where to look in Sunnyvale

homecontemporaryContemporary design is such a big part of the Sunnyvale scene that even its fire stations are midcentury modern. Sunnyvale has approximately 1100 Eichlers in at least sixteen tracts, from Joe’s first efforts, built to stock plans, to his first architect-designed homes, to some of his last developments. Below I’ve given highlights of each Eichler tract. I’ve gone into this kind of obsessive detail for two reasons. First, the range of Joe’s work in Sunnyvale makes it like an Eichler archeological dig site. I don’t know of any other city, including Palo Alto, that can match it. Second, watching the progression of Eichler offerings is almost like being there in the sales office with Joe and his architects as they refined their product to keep pace with a changing market. Tracts are listed in chronological order.

Sunnyvale Manor: Okay, I’m guessing here. These homes are so shrouded in mystery that they’re the lost tribe of Eichlerdom. Neither of the Eichler histories describes Joe’s first development in enough detail to identify it, probably because no one cares—these homes aren’t “real Eichlers”. But I’ve used what clues we have to identify the likely suspects through county records. We know Eichler used plans bought from a builder named Earl “Flattop” Smith, so they’re flattops. We can pinpoint their general location, a small tract of about 100 homes called Sunnyvale Manor. Most homes in this tract are conventional ranchers with pitched roof, attractive but not what Joe would build, so we can rule them out.

But lo and behold, we find seventeen flattops built in 1949 on E. Arbor, Balsam, N. Bayview, and E. Duane. They’re typical 1949 starter housing with three bedrooms, one bath and 1130 sq.ft. So far, so good, but these homes are built on perimeter foundation, not on Eichler’s characteristic slab. But so were Joe’s next two non-architect designed developments, Sunnymount Gardens in Sunnyvale and University Gardens in Palo Alto; slab arrived with the fourth, Stanford Gardens in Menlo Park, in 1950. Which brings us to another anomaly: these Sunnyvale Manor homes have the wall heaters often found in affordable homes of that era, not Joe’s trademark radiant heating. But Sunnymount and University Gardens, both with central forced-air heating, also stray from what we think of as the Eichler norm; Stanford Gardens would also see Joe’s first use of radiant heating. (Apparently Eichler built another handful of stock-plan homes in Midtown Palo Alto about this time, but I won’t include them here.)

Eichler’s first architect, Bob Anshen, called Eichler’s first homes “crap” but I think the Sunnyvale Manor plans are rather appealing in a 1940s “Home of the Future” sort of way. Their owners like them too—almost all these homes exceed the neighborhood’s standard of maintenance. Three roof designs differentiate what appears from the front elevation to be an identical floor plan. Most common is a “shed” or split roof, with one half tilted and ending at a level higher than the flat roof to allow clerestory windows. This roof would appear soon on Joe’s earliest work in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Less common is a design in which the roof over the living room is raised on all sides, almost like a hat. This also shows up the following year in his first Menlo Park tract, also pre-Anshen & Allen, but then went nowhere except perhaps as a precursor to the gallery style. Finally, a few homes have a low gable roof, a motif that links it to the Craftsman and one that Joe and others would use a lot.

If you’re a true believer and make the pilgrimage to Sunnyvale Manor, bear in mind that most of the houses in this neighborhood aren’t Eichlers, even those with tar-and-gravel roofs. Apparently Joe sold most of his lots to other builders, a not uncommon practice. The exception to this practice is a momentous one, nearby Sunnyvale Manor Addition, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Sunnymount Gardens: Eichler’s next development, on a street of the same name, built in 1949-50, and like Sunnyvale Manor a very small Sunnyvale project built from stock plans. They’re 3-bedroom/1.5-bath homes of 1255 or 1309 sq.ft. The extra space, half bath, central forced-air heating and bigger lots say that this development was more upscale. The shed roof shows up again, as does a V-shaped roof that Anshen & Allen would use shortly. These houses don’t seem as appealing, perhaps because they’re surrounded by Joe’s later, architect-designed work.

Sunnyvale Manor Addition: The Holy Grail, Eichler’s first architect-designed houses. As the tract name suggests, these Anshen & Allen homes were built next to Sunnyvale Manor but here Eichler’s homes are contiguous, not scattered among other homes as in the first tract. You’ll find them lining Morse and Maple, and the adjacent stretches of E. Duane and Arbor. Built in 1950, the AA-1 is a modest 3-bedroom/1-bath of 1044 sq.ft. that sold for $9500. Eichler would use this same basic design to quickly build three more tracts in Palo Alto and one in Redwood City. Walk into these earliest Eichlers and you can still feel their remarkable appeal, over fifty years later. They greatly exceed the sum of their modest parts, a sign of inspired design.

Fairorchard: Built in 1958 in the southwest corner of Sunnyvale on Helena, Edmonton, LaSalle, Wright and W. Homestead. Palo Alto was built out now and Eichler returned in earnest to the city where he began. He came with four floor plans, and reflecting a more demanding market, all were much larger than his homes of eight years earlier. Entry-level was a 3-bedroom/2-bath of 1370 sq.ft., then three 4/2s of 1668, 1770 and 1890 sq.ft.

Fairbrae Units 1-5 and Fairbrae Addition: Also started in 1958, this huge agglomeration of tracts wouldn’t be completed until 1961. Approximate boundaries are Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road, Remington, Mary and Fremont. Here the emphasis was on large homes, indicating that Fairbrae was an upscale development, and today it’s one of the most consistently attractive of Eichler’s tracts. Like Palo Alto’s Greenmeadow, Fairbrae has a swim and tennis club. Tracking the floor plans offered through all six phases gives us insight into what was hot and what wasn’t during this time.

Fairbrae’s Unit 1 offered five floor plans, two of them the new atrium model that had recently stirred modest interest in Palo Alto. Price leader was a 1228 sq.ft. 3/2. Then came a courtyard-entry 4/2 of 1409 sq.ft., a 1475 sq.ft. atrium-entry 4/2, another 4/2 of 1615 sq.ft. and at the top, a 1755 sq.ft. 4/2 with bonus room.

Unit 2, built the next year, carried over the 1755 sq.ft. atrium and 1409 sq.ft. courtyard 4/2s and added two more atrium models, 4/2s of 1657 and 1660 sq.ft. There were also a handful of 1722 sq.ft. courtyard 4/2s. Obviously the atrium models were catching on. Interestingly, only two of the fifty-one Unit 2 homes were 3/2s. Buyers were more affluent, their expectations bigger.

Unit 3, also built in 1959, kept the 1755 sq.ft. and 1660 sq.ft. atrium models and they accounted for most of the 109 homes. The 1409 sq.ft. courtyard 4/2 was now barely a presence, as was the entry-level 3/2 now up to 1300 sq.ft.

Unit 4, built in 1960, continued the trend to larger homes. Now the atrium models were 4/2s of 1948 and 1957 sq.ft. and there was another 4/2 of 1952 sq.ft. Even the courtyard model had been expanded to 1866 sq.ft. Of the 52 homes in this phase, only one 3/2, big at 1648 sq.ft., was built.

Unit 5 is the largest, 139 homes, built in 1960 and 1961. Two smaller 4/2 atrium models of 1727 and 1752 sq.ft. appeared and they accounted for most of the sales. A larger 4/2 atrium model of 1945 sq.ft. with attached in-law quarters also sold well. Again, 3/2s were essentially a non-factor, accounting for only two sales.

Fairbrae Addition, built east of Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road on Sesame, was six homes built on a cul-de-sac in 1961. None of the four floor plans offered appear to be carryovers.

Fairwood Units 1 and 2: While bigness and constant evolution characterized Fairbrae, Fairwood was more of a meat-and-potatoes tract. Here Eichler banged out 230 homes between 1961 and 1962 using the same three floor plans from start to finish. Built about the time Eichler Homes went public, it’s tempting to see Fairwood as Eichler showing the stock market that he, a builder known for constantly tinkering with the product, could grind them out like any mainstream builder. Then again, construction costs were escalating and may not have left enough margin for experimentation. And Joe’s attention was straying toward the inner-city San Francisco projects that would bankrupt Eichler Homes a few years later. Whatever the reason, Fairwood shows a definite shift downmarket and toward economies of scale. 3-bedroom homes, virtually invisible at Fairbrae, accounted for a good one-third of sales at Fairwood and at 1328 sq.ft. they were small. Next up the scale was a courtyard-entry 4/2 of only 1494 sq.ft., and a small atrium 4/2 of 1553 sq.ft. The homes of Unit 1 are found on Firebird, Flicker, Flamingo, Dartshire, Kingfisher, Duncardine and Devonshire. Unit 2 was built on S. Wolfe, Cornwall, Dartshire and Mallard.

Rancho Verde Addition: Built in 1962, this was a much smaller (40 homes), more upscale project distinguished by the first appearance in Sunnyvale of Claude Oakland’s gallery design. Three 4/2s accounted for the majority of sales and these homes were big, starting at 1705 sq.ft. Next was an atrium model of 1903 sq.ft. including office, and then the gallery atrium at 1970 sq.ft. Rancho Verde suggests that Eichler was still building for the move-up buyer in 1962, even as he built mass-market Fairwood, but on a much smaller scale.

Parmer Place: Five years later and after much water under the bridge, this project was built not by Eichler Homes, bankrupt in 1966, but by J.L. Eichler Associates (or by Nonpareil Homes, Joe’s other dba in 1967). With 43 homes offering 11 floor plans (at least three the gallery style) ranging from 1644 to 2411 sq.ft., Parmer Place signals Eichler’s switch from Fairwood-style mass production to infill development of semi-custom homes. The vast canvas on which Eichler and other builders had worked, the agricultural land of the mid-Peninsula, had largely vanished. Joe could have followed the competition south to Cupertino and San Jose but didn’t, most likely because the downfall of Eichler Homes had cost him physically—but not financially. And at the age of 67, twenty years into a highly-successful second career, getting big again probably just wasn’t in the cards. Parmer Place is found on Piper, Cumberland, Pear and Brookline.

Rancho Sans Souci: Built the following year and also an infill project, these 32 homes were pared down to “only” six floor plans. All were big, ranging from 1876 to 2670 sq.ft., and almost all were gallery models. They’re on Laurenthian, Mackenzie, Olympus and Pendleton.

Primewood: 35 homes built from 1968 to 1970, probably on another small piece of former orchard property that held out longer than most, Primewood shows an escalation in the floor plan race: there were ten. Again all were large, even huge; at 1687 sq.ft. the “price leader” 3/2 (one only) was larger than most Eichler four-bedroom homes of only a few years before. Most popular were 4/2s of 1989, 2044, 2136 or 2153 sq.ft. There was even a 5/3 of 2365 sq.ft. that sold four copies. The first Eichler half-bath appeared here, an event now commemorated by a brass plaque ;-). Found on Allison, Lennox Way and Court, Blanchard and Beaverton.

Midtown: A rare excursion by Eichler north of El Camino. Dating from 1969, this tiny, out-of-the-way project consists of 12 homes—no Swim & Tennis Club here—located where Polk turns left and becomes Vasquez. Fairly evenly divided between three floor plans, 4/2s of 1647 and 1751 sq.ft. and a 5/3 of 2198 sq.ft.

Fairwood Addition: A 1971 infill development of 20 homes, the name is a nostalgic nod to the glory days of only ten years before. The three models are surprisingly small, starting with a 3/2 of 1545 sq.ft., then a 4/2 of 1701 sq.ft. (a 1958-era size) and a gallery 4/2 of 1808 sq.ft. Located across from Stocklmeir School on Dunholme, Chukar and Chickadee.

Fairpark Addition: More nostalgia, and here Eichler completed the trifecta, having now built in all three of Sunnyvale’s elementary school districts. Again the homes were fairly modest in size, leading off with 4/2 of 1601 sq.ft., then an atrium 4/2 of 1740 sq.ft. and a gallery 4/2 of 1977 sq.ft.

Enough Eichler for you? But wait, there’s more! Gavello Glen, a contemporary neighborhood east of downtown and north of El Camino, has intriguing Eichler parallels. Although not built by the Master, one of its streets, Anshen Court, hints that Eichler’s first architect may have had a hand in it. We know that Anshen worked for at least one of Eichler’s competitors, John Mackay. Even more suggestive are the twenty or so homes scattered throughout the neighborhood, built in 1956, that look for all the world like Claude Oakland gallery models. They may well be, since Oakland worked for Anshen from 1950 to 1960. Are these the prototype for Eichler’s later gallery models? An Eichler signature during his last years, Joe’s gallery didn’t appear until 1962. What’s equally interesting is that these 1956 galleries have another of Eichler’s later trademarks, the atrium—one year before Joe introduced his in Palo Alto. If I remember correctly Anshen suggested the atrium to Eichler, although it was refined by Quincy Jones. These “proto galleries” differ from Eichler’s version in that they’re smaller (1433 sq.ft.); built on perimeter foundation, not slab; and have central heating, not radiant.

This neighborhood also has a number of huge, almost barn-like contemporaries of 1800 sq.ft. or more that in profile seem to go on forever, and from the front have a vaguely Eichler-esque look. They’re often on quarter-acre lots, quite luxurious for Sunnyvale. Big lots, large size plus the possibility that they were architect-designed make these homes unusually ambitious for a 1954 Sunnyvale tract, especially a contemporary one. Someone was thinking big here, probably bigger than the situation called for.

Rounding out the Gavello Glen scene, the earliest contemporaries are 1215 sq.ft. 3/1s from 1952, followed in 1954-5 by 3/2s of 1462 sq.ft. Again, there’s an Eichler parallel. Both models are standard-issue contemporary in some ways—tar-and-gravel roof, slab foundation, floor-to-ceiling windows—but have radiant heating. True, Eichler was neither the first nor the only builder to use radiant heating, but it’s uncommon enough in tract housing to be noteworthy. Some builder set his sights on Eichler (with inside help?) but chose an unusual venue for it—Joe had left Sunnyvale for the more lucrative Palo Alto market two years before and wouldn’t return for another six. All in all, a very unusual development, and an intriguing one for Eichler fans.

Breaking news:  a reader with Gavello Glen sales literature provides some interesting information about this neighborhood. It was, in fact, designed at least in part by Anshen & Allen. She also indirectly confirms my guess that it was aimed at the relatively upscale, semi-rural market that would later be dubbed “exurbia”. She tells me her parents liked Gavello Glen but were too late to buy a new home there, so the builders, Perego and Montgomery, built them an Anshen & Allen-designed home in Saratoga. These days it may be hard to imagine Sunnyvale as bucolic, but in 1954 both Gavello Glen and Saratoga would’ve been “way out in the country”. Apparently the sales literature even gives Gavello Glen a Santa Clara mailing address, indicating it hadn’t yet been incorporated into Sunnyvale.

More breaking news:  another reader tells me his parents bought a new Gavello Glen home in 1955 and that he grew up on Henrietta with the Gavello’s son, Gary. Did the Gavellos own the land the development was built on? “I had always thought that the Gavello family owned the land, but now I can’t say for sure”. Gary? That’s the name of a street. Were the streets named after Gavello family members? “Yes, all [the] streets, except Anshen Court, are named after family members: Gary and Gail (the kids), Duff Court (an uncle, had died in an airplane crash years ago), Gavello, Henrietta Avenue (Gary’s grandma on the Gavello side), Pierino (grandpa on the Gavello side), Betty Court (Gary’s mom).” What was the neighborhood like back in 1955? “The entire tract was surrounded by orchards. The orchard outside our front door was Bing cherries, then there were peaches, apricots. The tract itself was built in an Italian plum orchard, with fourteen or so trees left on each lot. Fairoaks had not yet been put through to El Camino from Old San Francisco Road, so until 1959-60 our street dead-ended at our house. When they added Fairoaks, they put in Iris.” Was the tract unincorporated then, and was that why it seems to have had a Santa Clara mailing address? “We were not incorporated at the time, but our mailing address was always Sunnyvale. I think we were incorporated after 1970, definitely after 1963.” Apparently builders didn’t have to disclose much to home-buyers in those days. “One thing we didn’t know about till after we moved in was that our house was directly in line with the flight path of Moffat Field. We ‘shopped’ the house on a Sunday, and moved in on a Sunday, yikes did it get noisy the rest of the week!”

And if that’s not enough, there’s a sprinkling of non-Eichler flattops in Cherry Chase just south of El Camino, from mid-’50s economy models to an early-‘60s atrium Eichler knock-off done by American Housing Guild, a mainstream builder. The way they’re mixed randomly with conventional designs shows that Eichler’s success pressured other builders to offer a contemporary.  The homes found in American Housing Guild’s three Greentree developments (just plain Greentree, built in 1962, plus Greentree Annex and Greentree Addition, both built the following year) deserve brief mention.  Four-bedroom/two-bath homes of about 1671 sq.ft., they resemble early Eichler atrium models, but “warmed up” for greater homebuyer acceptance.  Found on Egret, Firebird, Carlisle, Ashbourne, Robbia and Rembrandt, they may have been designed by Hester Jones & Associates, SoCal architects Henry Hester and Robert E. Jones.  AMG, founded by Marty Gleich in 1956, also built modernist homes in the San Diego area.

But wait, there’s more!  Sunnyvale’s 242 Bahl Patio Homes, virtually all built between 1968 and 1974, feature some of the edgiest MCM design you’ll find in Silicon Valley.  Donald J. Bahl is still around and, at least as of a few years ago, still holding homes open and happy to tell you the history of his firm.

Finally, we end up where we started with Joe Eichler in north Sunnyvale. In addition to his flattops there are a number of others built there in the early-to-mid 1950s. All started as 3-bedroom/1- or 2-bath homes in the 1000 to 1300 sq.ft. range. These designs aren’t quite as timeless as Joe’s Anshen & Allen models. North of 101 on both sides of Lawrence Expressway there’s a huge development (1500 homes) called Lakewood Village, very affordable flattops built by Brandon between 1955 and 1958 and identical to the Palmacias that blanket Hayward. All have 3 bedrooms and 2 baths, and virtually all are 1000 or 1108 sq.ft.

Rounding out Sunnyvale’s contemporary scene are the flattops of the low-key, sidewalk-less Ray Nor Park tract, located at Wolfe and Marion and built from 1948 to 1952. These small, humble homes, often less than 1000 sq.ft., are valued these days mostly for their large lots—quarter-acres aren’t hard to find here, and the prices are relatively friendly. This development is more interesting as an example of an off-beat post-war phenomenon confined in this area to the South Bay, where land was still readily available in the late 1940s and apparently still cheap: the tract of small, minimalist homes, often contemporaries, built on big quarter-acre lots. Invariably, small homes go on small lots, and they’re cheap; big homes go on big lots, and they’re not cheap. So the small home/big lot combination is different thinking. What that thinking was is a little hard to discern some fifty-five years later, but back then developers were still fooling around with variations on large-scale homebuilding. The tip-off may be that these tracts never have sidewalks. Maybe this was “life in the country” and indeed, all these tracts, such as Cupertino’s Carolyn Gardens (off Stevens Creek west of Foothill) and Garden Gate Village (off Stelling south of 280), and West San Jose’s Cambrian Park, were out in the country when they were built. You could have a fair-sized orchard out back, or maybe graze sheep. And because they’re small contemporaries on big lots in desirable areas, they’re rapidly giving way to large new homes.

And if the price of a Sunnyvale single-family home is too rich for you (and it is for many) virtually all the earliest townhomes, built in the 1970s, have some aspects of MCM design.

The discussion continues at Eichler City on Pinterest, with over a zillion MCM- and Midcentury-related photos and descriptions.  See photos of typical Gavello Glen MCM, Bahl Patio Homes and other Sunnyvale Midcentury Modern 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

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

copyright © John Fyten 2004-16

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