loved what they had. Most may express surprise today on how it all unfolded, yet are happy and content about hanging in,” Arbunich says.
Phil Allen, 70, a retired engineer with Rockwell Aerospace, and his wife Carolyn, 71, a retired teacher, haven’t changed much of their 42-year-old house, which was designed by Case Study architect A. Quincy Jones and his partner Frederick Emmons.
The couple upgraded appliances and added a patio cover that imitates the gentle pitch of their roofline.
“We loved this home from the first time we saw the plans,” says Carolyn Allen. “We were fascinated by the indoor/outdoor treatment. The design actually works.”
They also appreciate that the neighborhood has stayed steady over the years. In addition to their son living next door, the couple can point to two cases in which the children grew up and bought their parents’ house.
While there are other young families moving in and restoring the homes, there are still many longtime owners. In some Eichler neighborhoods, experts say, 15% to 30% of the occupants have lived there for decades.
Fran Karnes, who lives down the street from the Allens, maintains the original aggregate concrete floor and metal bathroom sinks, and neighbors Clair and Verna Samhammer have delicately updated their home and decorated it with contemporary black, white and chrome furnishings.
Eichler insisted that the Southern California houses looked like the ones in Northern California, even though industry leaders told him to soften up on the hard-core contemporary.
Decorator Kahn says new home models in Orange County in the early 1960s reflected a “resort” feel.
“I had other clients who were doing that, but for the Eichler homes, we used the same palette of colors,” says Kahn, who has lived in his Palo Alto Eichler since 1959.
The only restrictions Kahn would put on decorating an Eichler today, as in the past, is to use genuine objects and avoid “imitations and overtly status-oriented flash.”
Phil and Carolyn Allen still use pieces of furniture they bought as newlyweds: Eames chair and ottoman, Herman Miller round pedestal table and Danish modern dining room table and chairs.
Next door, at Greg and Holly’s house, the furnishings are more Mission-style and children-friendly with an overstuffed sectional sofa.
The biggest difference with their home is that the previous owner remodeled the 500-square-foot atrium. It’s now a skylight-covered part of the living room that stretches 30 feet by 20 feet.
“I think Eichler would have approved of this change,” says Greg Allen. “It’s just a bigger room with open beams and plenty of light and that’s what he was going for. And it works for six people.”