Cupertino isn’t necessarily known for its contemporaries, and that’s ironic, since Cupertino’s first post-war housing tracts were either largely or entirely contemporary. Yes, that’s right: in the early 1950s, Cupertino was well on its way to looking like south Palo Alto. Then either the buyers or the builders got conservative, and now Cupertino is carpeted with miles of conventional homes. And because contemporaries are often the oldest homes on the Cupertino market, they’re often the smallest and therefore least expensive in what is otherwise a rather pricey city, and therefore the most likely to be torn down. Most are located in a huge pocket between Stevens Creek, Miller, Bollinger and Lawrence.
There you’ll find the one exception to the flattop-as-teardown rule, the 223 Eichlers of Fairgrove, built in 1960 and 1961. Unit 1 is mostly courtyard-entry 4/2s of 1432 sq.ft., with a few 3/2s of 1220 sq.ft. Unit 2 is also primarily 4/2s, most an atrium model of 1516 sq.ft. In response to neighborhood requests, the city has rezoned Fairgrove and developed a set of guidelines for remodeling these homes that includes a useful synopsis of what makes Eichlers unique. Fairgrove is similar to Sunnyvale’s contemporaneous Fairwood, built more for the mass market than the move-up buyer, and that’s true today. Fairgrove can be thought of as the top end of affordable Cupertino, consistently offering more house for the money than you’ll find anywhere else in that sought-after city. And the shiny new “Fairgrove Eichler Neighborhood Circa 1960” signs are spiffy.
Stern & Price, the same folks who brought you much of Midtown Palo Alto, also built hundreds of homes in an area adjacent to Fairgrove called Rancho Rinconada. Freelance graphic designer and MCM aficionado Joe Barthlow tells me these homes were designed by Cliff May, “the father of the California ranch house”, and Chris Choate, with landscape architect Doug Baylis designing the original landscape plan. Featured in the October 1952 issue of House & Home, and in Sunset’s 1955 New Homes For Western Living, Rancho was, according to Joe, the first attempt to build a May prototype prefab home, which may explain why these homes seem so spindly, since lighter component weight meant lower shipping costs. Rancho Rinconada was one of Cupertino’s first large-scale developments, built from 1952 to 1954 in what was then the middle of nowhere, even before Cupertino was a city (Rancho itself was only recently incorporated into Cupertino). Back then, most big developments were built for the entry-level buyer, but Rancho was really entry-level and has remained so. The surviving homes are very small, mostly 2/1s of 814 sq.ft. and 3/2s of 1078 or 1127 sq.ft. Two-bedroom homes ordinarily weren’t a factor in new-home construction after 1950, and for Rancho to have so many isn’t just an anomaly, it’s a tip-off that Stern & Price set their sights low. Besides size, Rancho homes have the other low-end attributes of the era—wall furnace, one-car carport or garage—but beyond that, their construction is noticeably cheap. Earlier I said “surviving homes” because excellent schools, a Cupertino address and obsolete houses begging to be knocked down have made Rancho a hotbed of new construction. As a result, the neighborhood can be a bit surreal, with tiny hovels next to flashy new construction of over 3000 sq.ft., much of it built under the generous size guidelines previously in effect under County governance. On the plus side, Rancho is the most affordable way to get into Cupertino, a goal shared by many, and its ambience is greatly helped by winding tree-lined streets.
Also in this area, mostly on the “Calle” and “Corte” streets, is a small tract called Casa del Sol, dating from 1955 to 1956, that’s an interesting attempt to blend contemporary and conventional design. About half these homes are obvious contemporaries with the typical tar-and-gravel, low gable roof. The rest are what might be called “closet contemporaries”, conventional-looking homes that feature vaulted ceiling in the living room. Casa is a step up from Rancho but not as nice as Fairgrove.
Cupertino’s other major concentrations of contemporaries are found further west, closer to 85. I mention these tracts mainly for whatever historical interest they offer since both, like Rancho, are happening places for new construction. Unlike Rancho, the large lots are the big attraction here, and “Cupertino” plus “quarter acre” equals prices too high for buyers to pay just to live in housing that was minimalist even fifty-plus years ago. One is a large tract called Garden Gate Village, off Stelling just south of 280, dating from 1948 to 1952. Like Sunnyvale’s Ray Nor Park, these are small post-and-beam 2- and 3-bedroom/1-bath homes, often of 1000 sq.ft. or less, on mostly quarter-acre lots. And like Ray Nor, the ambience is casual, with no sidewalks. The other tract is Carolyn Gardens, in the Monta Vista area, west of Foothill off Stevens Creek. Built from 1952 to 1954, these are slightly larger 3-bedroom, 1- and 2-bath homes, also on big lots. All are typical of their type and era, clean-lined and pleasant, often superficially similar to Eichler’s first efforts but lacking that something extra—that wow effect—that even Joe’s most unassuming homes lay on you.
The discussion continues at Eichler City on Pinterest, with over a zillion MCM- and Midcentury-related photos and descriptions. See photos of typical Cupertino Midcentury Modern, a special look at Rancho Rinconada MCM plus MCM icons around the world as well as lesser-known homes, architects and builders and even a few oddities. Also check out Eichler City on Facebook.
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copyright © John Fyten 2004-16