If you grew up in Northern California (and to a lesser extent, Southern California), there’s a chance you know someone who lived in a flat-roofed, big-windowed, wood-sided ranch house built in the late 1950s or 1960s by real estate developer Joseph Eichler. Maybe you lived — or currently live — in an Eichler home or a house that looks like something the tract housing trailblazer would have built during his midcentury heyday.
Born in New York City in 1900, Eichler has enjoyed something of a renaissance as of late as a new generation of homeowners rediscover the myriad charms — and downsides as detailed in this infuriating, woe-is-me 2006 account published by The San Francisco Chronicle — of the quintessential “California Modern” residence. A smart, stylish take on cookie-cutter tract housing that’s aesthetically agreeable, even beautiful, Eichler homes — simply, Eichlers — continue to influence and inspire modern-day architects and builders.
Steve Jobs is partly to thank for some of the renewed interest in Joseph Eichler, name-checking the developer in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of the late Apple honcho. “Eichler did a great thing. I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn't cost much,” said Jobs.
It’s often erroneously reported that Job’s first childhood home in Mountain View, California, was an Eichler. That house, not to be confused with Jobs' later home in Los Altos that was deemed a historic site in 2013, was built by another Bay Area developer using the original architect employed by Eichler when he set out in the late 1950s to construct affordable, attractive, and unusually airy postwar housing for the growing middle class.
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who grew up in the nearby city of Sunnyvale, did, however, live in an honest-to-goodness Eichler. He addresses the confusion over the Eichler-dom of his former colleague’s childhood home. “My wife and I have scratched our heads over that one. We had the same opinion. I never thought of that house as an Eichler in any regard and never heard it called an Eichler. Having lived in an Eichler myself, I was very familiar with the look and architecture,” remarks Wozniak. “I suspect that Steve told some reporter or author about Eichler homes, since he would have known people like myself that lived in Eichlers. Steve was frequently in my home, for example. The reporter or author probably thought Steve was talking about his own house.”
The continued preservation of Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian-style homes — innovative, middle-class-aiming residences conceived by the hugely influential American architect a decade or so before Eichler arrived on the scene — has also helped to spur interest in Eichler-built residences. Although the two men never collaborated (Wright died in 1959, around the same time that Eichler's late-life career in real estate started to take off), the first of several architects employed by Eichler, Robert Anshen, was a disciple of Wright. It was Anshen’s firm that designed Jobs’ aforementioned childhood home in Mountain View.
A former dairy executive, Eichler was hugely inspired by Wright, having lived in a Wright-designed home in the early 1940s. "Father, for reasons I never figured out, came home one day to our nondescript San Mateo house and said, 'We're moving.' We moved into a 1942 Frank Lloyd Wright house we rented from a man in the military. Father was hooked," Eichler’s son, Ned, told the Los Angeles Times in a 1993 profile.
The number of realized Usonian residences — widely considered to be the proto-ranch house — hovers around 60. Mass-produced Eichlers number in the several thousands (about 11,000 to be exact), most all of them built en masse within developments in and around the San Francisco Bay Area (San Mateo, San Jose, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Marin County and on), Sacramento and the San Fernando Valley. Still, the similarities between the two are numerous and the influence of the Usonian on the Eichler is clear: abundant natural lighting, radiant floor heating, open floor plans, tons of mahogany, small-ish bedrooms and the blurring of exterior and interior living spaces achieved through massive floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights. Eichler referred to this as, simply, “bringing the outside in.”
The progressive and impassioned Eichler also promoted housing for everyone during an era when most large developers actively turned away potential homeowners because of their race or religion. In 1958, he resigned from the National Association of Home Builders in protest over the organization's racial discrimination policies.
Taking a break from pint-sized properties, Kirstin Dirsken of faircompanies recently released an insightful and envy-inducing video tour (above) of three Eichlers in the Silicon Valley, including a lovely, late-period model sporting an entryway atrium. This is another signature Eichler feature that further merges the indoors with the out. “It’s almost like living outside but you’re protected from the elements because you have the glass — but you can still see outside,” explains the owner of the home in question. He goes on to explain how a home with relatively few solid walls comes in handy when trying to keep tabs on young children running around.
There’s lots more Eichler goodness in the video including insight on Eichler homes, considered as odd and déclassé when first introduced, and modern-day prefabs. There's also discussion about an oft-overlooked perk of living in an Eichler: Less storage space leads to less stuff. “You don’t accumulate a lot of things because you don’t have a lot of storage,” explains another proud Eichler dweller. “Everybody always says, ‘it’s so great, I don’t collect and keep things.’ You just have to weed out. You don’t have the space.”
She continues: “Everything is a view to the outside. And that’s what’s what makes the outside just like another room. It really is an extension of our homes. That was his philosophy: living with nature, not living around four walls.”
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