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“And now for something completely different”, as they used to say on Monte Python’s Flying Circus. Daly City’s Westlake district is amazingly, even mind-blowing-ly different, if your frame of reference is the typical post-World War II suburb. Whether Westlake is amazingly good or amazingly bad has been debated since its inception in 1947. Westlake won awards for its carefully planned “city within a city” concept: 6500 homes, 3000 apartments, and numerous commercial buildings including one of the first shopping malls, Westlake Town & Country, opened in 1948. But the scale and sameness (or continuity, if you prefer) of Westlake is overwhelming. Some of you may remember the song Little Boxes, folksinger Malvina Reynolds’ lament on the “ticky-tacky boxes” of suburbia—it was inspired by a drive past Westlake in 1962.

I’ve included Westlake because it’s one of the leading local examples of midcentury modernism. The sheer size of this development, which took seventeen years to complete, demands its inclusion. But what also makes Westlake noteworthy is that it’s an anomaly among high-profile contemporary neighborhoods. Penned not by a well-known disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright but by a then-anonymous building designer, Ed Hageman, who really preferred Colonial Revival, Westlake’s whimsical modernism wasn’t exactly the darling of the architecture magazines, unlike Eichler’s developments. And Westlake was planned and largely constructed by a big merchant builder, Henry Doelger, known for his business acumen, not for his idealistic devotion to leading-edge architecture. In fact, Doelger was the country’s biggest homebuilder from 1934 to 1941, while Joe Eichler toiled in his father-in-law’s butter-and-egg business.

And as Westlake shows, Doelger wasn’t a committed Modernist, although his own Westlake house was in that idiom, and he commissioned the design of several notable Modernist school buildings for the area. Doelger was the epitome of Everyman’s builder; no bring-art-to-the-masses missionary zeal for him. Indeed, he’s the kind of builder who’s accused of pandering to “the low-brow tastes of the buying public”. His motto seems to have been, “You want that style? We got it.” But the contemporary style is a consistent and dominant motif throughout his developments, not just in single family homes but in apartments and commercial as well. And as a builder who came of age during the lean, no-nonsense days of the Great Depression, not the boom days after World War II, Doelger may not have had the luxury of leading popular taste, even if he wanted to.

Westlake in its various permutations (Terrace, Heights, Knolls, Palisades, Highlands, Olympic etc.) differs from the suburbia you’re probably used to on a very basic level: it just looks different. Instead of low sprawling ranchers on wide, shallow lots, Westlake follows an earlier pattern set when Doelger and others built San Francisco’s first suburb, the Sunset District: small narrow homes, often top-heavy split-levels, on small narrow lots. Although detached, these homes are so close that you wonder if you could hear a sneeze three doors down. They’re small and simple, 2 bedrooms and 1 bath at first, then later 3 bedrooms with 1 or 2 baths, but they’re apparently built to last, framed in rot-resistant redwood and with solid oak floors.

Westlake might also throw you with its sheer multiplicity of design elements. A block of homes in typical suburbia usually shares the same styling cues, with those cues subtly re-arranged to provide a bare minimum of variety. But at Westlake, virtually the entire language of residential architecture is here—English Cottage, French Provincial, Regency, Colonial, Modernist—on the same block, block after block. This cacophony is a conscious and well-meaning emulation of the varied streetscape of an established San Francisco neighborhood, but it does lend Westlake an air of make-believe. (But fantasy isn’t a bad thing when you’re trying to sell the most homes to the most people.)

What variety the various Westlake neighborhoods have is often the product of their environment. The tracts on the ocean side of Skyline (Westlake Terrace, Heights and Palisades) are redolent of a summer beachfront community. The ocean air; the diffused sunlight (when the sun makes an appearance); the idiosyncratic architecture; the narrow, seemingly insubstantial homes, their paint scrubbed by the salt air; and the dominating grandeur of the Pacific Ocean all call to mind a Capitola run amuck. On the inland side of 35, Westlake Knolls is a far more conventional setting, and seems to lose something by it. Westlake Highlands, just to the north, has the same rolling hills but is more appealing. North of John Daly Boulevard, the manicured homes of Westlake Olympic stake its claim as flagship of the Westlakes.

So was Doelger the worst thing to hit suburbia in general, and Daly City in particular? Opinion is still divided, but a drive past the rowhouses of pre-World War II, pre-Doelger Daly City suggests that Doelger did a better job than his predecessors in creating viable neighborhoods.

As to whether the Westlake contemporary is true midcentury modern or just a commercial sheep in wolf’s clothing, I’ll leave that up to the purists. But if you’re just looking for “retro”, this could be it.

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Feel free to contact me at jfyten@cbnorcal.com.

copyright © John Fyten 2004-17

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