Never-Before-Seen Images of Iconic Midcentury Modern Eichler Homes

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By Erika Heet / Published by Dwell
Steven Eichler, the grandson of the famed developer, shares rare photos from his personal collection, provides firsthand memories of his grandfather’s legacy, and gives us a sneak preview of what he’ll be bringing to Dwell on Design Los Angeles.

What’s your take on the enduring legacy of your grandfather’s work? Why do you feel it has resonated so strongly with architects, designers, homeowners, and design aficionados?

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A house in Greenmeadow, a Joseph Eichler development in Palo Alto.

First and foremost, I believe that the Eichler home was built for the homeowner. I am not suggesting that my grandfather embodied a completely customer-centric approach to building these homes. He was a businessperson after all, and there were definitely business decisions along the way that may not have completely resonated with the customer. However, when you apply the filter of the architect-designed affordable home available to the masses, as he did, this quickly became a quality, value, and ethos that spoke loudly to the would-be homeowner then and even to the current day. Along with this, he broke away from the patterns of discrimination that were so prevalent among merchant builders then, including taking a very visible stand evidenced not only by his resignation from the National Association of Home Builders in protest of racial discrimination policies. His anti-discrimination stance and actions spoke loudly and continue to be a landmark of his legacy to this day.

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Eichler Swim & Tennis Club, Palo Alto, California.

For the homeowner, living in an Eichler home became such a compelling statement for how they wanted to live and raise their families. What I hear most often from current owners as to why they chose to live in an Eichler home is that they like the inclusion of the outside as being a part of their indoor living space. They like that there home is light and airy; that the patio, atrium, and backyard are all an extension of the living space, making the home feel much bigger than the physical square footage of the dwelling.

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Faircourt, Palo Alto, Joseph Eichler.

For architects, designers, and design aficionados, I believe that the Eichler home represents an example of a hugely rewarding relationship between builder and architect (or designer). The collaborative spirit between these two roles, at least for merchant builders was, and is, not the norm. And, this shows in the result. The attention to detail in the configuration and layout, site and subdivision planning, and use of materials, down to the purchasing of the building materials and how that influenced the design was more than just business, it was artful.

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Fairwood, a tract in Sunnyvale, California, by Joseph Eichler.

And, then among the masses who appreciate and enjoy living in the midcentury modern ethos, an Eichler home keeps it simple. It is not typically overblown with all of the fanciful accoutrements that the McMansions of today posses, even those of some custom midcentury modern architecture.

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Balboa Highlands, Granada Hills, California, by Joseph Eichler.

What did you learn about planning, design, and architecture from your grandfather? Did you experience his work with him firsthand?

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Living room, Balboa Highlands, Granada Hills, California, by Joseph Eichler.

Sadly, my grandfather passed away when I was 14. To that point, my learning comprised of traipsing through subdivisions under construction, marveling at slab foundations and wood framing, picking up pieces of scrap electrical wire, but not fully comprehending the full extent of the world in which my grandfather or Eichler Homes lived. I always felt that my grandfather had a presence that was greater than life itself. He had a big booming voice, which came across as gruff. At family gatherings, the adult topics for my grandfather, father, and uncle, largely revolved around politics, and these could be very animated conversations among them. The war in Vietnam was brought up often enough, that for some reason one recollection that I seem to still hold in my memory is my grandfather telling me that I would not go to war. He wouldn’t allow it.

What I have learned about my grandfather and Eichler Homes has been handed down to me over the years through stories from my father, through meeting and getting to know people like A. Quincy Jones and his wife Elaine, Claude Oakland, some employees who worked for him, and some of his friends. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Elaine Jones (after Quincy passed away) and she became a teacher, mentor, and historian of not only the Eichler years, but also of many things regarding midcentury design and architecture, including her acquaintance with Charles and Ray Eames, as well as many other luminaries of that era.

How do you feel about Eichler renovations you’ve seen? Can you name worst and best examples?

With some training in design, and having worked on primarily interior projects in kitchen and bath design, I would like to think that I am at least open-minded to look at design for what it is, being good or bad, and not necessarily of any particular genre. For my own personal choice, however, I would choose contemporary, midcentury modern, or something of a blend over say Victorian or Mediterranean Villa. So when I see an Eichler renovation I try to look at how it fits with the original design programming while solving for the needs of today’s homeowners.

For example, while there are a few second-story additions that have been done aesthetically well, they largely do not work for most of the original single-story floor plans. There were a few two-story Eichler homes built and those work because they were designed that way, but most attempts to add a second story on the conventional single story floor plan look like something alien to the beauty of the Eichler home.

Then, there was the Eichler home that looked basically "normal" from the outside, but upon entering the home the renovation with a Southwestern motif just didn’t work for me. From a design sense was the renovation done well? To my eye, and objectively speaking, I thought so. It just felt out of place in connection with a midcentury modern style home, an Eichler home.

And, then there was the home that had wagon wheels adorning the front yard. But, therein lies the beauty of an Eichler home. It is a canvas from which individual self-expression is honored and expected.

Can you guess how your grandfather might have approached updating the homes in his developments today?

This is a great question! My sense of my grandfather, and somewhat consistent with the stories that have been handed down, is that he would have resisted significant and wholesale updates (renovations) to any of "his" existing homes. The updating and improvements would have been left to the building of new homes. That said, I would like to think that he would have evolved, and being the businessperson that he was, at some point would acquiesce and have an offering to do modest improvements such as kitchen and bath updates.

Please clarify the difference between an authentic Eichler home and an inauthentic one? Is it possible for a newly built authentic Eichler design to exist?

Design being what it is, there is always room for something new. While a certain model or floor plan would be used in multiple subdivisions being built at any given time, it was a largely iterative process. Meaning much like the automobile business where a certain model is designed and then built for about seven years, during which little tweaks are done to have the model be a little different each year, an Eichler home floor plan was also tweaked, and new iterations introduced with almost every new subdivision built. Certainly over that time there were also major design changes; floor plans added the atrium in about 1958, the size of the house grew, and other amenities were added.

In my opinion, for a new Eichler to be built it would need to have the following ingredients:

  • Be evolutionary and innovative; in other words not simply a home built on the original floor plans, having been updated to current building codes. This to me is nothing more than a kit-home, and done on a commercial basis misses the point. For an individual to do this on their own, maybe this would be okay, just doesn’t work for me in a "builder" format.
  • Involves an architect who embraces and embodies the spirit of the Eichler product.
  • Be affordable. This is by far one of the most important ingredients. While good design was imperative to the product that Eichler delivered, the design was not for showiness or exuberance, it was done as a way to value living in a better environment.

What would you recommend to someone purchasing an Eichler home? What’s the first thing one should do?

When someone buys an Eichler home today it is important and absolutely imperative that they recognize it is not just the home that they are buying into but also the complete neighborhood and way of living. Unlike many other homes and neighborhoods, living in an "Eichler" is a representation of its homeowners. They are passionate about their choice of home and its neighborhood, the simplicity of design, the feeling of expansiveness that their home posses. With the amount of glass and ability to see long distances, the home feels larger by including the outside in its fold, rather than the way a home with a simple window or door cutout feels.

The first thing a new homeowner should, and this is regardless of the current condition of the house, is just sit in it and take in the spaces. Don’t rush to do anything until you have the spatial experience in your breath and mind. Take the time to understand and appreciate the original design for what it was. Then hire a competent architect to help make the improvements that are desired, one who is sensitive to the spirit and objective that Eichler and his original architects embodied when creating the home.

 

Catch Steven Eichler onstage on Friday, May 29 at 1:30 p.m. in conversation with Dwell senior editor Heather Corcoran at Dwell on Design Los Angeles.