People in Glass Houses: The Legacy of Joseph Eichler
Procurers of these 20th-century inside-outside, flat-roofed dwellings are referred to as Eichler-holics who won’t live anywhere else. Realtor-turned-filmmaker Monique Lombardelli brings their experience home while shedding light on a Northern California architectural movement in her new documentary, People in Glass Houses: The Legacy of Joseph Eichler.
“One reason why I respect him so much is how he changed the game completely,” Lombardelli says in describing the 11,000 airy dwellings the former dairy salesman erected, the majority in the San Francisco Bay Area aided by A. Quincy Jones, Frederick E. Emmons and Anshen + Allen–like minded visionaries he commissioned starting in 1950.
The film reveals Eichler’s genius in plotting a departure from cookie cutter suburban tracts of the postwar ilk. His single-family innovations were part of intentional communities built around common use parks and pools, where Eichler neighbors gathered for patio cocktails and annual 4th of July block parties. In one San Jose subdivision, three generations of the same family owns homes. They speak about returning to a simpler time when kids played ball on cul-de-sacs at night and share resources for maintaining the integrity of the original glass wall structures when updating the elements, which by all accounts were more stunning than sustainable.
Lombardelli financed the $40,000 film and cast several homeowners drawn to the pure and simple pavilions with unobstructed views of nature. In opening their homes we see that in most cases, the décor is in sync with the mid-century bones, from Knoll sofas to retro metal switch plates. Owners emerge as savvy collectors who refuse to disrupt the canvas with clutter. “Eichlers have always appealed to certain type of people–that was true then and is true now,” observes architect Paul Adamson in the film.
That certain type was never the elite. Eichler broke ground in his mission to allow people of moderate means access to good modern design—a Frank Lloyd Wright tract home for the everyman–not just those able to hire stellar architects. Son Edward “Ned” Eichler was out of the army for two years when he assumed title of marketing manager and reminisces about one neighbor’s initial outrage at an African-American couple moving next door as fair housing practices were both encouraged and rewarded by team Eichler (a lesser known fact). Or, as one of the first African-American homeowners named Yvonne, who still resides in her well-appointed Eichler, tells us, “He took a stand and shifted the paradigm with his non-discrimination crusade.”
Q and A with the Producer
Dwell: Why make an Eichler film now?
Lombardelli: Our community is thriving and the attraction and popularity of Eichler homes is at its peak. It's an exciting time for us. I wanted to show what the homes are, what their history was and how beautiful they are. It turned into a way to meet amazing people.
Dwell: How did you solicit owners for the film?
Lombardelli: Everyone involved in the film was either a referral or someone who loves Eichlers. One client in the Highlands offered to show his amazing chalet style Eichler in San Mateo. I’ve been selling some homes off market because a goal is to preserve them rather than tear them down, a trend in Hillsborough. There are 10 of them there, 2700 in Palo Alto, 20 in Atherton, 400 in Terra Linda and 800 in San Mateo. There are about 11,000 of them total in the Bay Area. I found I clicked with these people – mid-century enthusiasts – and decided to focus on these homes exclusively and found my purpose after three years of working as an agent. By selling off market we can control the preservation of the homes.
Dwell: Is your film reaching an audience outside of the U.S.?
Lombardelli: Yes. And I have had inquiries about these homes from Eichler enthusiasts in Australia, Brazil, Holland and China. People love mid-century modern style all over the world. Sometimes groups of students’ tourists are spotted peeping at the buildings like the Life House in San Mateo, which was the first multi-level Eichler built and appeared on the cover of Life Magazine.
Dwell: These glass homes weren't really green: how have owners improved upon original design to make them more sustainable?
Lombardelli: Many have added radiant heat, solar panels and foam roofing. There are issues with any home. The tradeoff is this beautiful indoor/ outdoor environment that is so incredibly inviting and peaceful.
Dwell: What's the most valuable Eichler you have encountered and what made it stand out from the pack?
Lombardelli: They are all special to me, (like people) but my favorite is the X-100, an all steel Eichler in the San Mateo Highlands. This test home designed by architect A. Quincy Jones was advertised and celebrated in the media when it was unveiled in October 1956 because it showcased futuristic technology of the time. Californians packed into this home of tomorrow to see innovations like the revolving fireplace, two indoor gardens, a plastic skylight, electric sliding doors instead of windows and the unique steel frame construction eliminating the need for load bearing walls.
Dwell: Why do you think Eichlers are still relatively affordable?
Lombardelli: They range from $600k-700k in the East Bay, $800-900k in the South Bay and around $1.4m on the Peninsula and in Marin. Joseph Eichler built them for the masses coming back from the war that at that time would not have been able to purchase a home without his innovation and pricing. Today, people would argue that this price is not affordable at all. Here in the Silicon Valley, buyers pay a premium for these homes. In my opinion, because they are a rarity; you have the issue of supply and demand. The average number of days on the market for any Eichler is just nine. There is a huge demand for them and I consider them a collector’s item, a special piece of art that is very hard to find. My main objective is preserving them and I have many clients who want to sell them off market in order to find the right buyers.