Eichler City: Midcentury Modern in Silicon Valley

“This is one of the best overviews I have found.”  Matt Taylor, noted Modernist architect, 2004

“A very well written overview.”  David Eichler, grandson of Joe Eichler, 2014

Eichler City has been quoted on Eichler Network, dedicated to supporting the lifestyle of the thousands of homeowners in Northern and Southern California who own an ‘Eichler’ home. 

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The Midcentury Modern home: what it is, why it exists and where to find it.

If you’ve been looking at entry-level homes in Palo Alto and neighboring cities, either in person or on the Internet, you’ve noticed a certain style of house keep popping up. Called “contemporary”, “flattop”, “Eichler” or “midcentury modern”, by any name this house is a significant part the mid-Peninsula’s affordable housing stock.

If you’re like most buyers, you look at the contemporary and say yeah, I guess I could live with that. Buying a home here calls for lots of compromise and, whether you love it or not, a contemporary may be the best (or only) way you’ll get the neighborhood you want.

Then again, you might be part of that large minority of traditionalists who’ve steadfastly said no way, absolutely not to the contemporary over the past sixty-odd years.

Or you might be one of the discriminating minority actively looking for Mid Mod. After years as real estate’s neglected stepchild, the contemporary in general and Eichler in particular is suddenly hip again, boosted by the midcentury modern revival. If you’re a true believer, I’d love to help you find your home.

The contemporary home may or may not be your dream house, but since you may be looking at them and perhaps even buying one, I’ll do my best to explain what it is, what the thinking was behind its design, and why it dominates so much of the local landscape. I’m hopeful you’ll learn to like the species, or at least feel less inclined to turn yours into a Cape Cod.

And if you really MCM but can’t afford the Palo Alto variety, I’ll give you leads on finding more affordable areas. I’ll emphasize the homes of Joseph Eichler and of his largest competitor, John Mackay.

And if you can afford a Palo Alto contemporary but don’t like what high Palo Alto prices get you, I’ll tell you about the handful of relatively upscale Eichler neighborhoods in nearby cities.

The MCM home described.

Although often called “Eichlers” after their best-known builder, contemporaries came from many builders and differ significantly both in design and quality.

Their trademark is a flat or slightly pitched roof covered with tar and gravel or, more recently, foam. The classic contemporary construction is post-and-beam, a design that facilitates its trademark open floor plan. However, post-and-beam is a specialized and unforgiving construction technique, so the superficial elements of Midcentury Modern design were sometimes hung on conventional construction. Floor-to-ceiling windows are another contemporary characteristic, one later found in more conventional designs. MCM is popularly associated with slab foundation, but that’s not always the case: many were built on the same perimeter foundation that underlies most conventional ranchers, while some conventional ranchers were built on slab. Eichler contemporaries are strongly identified with radiant heating, but a few other local merchant builders, notably Mackay and Coastwise, also used it, although not for long. It’s not unusual to also find radiant in custom homes of the ’50s and ’60s. Early inexpensive contemporaries often came with cheap but inefficient wall heaters, and most later went to forced-air heating. MCM is known for its high or vaulted open-beam ceilings, something also borrowed later by the conventional rancher.

Many buyers equate contemporaries with “small and cheap”, but these homes differ widely in size and quality.

At the pinnacle of the Mid Mod scene are the architect-designed custom homes built from the mid-1930s into the early ‘70s, typically for the upper-middle class clients who are (or at least were) the early adapters of new architecture. The very best, such as Stanford’s Hanna House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1936, usually aren’t open for viewing, even to real estate agents and open house habitués. (Fortunately, Stanford offers tours of Hanna House.)

Next in the contemporary hierarchy are the tract homes designed by architects, a category Eichlers have mostly but not entirely to themselves. Eichler’s last developments, small infill projects offering a number of large floorplans, are something of a bridge between tract and custom homes. Often built for the move-up Eichler buyer, the leading-edge design of these late-period examples differentiates them from mass-market contemporaries built during the same period. This select group also includes the handful of one-offs, typically found in the unlikely settings of conservative middle-class communities such as San Carlos or San Jose’s Rose Garden, anomalies in a sea of traditional homes, perhaps the work of an architect or designer or just picked out a stock plan book, but with a high degree of sophistication and quality.

Further down the list are the thousands of homes built in the 1950s to compete with Eichler in the mid-priced range, usually with the more radical elements of contemporary design smoothed off for a more commercial product. Some of these homes were designed by the architects responsible for many of Eichler’s homes, Anshen & Allen. Their builders were in business to make money, not pursue an artistic vision, and they cranked out a popular and sometimes appealing synthesis of contemporary and conventional design.

At the bottom of the heap are the tens of thousands of homes that used MCM design elements to make cheap, entry-level housing. The early ones have a certain purity of line, although occasionally they’re burdened with a Popular Mechanics “House of the Future” look, but as the ‘50s wore on they got cluttered. It’s unfortunate that these minimalist homes represent the contemporary to most people.

What were they thinking?

So why did Joseph Eichler, John Mackay, Brown & Kaufman, Stern & Price, Stone & Schulte, American Housing Guild and a host of other builders leave behind so many contemporaries in South Palo Alto and nearby cities? The midcentury modern revival has rehabilitated contemporary design, but until fairly recently the answer to “what were they thinking?” could easily have been overlooked: back in the day, these homes had a significant following. This wasn’t “build it and they will come”; merchant builders don’t create new markets, they build for existing ones. Contemporaries were avant garde, a rebellion against traditional architecture, a statement for the young professionals and free thinkers streaming into, and changing, the mid-Peninsula. Today, history repeats itself, and like today, even then those who didn’t care much for the architecture bought contemporaries for their location and value.

The best of these Midcentury Modern are spiritual heirs to the work of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, first his Prairie homes of 1900-1910 and then his Usonian designs of the mid-1930s and 1940s.
wrightrobie2Robie House, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1910.

They also have kinship with the “simple homes for simple living” of the Arts & Crafts movement, contemporaneous with Wright’s Prairie homes. Both styles have a horizontal planted look, broad eaves and spare ornamentation. Both were designed to celebrate natural materials and outdoor living. Each style was a regional reaction against the local architectural status quo. The Craftsman rejected the ornate Queen Anne Victorian common to the Bay Area and Southern California, while the Prairie was a uniquely Midwestern response to the European Revival styles (such as Tudor and Spanish) starting to appear.

greene&greenegamble1B&WGamble House, Greene & Greene, 1908.

Wright’s early work, along with the cubist art of 1909 to about 1920, had a tremendous influence on the first European Modernist architects. (One of the best-known early Modernist architects, Le Corbusier, began as a cubist painter; and I’ve seen cubist-inspired furniture designs from 1910 that would look at home in the pages of an Eichler sales brochure.) Two early Modernists, Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, gravitated to California in the 1920s and began designing radically modern homes that would introduce the style to this country.

neutralowell2Lovell Health House, Richard Neutra, 1927.

In the mid-1930s Wright took the “simple home” concept further with his Usonians, spare and open homes designed for Everyman. Wright was in his 60s and a scandalous has-been, and at the time some questioned whether the Usonian was his own or simply borrowed from the Modernists. Although never mass-produced as he had hoped, Wright’s Usonians featured innovations that found their way into post-war tract housing. Design elements such as the slab roof, floating slab foundation, radiant heating and floor-to-ceiling plate glass would be limited largely to the contemporary style and help define it. But other innovations such as the dining ell, bedroom wing, carport and centralized kitchen appeared in conventional designs after World War II. The depressed economy of the 1930s discouraged the large-scale building of anything other than the most basic of homes (such as Doelger’s efforts in San Francisco’s Sunset District) and the earliest MCM, both Wright’s and others, were custom one-offs done for a daring cultural elite.
wright21930s Usonian.

Of course, there’s another reason contemporary design didn’t catch on in the 1930s: it was ahead of its time. True, tastes were changing—the new, simple “ranch” style home of the late ’30s was a radical departure from the earlier, ornate Revival styles, at least on the outside. But in 1936, the mass market wasn’t ready for contemporary; by 1946, a significant part of it was.

If Wright’s Usonians (and the equally clean-lined but less angular Deco-inspired Streamline Moderne homes of the 1920s and 1930s) are the dim pre-history of Midcentury Modern, then the years immediately following World War II are its Age of Discovery. The economy and political decisions of the late 1940s created a number of factors—increasing prosperity and optimism, easy credit and an end to war-time shortages in labor and building materials—that kicked homebuilding into high gear. But see enough early post-war homes and you’ll realize that builders were still winging it. The field of mass home-building was new and wide open, with many small players helping write the book. Yes, most were building the same house they built (or would have built) in 1939, but there was enough experimentation to make things very interesting.

Not widely known today is that contemporaries were a significant part of the new-home market even before a soon-to-be-famous homebuilder cautiously dipped his toe in the water.

In 1942, a newly-retired middle-aged San Francisco businessman named Joseph Eichler rented a daringly futuristic home in Hillsborough, the Sidney Bazett House, designed three years earlier by Frank Lloyd Wright. We see “Hillsborough” and think “mansion” but the Bazett House is a surprisingly modest two-bedroom home. Nonetheless, it inspired Eichler. Joe was looking for a new career and, like many, went into home-building after World War II. In one sense Eichler was the typical post-war homebuilder: “no experience necessary”. But he was a builder with a dream: to give the middle-class homeowner the benefit of Frank Lloyd Wright’s artistry. An idea was in the air—the architect as social engineer, designing buildings whose streamlined functionality enhanced the quality of everyday life—and Joe was a true believer. And fortunately there was now a small but receptive market for these homes. After fifteen years lost to war and a grinding depression, post-war America was open to, and even demanding of, new ideas. And like many design trends, contemporary architecture had gone from bleeding edge to commercially viable, or at least niche-market viable.

In 1947 Eichler began his career as a merchant builder, not in Palo Alto, as is often assumed, and not by building Wright-inspired homes. In a move that typified Eichler’s unique combination of pragmatism, idealism and risk taking, he invested in pre-fabricated homes, an idea then touted by such visionaries as Buckminster Fuller as not only the next big thing in home building but the progressive solution to the country’s severe housing shortage. (Although I wonder if these “pre-fab” homes were just a new twist on an old idea, the kit homes popular before 1930.)

Also in 1947 Eichler bought 45 acres of ranch land in north Sunnyvale, a transaction that was almost certainly a passing of the torch from one local giant to the next: the sellers were probably the Murphys, a famous South Bay pioneer family who gave their first names to a number of Sunnyvale’s streets. In 1949 Eichler broke ground for a mainstream project, his first development, Sunnyvale Manor. While contemporary in design, these homes were built to stock plans bought from another builder; the architect-designed homes that made Eichler famous would come a year later. His second tract, Sunnymount Gardens, was a similar if slightly more upscale development, also in Sunnyvale. In 1949-50 Joe built his first Palo Alto tract, University Gardens in Barron Park, and put up Stanford Gardens in Central Menlo Park. These homes, designed by a draftsman with Joe’s input, capture Eichler in transition, moving from the typical merchant builder relying on stock plans to his exclusive use of top-quality architects.

1950 saw the transition complete as the Wright-influenced architects Eichler hired to design his own Atherton house, Robert Anshen and Steven Allen, designed his next tract, Sunnyvale Manor Addition. These fifty-one homes, while modest, stood out from contemporaneous flattops and laid the foundation for Joe’s subsequent success.

Eichler histories say that these first architect-designed homes were an instant sellout. What they don’t always mention is that local demand for homes was huge and virtually untapped after a twenty-year hiatus in homebuilding, compounded by waves of emigration flooding California during and after World War II. But Ned Eichler, Joe’s son, points out that home building was tough and competitive even during the boom years, and that many who got into the business didn’t last.

Eichler’s first Anshen + Allen homes in Sunnyvale appealed strongly to the architecture magazines, who would be an invaluable source of publicity for Joe throughout his career. The “AA-1” also had upmarket appeal, attracting buyers from Palo Alto who could have afforded more house. Joe quickly decided that Palo Alto was a greener pasture and moved there to establish his early reputation, although he returned to Sunnyvale in force after Palo Alto was built out. 1950 saw Eichler build four more Anshen + Allen tracts, three in Palo Alto:  El Centro Gardens in Barron Park, Greer Park in South Palo Alto and Green Gables Addition in Green Gables. The fourth, Atherwood, was in Redwood City south of Woodside Road.
eichlerfirst1B&WAnshen & Allen AA-1, Sunnyvale Manor Addition, 1950.

Other builders jumped on the bandwagon and by the late ‘50s the contemporary dominated South Palo Alto and large parts of nearby cities. Eichler stayed with his Wright-inspired homes until his death in 1973, but by then his competition had long-since switched to more conventional ranchers. Sometimes his competitors incorporated Eichler elements such as floor-to-ceiling windows, vaulted ceilings and even Eichler’s signature atrium, but in “softer”, more commercial designs. According to Ned Eichler the mass-market contemporary was largely passé by the early ‘60s, a victim of imitation and changing tastes, although I’ve noticed that the move-up contemporary hung on well into the ‘70s.

Not long ago Midcentury Modern seemed as dated as the tailfins on a 1957 Studebaker, but to see how clean and radical the best of these homes were, look at a sales brochure photograph with a car of the same era parked in front. The car’s lines look convoluted next to the crisp design of the contemporary, a graphic illustration of how leading edge this architecture was in its day—and still is, to the aficionados.

The appreciation of contemporary design seems to skip generations. Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”, those who came of age during the restrictions of the Great Depression and World War II, were its first mass consumers. Modernism expressed their desire for a freer, more authentic lifestyle and, perhaps most important, served as a clean break from the past. Their kids, the boomers, entered the housing market about the time the contemporary went out of style. The more traditional tastes of young boomer buyers may have been a reaction to the unrest and uncertainty of the ’60s and ’70s. That’s how it stayed until a few years ago when their kids, Gen X, began entering the market in force. Coincidence? I don’t think so. For some buyers, home design is a way to show that they aren’t their parents.

Full disclosure: I like Eichlers and grew up in one and yes, those two statements may be related. But I’m not strictly a Modernist—I also like the pre-war Revival architecture that Modernists reject. But it’s obvious to me that Eichlers bring an extra dimension to home design. While many find them cold and sterile, I feel a welcoming humanity and an intelligence rare in mass-produced housing. Make no mistake, Eichler was a crusty middle-aged businessman, not an artist. But Joe had a vision, and not only did he stay true to it, he had first-class architects refine it. It’s interesting to note that the contemporary and the conventional rancher design both date from the same period, the late 1930s, and that the earliest examples of each have the self-effacing, sober presentation appropriate to the hard times of the Great Depression. But as economic conditions improved through the ‘50s, the Eichler kept its simplicity while the conventional rancher sometimes got a little goofy, owing its design inspiration less to Cliff May and more to Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
eichlergreenmeadow2Typical late-‘50s Eichler.

None of this is going to make you like contemporaries if you don’t already, and many people really dislike them. Why? The drawbacks I hear mentioned most often—darkness, drafty windows, unreliable tar-and-gravel roofs and flammable walls—can all be fixed for a price, and that price is often reasonable. The Eichler Network’s tech articles and your contractor can address these construction idiosyncrasies better than I.

But I suspect that the average buyer’s deep and instinctive aversion to MCM has little to do with functional drawbacks, and everything to do with message. Eichlers, in particular, are streamlined machines in the form-follows-function Modernist style, a legacy of Industrial Revolution machine-worship. Then, the machine was an unmixed blessing, a force that could only improve life (and if that sounds naive, consider today’s attitude toward technology). Blessing or not, the machine on the factory floor is authentic. It claims to be nothing more or less than what it is: a machine, carefully designed for optimum efficiency. It has exposed parts. It’s unapologetically modern, not a sentimental imitation of the less-efficient machine (or the roomful of Medieval craftsmen) it replaces. The Eichler also claims to be nothing more or less than what it is: shelter, with everything good (light, openness, nature) rigorously maximized and everything extraneous (turrets, columns, fake birdhouses) left out to optimize efficiency. It too has exposed parts, its posts and beams. Its form is unapologetically modern, not a sentimental imitation of an English manor house, Norman castle or Greek temple. But fantasy sells the most homes to the most buyers, and the Eichler’s clean-slate authenticity makes no nod to fantasy.

Time hasn’t always treated Eichlers well, as a poster to one of the Eichler Network forums reminds me. A true believer, she made a long pilgrimage to Palo Alto to see Eichlers up close and personal in their native habitat, only to be disappointed by their state of preservation. The Eichler’s spare design does not forgive neglect. This, plus their exposed post-and-beam construction, may explain the myth that Eichlers aren’t as well-built as conventional homes (bearing in mind that very few post-war tract homes, banged out by the hundreds and thousands against strict deadlines and tight budgets, got the care and attention a pre-war house received). But I know what that poster meant: the pristine Eichlers she knew through Ernie Braun’s artistic and idealized photographs, delivered to their first owners in a state of design equilibrium, have often had that delicate balance disturbed by fifty years of unsympathetic “upgrades”.

Eichlers are by far the most popular contemporaries. Eichler fans have an informative web site, a newsletter and even two excellent books, “Design for Living”, Ned Eichler’s recollection of his father’s efforts, and the more broadly focused “Eichler: Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream”. The Eichler’s appeal transcended the mass market; he’s the only big builder I’m aware of who also did large custom contemporaries in such upscale neighborhoods as Atherton, Old Palo Alto and Palo Alto’s Leland Manor.

So has all this attention made Eichlers more valuable? Eichlers certainly sell for more money than they did just a few years ago, but then, so does every house in this area, and it doesn’t look like Eichler prices have broken away from the pack. Which suggests something surprising: that the pool of Eichler buyers isn’t significantly larger today, proportionately, than it was in 1998, despite the Midcentury Modern revival. Even the concept of Eichler-specialist real estate agents isn’t new. What is new is mainstream real estate’s attitude toward Eichlers. In 1998, most listing agents soft-pedaled the contemporary design of a home; today, most of them trumpet its “classic California contemporary” lines. That’s real estate responding to more interest in Eichlers, even though there may not be more buyers for Eichlers.

How could more interest not create more buyers? I think what we’re seeing is a resurgence in “Eichler pride”. These homes have always had a following, but in the old days the Eichler enthusiast almost had to apologize, as if his taste was a mildly embarrassing eccentricity. But today I hear agents, generally a group with conservative taste in architecture, spontaneously burst out with “I like Eichlers”. Maybe what used to be “eccentric” has climbed the ladder of social acceptability one rung to “delightfully offbeat”. Whatever the reason, today Eichler fans have a higher profile. They’re more interested in the history and in the modernist context—in their “roots”—and because of that, there are more sources for that history and context, and far more buzz about Eichlers than even a few years ago.

Got a Mackay? Good luck finding any information on it. All you need to know about the outsized nature of the Eichler mystique is that John Mackay, a guy who built a zillion ranchers, both contemporary and conventional, is almost entirely forgotten today except for a passing mention in one of Ned Eichler’s books, a small park in San Jose and the occasional surviving sales brochure.

If you’re really into the contemporary look, check out books like “Classic Modern: Midcentury Modern at Home”, with its photos of period interiors. Modernist furniture of that era is collectible, and in some cases it’s reproduced. The contemporary style is even making something of a comeback in residential architecture. See the links at the end of this article.

Interested in buying a contemporary? I’d love to help. Find out about me, see why you should work with me, and read testimonials from my clients. You can contact me at jfyten@cbnorcal.com.

where else to look

If you can afford a Palo Alto contemporary, then join me on a tour of the neighborhoods where you’ll find them.

If you have the MCM religion but can’t pay Palo Alto prices, read on for leads on more affordable neighborhoods. Not all offer the clean open look of an well-designed home, let alone an architect-designed Eichler—some flattops are just cheap housing—but you’ll get some of that retro zoominess for a lot less money.

And if the ordinary Palo Alto Eichler neighborhood is just too ordinary for you, I’ll give you leads on more upscale Eichler neighborhoods in neighboring cities.

Santa Clara County

The Eichlers and other contemporaries of Mountain View are either the small and inexpensive efforts typical of the earliest years, or the large, luxurious homes of the early 1970s. Sunnyvale features an extremely broad range of MCM, both Joe’s and others, from bargain basement to super deluxe. Cupertino has a small Eichler neighborhood and a handful of other, early contemporary neighborhoods, all at the affordable end of the price range. The city of Santa Clara offers rare examples of Eichler townhouses, but is better known for its multitudes of Mackays. Contemporaries are rare in Los Altos, but what’s there is almost all Eichler and all upscale. The same is true of the affluent South Bay communities of Saratoga and Monte Sereno. West San Jose, particularly Willow Glen, has large Eichler neighborhoods, many quite pleasant, that offer outstanding bang for the buck.  Adjacent Campbell also has a scattering of very affordable MCM.

San Mateo County

MCM is less common here, especially as you get closer to San Francisco. This rarity may be due to age: San Mateo County cities tend to be older, and were more likely to have been built out by the time modernism hit suburbia. Climate may also play a role: you’re getting into the cooler, windier, foggier maritime climate, particularly from San Bruno north. But there are exceptions, and Daly City is the biggest and perhaps most surprising. The city of San Mateo is another treasure trove, with a broad range of builders (Eichler built 900 here), prices and locations (from bayside to foothills). Atherton has a few outstanding examples of architect-designed early contemporaries, while Burlingame offers a sizeable upscale late Eichler neighborhood with Bay views. Menlo Park features two of the finest early Eichler neighborhoods, as well as a scattering of flattops throughout most of the city. Portola Valley provides two upscale hillside contemporary neighborhoods, including a small early Eichler tract and a later, larger development. Redwood City offers four small, affordable Eichler neighborhoods. San Carlos has a small cluster of early contemporary townhomes with spectacular views. Belmont’s funky-in-a-nice-way atmosphere seems tailor-made for MCM.  Eichlers abound in Foster City’s pleasant bayside Neighborhood #2, and they’re relatively affordable as well. Finally, the north county communities of Millbrae, San Bruno and South San Francisco have fairly sizeable contemporary neighborhoods. And contemporaries don’t get much more affordable than those of East Palo Alto.

For more information on early Eichlers, check out this excellent Eichler Network article, based on newspaper ads and interviews of original owners. Its details differ in some respects from this article, which is based on personal observation, county records and the Multiple Listing Service, but I think the two complement each other well.

Finally, a little blessing to keep the lawyers away: I believe this information to be correct but have not verified it and assume no legal responsibility for its accuracy. Buyers and sellers should investigate these issues to their own satisfaction. I reserve the right to change this material, and frequently do.

The discussion continues at Eichler City on Pinterest, with over a zillion MCM- and Midcentury-related photos and descriptions.  See more MCM icons plus lesser-known homes, architects and builders and even a few oddities.  Also check out Eichler City on Facebook

copyright © John Fyten 2004-2016

3 thoughts on “Eichler City: Midcentury Modern in Silicon Valley

  1. A very well written overview. In addition to the two books on Eichler Homes that you mention, there is a book my father, Ned Eichler, wrote called the Merchant Builders, about the rise of merchant building in the US after World War II. There is a chapter in the book devoted to Eichler Homes.

  2. Pingback: ARCHITECTURE: Eichler Homes | Bay Area Itineraries

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