The Eichler Way: Stylish Modern Living in the Suburbs
Imagine Post-World War II America as servicemen returned to civilian life and started settling into new homes. The approval of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 – or the G.I. Bill – by President Franklin D. Roosevelt provided stability and security to these war veterans, including stipends covering tuition and expenses for college or trade schools and low-interest mortgages.
As the demand for houses soared, developers were speedily building boxy, one-story or split-level single-family homes that were practical and well constructed – but lacking in architectural creativity and memorable features.
A row of Post-War homes built rather close to each other shows an indistinguishable similarity in features – a modestly landscaped front yard, small windows, similar roof lines and boxy shape (courtesy of Jane Jacobs in the Woo).
Here Comes California Style
Amid all the “cookie-cutter” homes sprouting across the country came a breath of fresh air in California when Joseph Leopold Eichler, a New Yorker who managed a successful family business, appeared on the scene and developed well-crafted, airy, light-filled, and affordable homes that attracted the suburban middle class. They were designed primarily in what we now call the mid-century modern style.
Characteristics of Eichler’s Mid-Century Modern Homes
Joseph Eichler built more than 11,000 modernist homes in Northern and Southern California and New York State. While the homes were mass-produced, Eichler’s architects regularly revised old plans and created new ones to give the homes a custom feel. The exteriors of Eichler homes usually show garages, carports, and tall fences with private backyards.
• A focus on the functional, efficient, and minimalist.
The early Eichler homes with enclosed front courtyards were followed by homes centered on glass-sided, open-air atriums, then by larger ones with central galleries and spacious all-purpose rooms with skylights.
Top: This renovated 1-story Eichler in Rancho San Miguel, CA, has a striking flat roof, with the original beams restored by the architects. Bottom: Inside the 1,412 sq.-ft., 3-bedroom, 2-bath home are paneled walls, exposed beams, and sliding glass doors that allow natural light in the room: all typical Eichler design elements (both courtesy of Mid-Century Home).
Top: Can’t afford an Eichler? How about this Modern style 1-story, 2,923-sq.-ft., 3-bedroom, 3.5-bath home with a courtyard and an open floor design (House Plan #100-1278) Middle: Or this lovely 1-story, 2-bedroom home with a distinctive flat roof (like some Eichlers), wood siding, and glass walls. Bottom: Abundant sunshine filters into the home’s interior through the glass walls in this Great Room. Make a note of the wood trim and stacked stone that add charm to the space (House Plan #149-1886).
Other Features of Eichler Houses
• Light-filled interiors with skylights, floor-to-ceiling windows, private outdoor rooms and gardens, inviting living spaces that linked the indoors with the outdoors
• A small footprint – usually about 1,500 square feet centered around an open-air entry and central atrium that brought the sunshine in
• Heated floors
• Distinctive roofs
• Small windows facing the street and huge ones facing an outdoor space in the back
• Wood paneling
• Vaulted ceilings
• Sliding glass doors and courtyards protected from the elements
• Widely spaced post-and-beams
Top: A very rare – but just as attractive – 2-story Eichler home in Diamond Heights, CA, had an asking price of $1.795 million when it was put up for sale in 2017. What a far cry from the $35,000-$47,000 range in 1962 (courtesy of Curbed)! Bottom: The interior of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Bazett House in Hillsborough, CA, displays the qualities that appealed to Joseph Eichler – open spaces, big windows, natural light, and a seamless indoor-outdoor connection (courtesy of KQED/David Weinstein).
Eichler on the East Coast
The true “Eichlers” were built only in California and New York. In his native state, Eichler managed to construct just three homes – all located in the village of Chestnut Ridge, New York.
Top: A 2,060-sq.-ft. 1-story residence on Grotke Road in Chestnut Ridge, NY, is one of just three “Eichlers” built on the East Coast. Bottom: Check out the exposed wood beams, glass walls, and minimalist furniture inside the light-filled home (courtesy of USModernist).
The Beginnings: From Dairy Salesman to Real Estate Developer
Born in the Bronx to European Jewish parents, Eichler was raised in a politically liberal family and grew up in the culturally diverse community of New York City. Although his parents were of modest means, Eichler attended New York University and graduated with a business degree. A career on Wall Street prepared him for a leadership role in the tough business world.
When Eichler married Lilian Moncharsh – whose family owned a butter and eggs wholesale firm – he eventually worked for his in-laws and joined the competitive food industry. In 1940 Eichler moved with his wife and two sons to California so that he could assume the position of treasurer of the San Francisco-based family business.
During their first years on the West Coast, the Eichlers lived in the Bazett House, a residence in Hillsborough that was an original design by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Bazett House heightened his admiration for Wright and his principles of open floor plans, clean lines, and harmony with nature. Living there further exposed Eichler to the intricacies of modernist architecture and fueled his interest to engage in something more creative – a passion encouraged by his wife, who had similar interests.
Ultimately, a scandal surrounding the family business changed Eichler’s career path – and gave the architectural world the California modern style, a local, nature-inspired take on the architectural principles of modernists like Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Although Joseph Eichler was not an architect, he worked with famous designers and architects to build gorgeous and reasonably-priced homes that effectively linked the indoors and outdoors (courtesy of Nook Real Estate).
The First Eichler Homes
At the end of World War II, Eichler started as an investor in the home-building industry before launching his own firm in 1947. The Sunnyvale Building Company constructed prefabricated houses for buyers who already owned lots. From the outset, Eichler had a vision of affordable homes that had a custom-design feel, with exposed wood beams, large windows, open spaces, indoor-outdoor relationship, and a sense of community in the neighborhood.
In 1949, he hired two young architects, Robert Anshen and Steve Allen, out of the University of Pennsylvania to design the new Eichler family home. It was the beginning of a long and successful business relationship between Eichler and the firm of Anshen and Allen. In 1950, he commissioned Anshen and Allen to design prototypes for a 50-unit subdivision in Sunnyvale as well as in El Centro Gardens, Greer Park, Green Gables in Palo Alto, and Atherwood in Redwood City.
One of the first Eichlers built in the 1950s featured in the company’s advertising showcases the distinctive simple lines, open-air atrium, glass doors, wood beams, and outdoor-indoor link (courtesy of Mid-Century Home).
By 1954, the company had built 1,800 houses in the "California Modern" style with glass walls, post-and-beam construction, and open floor plans. From 1950 to 1967, Eichler would hire distinguished architects, including A. Quincy Jones, Claude Oakland, and Raphael Soriano, to design his quintessential California modern homes.
Top: An original Eichler home in Sunnyvale – designed by Robert Anshen – highlights the atrium, one of the signature characteristics of an “Eichler” (courtesy of Design Sponge). Center: A tract home completed in 1961 in California’s Orange County – designed by famous Mid-Century Modern style architects A. Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons – features glass walls (courtesy of Dwell). Bottom: This 3-bedroom, 1-bath contemporary home is reminiscent of that tract home, with its modern mid-century style (House Plan #158-1263).
San Francisco’s Diamond Heights: The Experiment on a San Francisco Hilltop
Most of the homes designed by Eichler’s architects were suburban single-family homes in Walnut Creek, Concord, and San Rafael. But in 1950, San Francisco's Redevelopment Agency laid the groundwork for an ambitious urban renewal plan for a hilltop in the middle of the city that had only 158 homes and 374 people.
Now known as Diamond Heights, the isolated hilltop featured a steep topography that discouraged housing development. “One-third of the streets had slopes greater than 20 percent, and another one-third had slopes topping 30 percent.”
The plan for Diamond Heights – built from 1961 to 1981 with designs by architects including Claude Oakland, who was working for Joseph Eichler – called for family homes, apartments, high rises with spectacular views, a shopping center, churches, playgrounds, and schools.
Diamond Heights was Eichler’s first project in a city redevelopment program – where he was given the opportunity to build 100 split-level or two-story family homes. Before long, Eichler homes “sprouted” on Amethyst, Amber, and Cameo Way.
Architect Oakland came up with a hybrid model that would suit the neighborhood's hillside plots – and still feature Eichler’s basic concepts: small entry courtyards and open floor plans with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that connected the home’s interior to its exterior surroundings. The plain facades were taken up by garages on the ground level, while upper floors had narrow vertical windows.
Sale prices ranged from $34,950 to $46,500 in 1962 dollars – based on one of six floor plans, each with three or four bedrooms.
Top: Designed by architect Claude Oakland, these Eichler homes on Amethyst Way in San Francisco’s Diamond Heights were built between 1962 and 1964. Bottom: Whether it was a split-level or two-family home, the design stayed true to the signature qualities of an Eichler: simple and efficient open floor concept, floor-to-ceiling glass walls, central open-air atrium, and minimalist furnishings (both courtesy of Curbed).
Although the Diamond Heights project received a lot of attention at the time, it is not as well recognized as other redevelopment projects in San Francisco. But to this day, it maintains its “California modern” touch and mid-century historical significance.
An Eichler home in San Francisco’s Diamond Heights – that sold for $45,500 in 1968 and stayed in the same family – comes with a walk-out garden, balcony, and exposed beams. The 4-bedroom, 2.5 bath home now has an asking price $1.795 million (courtesy of Curbed).
Eichler sold his company in 1967, but he continued to build houses till 1974. Experts agree that his best work was recorded from 1950 to 1967. His legacy lives to this day , however, with all the Eichler gems that have remained in families or been renovated through the years to preserve that creative vision he had in mind for the American suburbs.
A testament to the influence Joseph Eichler has on residential architecture, Eichler's aesthetic – as exmplified by one of his typical homes (top) – was the inspiration for the home of Pixar's Incredibles family (center), which was destroyed at the end of the first movie. The roofline was changed from a shallow gable to a shallow gull wing. (courtesy of Film and Furniture). This 3-bedroom, 3.5-bath contemporary home (bottom) is reminiscent of the Incredibles' imaginary one (House Plan #149-1182).
Joseph Eichler changed the landscape of residential architecture with modern design concepts that gave his homes both flair and function. While famous for his California Modern style, he left a more important legacy as a strong advocate for fair housing and as the first big developer to sell to minorities.
Footnote: The lead image in this article is a “super” Eichler house designed by Claude Oakland and built in Walnut Creek, CA, in 1959. For more on this larger-scale Eichler home, click here.