Suburbia: The very word conjures up rows and rows of cookie-cutter houses, laid out on a vast, grim grid of blah. At the time they were built, after World War II, the nation was desperate for new housing. But some of those homes are considered architectural treasures today, especially if they were made by one particular Silicon Valley real estate developer.
Birth of the Eichler
Let’s travel back in time to the 1940s, when a Bay Area businessman named Joseph Eichler rented the Bazett house in Hillsborough, designed by rock star architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Eichler fell in love. He hired the Wright-loving architecture firm of Anshen and Allen to make him something along the same lines.
Then Eichler started thinking about making homes for other people.
"He was looking around for something to do. A lot of people at that time from other professions were going into homebuilding," says David Weinstein, who writes for the Eichler Network, a website for Eichler enthusiasts.
Eichler’s vision developed gradually, and the homes he built initially in Sunnyvale weren't much to look at.
"His very first subdivisions don’t look like Eichlers at all," Weinstein says.
But then Robert Anshen convinced Eichler to use architects and designers for his tract houses, too -- something that most developers were not doing at the time. That’s what pushed Eichler homes onto a different plane of development: the people he had working for him. If that makes him sound a little like Steve Jobs at Apple, well, that would be an apt comparison.
"They were always innovating, coming up with new ways for space arrangement. It’s really the spirit of Silicon Valley. These were experimental houses," says Weinstein.
Between 1949 and 1974, when Eichler died, his group built roughly 11,000 homes in California, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area.
You’ll find them north, east and south of San Francisco, but Palo Alto is home to more Eichlers than anyplace else: more than 2,700 houses, packing the tightly curving streets and cul-de-sacs Eichler preferred because they encourage people to hang out with each other.
Two of Palo Alto’s Eichler neighborhoods, Green Gables and Greenmeadow, are historic districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Eichler Look
From the outside, Eichlers appear modest, crisp, angular. But step inside, and your attention is drawn to floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the backyard, taking full advantage of California’s year-round sunshine. You know that phrase “indoor/outdoor living”? This is that.
"The openness, the airiness, looking up from a window and seeing the sky when you’re in the house," says Bonnie Borton, an Eichler owner who moved in right after the neighborhood in Palo Alto was built in 1959-1960.
If your parents — or grandparents — subscribed to Sunset Magazine, you’ve seen an Eichler, because for more than two decades, Sunset’s vision of the California Dream House looked like an Eichler: open floor plans, clean lines stretching in every direction. It’s a style that has come to be known as midcentury modern.
Even today, when people buy Eichlers and remodel them, they often use Sunset for inspiration.
"We replaced everything," says Edita Donnelly of Palo Alto, who wanted her Eichler to look even more “Eichler-esque” if you will, than it was when she bought it. That is to say, she did things like raise the ceiling in the living room, and she added sliding glass doors to every room in the house.
"We designed it so that every room has access to the outside, and I think that idea came from a Sunset Magazine model house for me," Donnelly says.
They Used to Be Affordable
When Bonnie Borton bought her Eichler in 1960, she paid $19,500. Let that sink in for a moment. Today in Palo Alto, one of these homes can sell for up to $3 million. Eichlers in less affluent cities aren't quite as pricey, but it's all a far cry from the days when these homes were sold to people in the middle class.
(Lovely side note: Eichler also had a nondiscrimination policy and insisted on selling to people of all ethnicities and religions — a progressive attitude that wasn't matched by many other tract home developers at the time.)
And in even wealthier neighborhoods, like Atherton and Hillsborough, some people have bought the property and bulldozed the Eichler to make way for something bigger, newer, whatever.
So in recent years, a number of Eichler-rich neighborhoods in Silicon Valley have developed design guidelines, zoning overlays or even historic districts in an attempt to keep their neighborhoods aesthetically cohesive.
"People who like the Eichlers aren’t saying the wealthy shouldn’t have big houses. They should just do it someplace else," Weinstein says drolly.
Rebecca Thompson, another Palo Alto Eichler owner, explains that something as ostensibly simple as adding another story can negatively affects the neighbors, even if tastefully done.
"Because our homes have these floor-to-ceiling windows in the primary living areas, in the master bedroom, in the kitchen, in the living room. Most people don’t have blinds," she says.
Most Eichlers are only one story. If you have to install drapes or blinds to block the neighbor's view, you lose that "indoor/outdoor" space you bought your house to enjoy.
On the flip side, you might be thinking: Why would someone who can afford to buy an Eichler in Silicon Valley these days want to buy one? After all, they’re modestly sized, aging tract homes — some of which now come with zoning restrictions. I asked Thompson, who moved from Seattle to Palo Alto with her husband about eight years ago.
"Most people, if they move here from elsewhere, they downsize, because the cost of living is so much more expensive. So we downsized into a smaller house than we had in Seattle. However, we gained access to a large atrium, a front yard, a backyard that we could use for most months out of the year. So we really don’t miss the extra space," Thompson says.
But over the years, Thompson adds, it’s the neighbors they’ve come to appreciate most: the block parties, book clubs, not to mention shared Rolodexes of plumbers, electricians and interior decorators who specialize in Eichlers. "This is something that doesn’t exist as much anymore in this country. You don’t just buy a home. You’re buying into a community!
To be fair, a lot of tract developers thought they were building communities back in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. What’s different about Eichlers? Distinctive design and that definite sense, if you live in one, that you’re living the California Dream.
Special thanks to Palo Alto real estate agent Desiree Docktor for her invaluable help in producing this story.