Mid-century modern architects such as Oscar Niemeyer, Eero Saarinen and Richard Neutra often come to mind during discussions of how this school of design — featuring open spaces, clean lines and floor-to-ceiling windows — revolutionized design and urban development from the 1930s to the 1960s. But many of these architects only focused on high-profile projects, such as Neimeyer’s United Nations Headquarters in New York and the many futuristic buildings he designed in Brasilia. Saarinen is known for the GM Tech Center in Detroit and main terminal at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C. Joseph Eichler, however, strove to bring this aesthetic to the masses.
And to a large extent, Eichler did, as his company built over 11,000 homes, most of which are in Northern California. Towns such as San Mateo, Sunnyvale and Cupertino in the Bay Area and Orange and Grenada Hills in Southern California became centers of a movement often called “California Modern.”
The homes were certainly unconventional for the time: For example, rooms were arranged around a central atrium in Eichler’s attempt to integrate indoor and outdoor spaces. Eichler eschewed front-facing windows in the interest of privacy, but the homes benefited from floor-to-ceiling windows that allowed natural light to filter in and change the color of the interior depending on the time of day.
Unlike the typical California tract home, an Eichler Home (or “Eichlers”) had an open plan and was airy, showcased many exposed posts and beams, boasted roomy closets with sliding doors, and even included a second bathroom in the master bedroom.
Eichler also held unconventional views for his era: All of the developments he built had a non-discrimination policy, and he would even offer to buy back homes from buyers who had difficulty accepting the fact that they had minorities as neighbors. He also resigned from the National Association of Homebuilders in 1958 over the organization’s refusal to end racial discrimination policies.
Eichler homes fell out of favor in the 1970s and 1980s as Americans demanded larger homes and mid-century design fell out of fashion. Growing up in Cupertino in the ’80s, I remember Eichlers being often derided as dumps. Hundreds have been lost as they were torn down and replaced with McMansions, or were renovated — often with a second story — to a point at which they were no longer recognizable.
But mid-century modern is in vogue again. Those same homes derided in Silicon Valley are now amongst the most well-kept in town, with their distinctive front doors painted in bright colors with impeccable landscaping surrounding them. Towns with large numbers of Eichlers, including Cupertino and Palo Alto, require an architectural review before any renovations can be made. Now highly coveted, Eichlers have plenty of devotees across California.
Much of the renewed interest in Eichler and other mid-century modern architects is because of the work of Modernism Week. For 10 years, this annual celebration in Palm Springs has attracted scholars, architects and fans of this school of design together for lectures, panels, and tours of various homes and buildings the Coachella Valley. This year’s Modernism conference had one day focused on Eichler, and last Saturday, attendees had the opportunity to tour new Eichlers built using original plans.
One leader in the preservation of Eichlers is Monique Lombardelli, a Bay Area real estate broker who specializes in Eichlers and produced the film, “People in Glass Houses: The Legacy of Joseph Eichler.” As explained to an audience of Eichler fans last weekend, Eichlers have hit the mainstream, and not only is it wise to preserve the ones already existing, but also to build new ones. “It’s our job to respect them,” she said, “and to hold them dear, cherish them and build new ones in order to honor Joseph Eichler.”
Whether Eichler homes will ever be built at the scale they were over a half-century ago remains to be seen. A few have been built in Palm Springs with more on the way. While staying true to Eichler’s original concept, they have been designed to meet the demands of 21st-century owners. The original Eichlers were highly energy inefficient, largely because of the construction materials used. Windows were single-pane, the design of the roof only allowed for a half-inch of insulation at best, and the radiant heating units in most of these houses were installed at a time when utility bills were an afterthought.
Addressing the challenge that up to 80 percent of lost energy in these houses escapes through the roof, these homes are insulated with either rigid foam or spray foam insulation. Low-e glass allows light to filter in while minimizing the amount of solar heat entering the home. Instead of the clunky radiant heating system common in original Eichlers, the new ones have a mini-split HVAC system in order to keep utility costs more manageable during the searing Coachella Valley summer heat.
Depending on the interest garnered by this next generation of Eichler homes, local developers say they have land on which they can build small tracts of these homes. The insane California real estate market most likely means they will not be available to the masses as the originals built over 50 years ago were. Nevertheless, the current houses certainly pay homage to Eichler’s vision of progress, clean design and his insistence that his homes should be welcome to everyone.
Image credits: Leon Kaye