clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Getty Images

Filed under:

They Like Eich

How midcentury house designer Joseph Eichler made a comeback

Mention Eichler during a dinner party in the Bay Area, and you'll find at least one enthusiast. Type "Eichler home" into a search engine and you'll see several realtors exclusively selling Eichler houses. If you ask around, you can find seminars, tours, and forums dedicated to Joseph Eichler. There's a coffee table book about him, as well as a short film called People in Glass Houses. In the past few years, the Bay Area real estate market has seen midcentury modern aficionados and homebuyers lining up for a chance to buy an Eichler.

Their design is so distinctive," says Paul Adamson, architect and author of Eichler: Modernism Builds the American Dream. "The Eichlers stand apart, so new buyers, many of whom are more design-savvy than their parents, are seeking them out." In response to this demand, some enterprising California brokers and developers have even started to build more Eichlers.

It's no coincidence that, more than 50 years after the construction of the original Eichler homes, the developer's houses are again in high demand. Eichler's original structures challenged what houses could be, how families could and should live, and what these residences should look like. Today, tech industry workers and sustainability-minded homebuyers gravitate to Eichler's work for the same reasons.

Eichler's work in San Francisco. Photos courtesy San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.

Joseph Eichler started out as a butter and egg salesman, with no experience in real estate development. Despite his lack of formal education, Eichler built 11,000 homes in California from the 1950s to the mid-1960s. Architects Robert Anshen, William Allen, Quincy Jones, Frederick Emmons, and Claude Oakland designed houses for Eichler that, even today, are distinctive in their purity, refinement, and point of view. The architects pursued simplicity with an unflagging devotion: Eichler homes even eliminated window frames, where a concrete brick wall met a window, by meticulously routing glazing slots into each masonry unit.

This simplicity looked "kind of weird" to buyers like Bernie Grossman, a lawyer who bought an Eichler in 1963, but the streamlined look resonated with artists, architects, and engineers all over the Bay Area. "Eichlers have always appealed to a certain type of people," Paul Adamson says. "That was true then, and it's true now." In 1953, as the aerospace industry was developing on the lower San Francisco peninsula, the influx of engineers brought new Eichler fans. David Beers, the son of a Lockheed Martin engineer, recalled his father's reaction to the houses: "The Eichlers stunned us. The low lines, all that glass. It had this California look to it."

And that's just the outside. Inside, Eichler homes are a monument to functionalism, minimalism, and efficiency. Many of the design elements have dual functions. The atrium brings natural light into the core of the house, for example, and also functions as a circulation hub.

The open floorplan and indoor/outdoor rooms also succeed in bringing people together in new and different ways. In traditional houses of the 1950s, a wall separated the kitchen and living room. But in Eichler houses, a counter merges the two rooms, which allows a parent in the kitchen to keep an eye on a child in the living room. These changes in the floorplan were small compared to the truly edgy characteristics of an Eichler, such as the floor-to-ceiling windows at the back of each house. These sliding window walls serve to make the occupants feel more connected to the outside while also providing natural light for everyday activities. Another feature of an Eichler house is its modest size: around 1,500 square feet. A smaller footprint, in addition to lower walls and acoustic connections, ensures that family members feel close to the others in the household.

This attention to detail and unrelenting focus on design allow Eichler houses to fulfill two of our current societal obsessions: efficiency and customizability. Eichler homes are a stylish "life hack"—everything unnecessary is stripped away. This dedication to simplicity gives the houses a clean, streamlined look mostly found only in high-end residences. Though his homes were mass produced, variations in the floorplans and facades keep Eichler neighborhoods from looking stale and uniform. It's an impressive and astounding accomplishment: Eichler quickly constructed thousands of homes, all governed by the same design principles, yet each one feels bespoke.

Eichler's vision also helped make the Bay Area more racially diverse. Eichler was one of the first developers to sell homes to anyone who could afford them, regardless of race.

"I was one of ten African-American families who moved here in 1964," said Yvonne Daniel, an Eichler home resident quoted in People in Glass Houses. "People don't remember that the United States was fully segregated at that time." After driving across the country from New York City, Daniel was thrilled to find a developer who would sell her family a home. "Normally, tract houses are cookie-cutter, but this house felt like it was custom made, for us! It was something we had dreamed about."

Inside a San Francisco Eichler. Photos by Patricia Chang.

Eichler's inclusive policies met resistance, and when some owners demanded a refund because one of their neighbors was black, an Eichler salesman refused to give the white couple their money back. "The decision to see the houses without discrimination was simply an extension of their basic premise—to provide the basis for comprehensive communities designed to satisfy much more than their buyers' senses of fashion and taste," Paul Adamson writes in his book on Eichler.

Eichler didn't shy away from conversations about integrity and guiding principles. He wanted to make houses that were better than the ones that already existed. He wanted to give people a better way to live. His ultimate goal was to build "well-designed houses with a sense of moral purpose." His son, Ned Eichler, told Adamson, "there were things [my father] believed in, and he was very stubborn about those things. What was right design, what was not right design."

Ned Eichler also recalls a conversation he had with Larry Weinberg, a very successful Southern California builder. Weinberg told him, "I don't understand why your father builds these houses. If he built more conventional houses that were easier to build, you guys would make a lot of money." Ned Eichler responded with, "Larry, you're never going to get this. You're in the business entirely to make money, and you do it wonderfully….But, you know, my dad is after something else."

Toward the end of his career, in the 1960s, Eichler explored high-rise housing developments. His company quickly built several multi-unit projects, most of which incorporated socially dynamic ideas. But these high-rises would prove to be Eichler's undoing. The large scale of these buildings meant longer completion schedules and complicated permitting processes. Simply put, given their long-term timeline for returns on investment, Eichler couldn't make his multi-unit buildings financially profitable. Culture and public perception weren't on his side, either—the growing resentment toward density and the lure of the suburbs meant his new buildings would stand empty and unsuccessful.

Eichler's efforts were a few decades early. Within 10 years, the industry that would spark unprecedented demand for urban housing in the Bay Area started to take off. In the 1970s and early 1980s, as the Bay Area started to become the birthplace of information technology, there were rigorous discussions about ethics and morality.

"Debates about software (free vs. commercial) and competing visions of technological utopias (e.g., libertarian vs. socialist) were relatively commonplace and infused engineering choices with a distinctly moral dimension," wrote Eric Giannella in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology. "Even as recently as a decade ago, the Google founders insisted they understood the distinction between opportunism and ethical business with the motto "'Don't be evil.'" Conversations and debates about morality have always run alongside technological breakthroughs and talk of innovation.

Many of today's Eichler die-hards work for large technology companies, according to Modern Homes Realty's Monique Lombardelli. "There is certainly an overlap between the tech scene and the Eichler resurgence," she said. "I have clients who work for Google, Apple, Yahoo, and AOL. They just love the marriage of form and function. The simpler, the better."

While engineers have earned a reputation for being more pragmatic than passionate, many computer programmers share Eichler's obsession with straightforward structure and simplicity. Just look at the Zen of Python, a list of guiding principles for the Python programming language. The first three principles are: Beautiful is better than ugly. Explicit is better than implicit. Simple is better than complex. Some would say that the worlds of computer programming and residential architecture have almost nothing in common. But every Eichler home is the structural and aesthetic embodiment of these three rules. So is it any wonder that the Silicon Valley tech culture has embraced the simple, beautiful Eichler structures?

The contemporary sustainability movement also shares many of Eichler's ideas about spatial efficiency, HVAC performance, and density. Recent strides in information technology have opened up a new field of building science: daylight studies, occupancy monitoring, and real-time efficiency reports. But decades before anyone could use software to simulate a house's heat loads and anticipate its energy needs, Eichler was installing radiant heating and actively championing energy efficiency.

But what Eichler also understood was that focusing on both efficiency and design has the potential to create a house that is not only high-performance, but also pleasurable. A few years ago, Eichler aficionado Julie Oxnard moved her family from a 3,500 square foot house in Arizona to an Eichler community in Orinda, California. "When we had a bigger house, we would all spread out," she said. "Now we spend a lot more time together in the living room and family room. I love the fact that our family can all be close."

This idea of reducing one's footprint on the land, and finding a richer life as a result, is perfectly in line with the recent focus on environmental sustainability. Advances in building technology are also partly responsible for the renewed interest in Eichler's small, streamlined houses because the houses are no longer fire hazards.

"In their day, [Eichler houses] were as infamous as they were famous," Paul Adamson writes. As Eichlers became more and more common, the houses gained a reputation for being firetraps. The interiors used to be completely paneled with wood, leaving the houses without walls that resisted flames. In many Eichlers, they've taken the old walls down and replaced them with fire-resistant wallboards. But even back in the days when fire was a larger concern, there was always a rich community component to being an Eichler owner.

This sense of togetherness has only increased over the years. Because the vintage homes are no longer considered avant garde, living in an Eichler grants you an invitation to an exclusive club of like-minded individuals.

Eric Bogart, a former Bay Area resident, mid-century modernism enthusiast, and engineer, shared his experience: "The designs aren't cutting-edge anymore, so people's enjoyment of them are based on values: functionality, unpretentious, and designed for living."

"When people embrace something that is part of a counter-culture, they create a community," he said. People who buy Eichlers are choosing experience over a socially constructed image, and their loyalty is unflagging.

Oxnard agreed that there is definitely a tight-knit community of Eichler enthusiasts. "It comes up in conversation when I'm talking about my house. People know what an Eichler is, and they're excited to talk about it. One of my co-workers already has an Eichler, but he's getting even more specific. He's looking for an Eichler with an atrium."

Lombardelli, who echoed this sentiment, says she has clients who tell her, "I'm going to live in an Eichler; I cannot live in anything else. Everything else feels boxed in."

And as rents rise in San Francisco, and developers and current residents fight over density, architects see a new opportunity for socially progressive work, just as Eichler did in the 1950s—this time in multi-family housing. Some developers eschew the notion of design altogether. But Eichler always understood that homes are more than the sum of their raw materials.

Editor: Sara Polsky

· Mapping All the Joseph Eichler Houses for Sale Right Now [Curbed]
· How Postwar Icon Joseph Eichler Built a Suburb in the Middle of San Francisco [Curbed SF]
· Eichler coverage [Curbed]


How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis


The Neighbors Issue


Can a Neighborhood Become a Network?

View all stories in Longform