Joseph L. Eichler (1900-1974), postwar developer of California tract housing.

I. Overview
II. Eichler's character and motivation for building.
III. Context: modern domestic architecture.
IV. Context: the Case Study House Program.
V. Eichler the builder.
VI. The typical Eichler house.
VII. Characteristic housing developments.
VIII. Eichler's bad gamble.
IX. Image URLs.
X. Bibliography.

I. Overview. Why is Eichler worth reading about?

Eichler was an important figure in the development of postwar America and in the history of modern domestic architecture. Building tracts of houses to meet a desperate housing shortage after WW II, he never compromised a basic principle of selling unprejudicially to all comers, and employed name architects to draw up plans of high architectural merit. Eichler arguably constructed the best mass-produced single-family detached houses in the postwar period and was an internationally known popularizer of modern architecture. American suburbs, though widely attacked today, owe many of their best features to Eichler's developments.

II. Eichler's character and motivation for building.

Eichler had an early career as a milk and eggs salesman in California. His own version of his life holds that renting Frank Lloyd Wright's 1941 Sidney Bazett House in Hillsborough (just south of San Francisco) gave him something of an epiphany. He saw the virtue in the understatement and humanized modernism of Wright's Usonian houses first hand, and, as the rest of his life demonstrates, sought democratically to offer a respectable, yet affordable version of such architecture to middle class buyers in the Bay Area (and one or two other places in the USA).

The period just after World War II was marked in the USA by an acute shortage of housing. Though no bombs fell here, myriads of returning servicemen with governmentally supplied benefits, plus cranked-up modes of production thanks to the war, plus the itineracy of the population (thanks to the placement of employers), led to a vast need for new housing all around the country, not least in California. Ikura wisely reminds me that there was also a lot of pent-up desire to strike out on one's own after the enforced economies of the depression and war years. Eichler exploited the opportunity this situation offered, but his principles were strong enough that he routinely accepted lower profits in order to create the best, most humane living conditions he could.

Eichler was a progressive liberal democrat whose office wall, late in his life, held not the multitude of awards his houses and neighborhoods had won but three photographs in particular from which we may infer his progressive liberal politics. One showed him shaking hands with presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960; one showed him with Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey; and a 1950s picture taken in one of his neighborhoods of a Black and Asian child walking arm in arm (with backpacks and lunchboxes--clearly en route to or from school).

At a time when some developers played to the worst instincts in buyers by refusing to sell to "negroes" (under the pretense of keeping the property values up), Eichler openly followed an egalitarian policy of selling to anyone with the money to buy, regardless of race. For example, while selling properties in the Fairmeadow development (see below), a delegation of (white) prospective buyers came to Eichler salesman Sam Jule to ask for their deposits back when they heard an Asian family had bought in. In complete agreement with company policy, Jule told them to get the hell out, because they weren't the sort of people Eichler Homes wanted in their subdivisions.

III. Context: salient features of the evolution of modern housing.

To understand what makes Eichler architecturally and culturally significant, his work must be put into context within the modern intellectual movement in the arts, music, and architecture which throve from about 1920 to about 1975. Among other things, the modernists unsentimentally stripped away traditional historical ornament and historicizing values in architecture. They tried simultaneously to jettison and undercut elitist value systems supported in part by artistic and architectural ideologies and to reduce art and architecture to elemental forms (this doesn't mean they didn't set up pecking-orders of their own). Architecturally this meant simple geometries and the importation of industrial materials from the world of the proletariat to create mass, humane, affordable housing. The architectural wing of modernism had a strong sense of social responsibility running through it.

The impulse to incorporate industrial, "proletarian" elements into housing even for the well-to-do sprang mostly from the influence and authority of Charles Edouard Jeanneret, a Swiss-born artist and architect who worked primarily in France. Jeanneret, or "Le Corbusier" ("the crow") as he styled himself, was immensely influential, and in and around Paris he designed specimens of mass housing for the urban proletariat (for others, too). His goal was famously to build a "machine for living," i.e., rationally planned housing which would offer a more humane life to its inhabitants than the often squalid housing (think Dickensian) that had developed organically out of earlier styles.

IV. Context: The Case Study Houses.

In January 1945, the editor of Arts and Architecture Magazine, John Entenza, began a program of building and publicizing a series of state-of-the-art modern houses designed by first-rate architects (Eames, Ellwood, Koenig, Jones and Emmons, Neutra, Saarinen, Soriano, and Wurster, to name a few). The series ran through 1966 and was responsible for producing those breathtaking glass and steel boxes which, thanks to Julius Shulman's brilliant architectural photography, many today take to be the iconic images of modern "contemporary" architecture.

The Case Study House (CSH) Program was intended to generate answers to the postwar housing shortage by encouraging architects to experiment with relatively cheap industrial materials with the goal of seeing what might turn out to be exciting to the public while still feasibly buildable. Exciting they were--too daring for the average client--, but these one-off designer houses were in fact not cheap to build because new materials, even if industrial, forced contractors to go through a costly process of learning a new building vocabulary.

The CSH Program fertilized the Eichler designs, giving them a crisp, modern feel. But if you put an Eichler house next to a CSH, you'll see they're different in important ways, most notably, perhaps, in that Eichler houses often unashamedly feature wood, whereas the CSHs are pretty uncompromising in their use of glass and metal. Eichler thus toned down the stark CSH look in order to attract a wider field of buyers while exploiting the advantages of wooden post-and beam construction.

V. Eichler the builder.

Eichler began building in 1949, following the famous (and conventional) Levitts with their Levittowns in New York and Pennsylvania but working alongside and continually glancing at the CSH Program. He quickly abandoned a flirtation with prefabrication and aimed at the demographic of people excited by the custom work they saw in magazines and willing to come up with a bit more money to buy a tempered form of it (as they put it, they were aiming at people with upper-middle class tastes and lower-middle class incomes).

For reasons suggested above, Case Study-style houses were not feasible for the mass production in which Eichler was interested. In the classic era of Eichler houses, he successfully walked a narrow line between making some compromises (to make the whole project feasible at all) and drawing the line on non-negotiables like architectural integrity.

Toward this end, Eichler hired name architects who developed intriguing house plans which duly exploited mass-building techniques. These nevertheless carried with them a high grade of the feel conferred by the CSHs while tempering the starkness of the latter by raking (slanting) at least portions of the roofs, visibly employing wood in roofs and to frame glass panels and doors, and playing more with open air courtyards, atria, and clerestory lighting than with entire walls of sheet glass (though photographs suggest that a nearly all-glass backyard wall was common).

Eichler's first architects were the San Francisco firm of Anshen and Allen, and soon thereafter (in about 1953) he hired the Los Angeles firm of Jones and Emmons (who would produce a 1961 CSH). A few years later they also hired Anshen and Allen alumnus Charles Oakland. All three firms worked with Eichler to his death in 1974 (the last house, in Palo Alto, was by Oakland). Eichler worked continually--one might even say 'meddlingly'--with his architects to improve his product, even in mid-construction. Architect Quincy Jones used to go to finished houses in a subdivision he designed and ask for feedback from the new owners in order to improve the houses still being built.

The typical scheme was simple: Eichler bought land, built his extraordinary houses, and then marketed them vigorously at a low margin of profit (he never cleared a large profit on his approximately $11,000- $20,000 houses because even his tempered modern houses were comparatively costly to build). Though he passed some of the cost on, Eichler sacrificed his profits even further in the interests of quality by hiring landscape architects to come in and finish individual lots--a practice which helps explain the great beauty of Eichler houses in period photographs by his Julius Shulman, a man named Ernie Braun.

But Eichler's commitment to modernism, including massed housing, led him into a couple of San Francisco high-rise projects which did not repay his investment, and these, combined with his ever-narrow profit margin, drove him into financial crisis (and the hospital, with heart problems) in the mid-sixties (see below). However, each time he overextended himself, he somehow morphed and came back to build more. This testifies to the fact that he built with a mission, not just to turn a buck at the expense of the landscape like many other developers.

His death in 1974 spared him having to see the bitter end of development as he had known it. Public taste in Bay Area housing was moving in a new direction, more toward townhouses and other modest-scale communal living schemes. A strongly hostile intellectual reaction to suburbs was gaining momentum at the same time, and though Eichler was largely undeserving of its criticisms, it made it harder to persuade city governments to issue permits. And in addition, though the crazy overdevelopment of the capitalistic 1980s and plutocratic 1990s might seem to indicate otherwise, at the end of Eichler's life, land available for traditional suburbs suitable for low-to-middle cost exploitation was finally running out in this part of the world. (The later developments of the 80s and 90s required a perceptual shift in what constituted "inner" and "outer" ring suburbs.)

VI. The typical Eichler house.

Using traditional methods of development, Eichler built entire neighborhoods at once, up to hundreds of houses at a time, to get some advantage from the economies of scale. This is one reason why these houses had to be as simple as possible in layout and material. Roger Montgomery's description of an Eichler house in Woodbridge's Bay Area Houses (251) is more sensitive than anything I could write:

. . . low, glassy, post-and-beam, an unmistakeable Bay Area look, though stripped of decorative detail and fancy finishes. Floors were concrete slabs at ground level. Large garages integral with the house dominated the façades. Entrances through atrium courtyards were a particular trademark of Eichler and his architects, one that harked back to Wurster designs and to the complicatedly fretted junction between outdoors and inside in John Funk's work. The atrium idea became an export to housebuilders in many places across the country.

(Funk and Wurster were highly-respected "name-brand" architects active around San Francisco; Wurster had built a Case Study House.) It might be added that Eichler heated his houses the way Wright heated his Usonians: via heating pipes embedded in the floor which warmed slowly and gently but thoroughly by turning the whole floor into a radiator.

The houses have broad fronts (including the garage, which is often merely a carport without a door), with clerestory lights on the street side to increase privacy and quiet within. The interior spaces tended to be open, with generous glass panels forming walls with the rear exterior (this too combatted any sense of being hemmed in by the modest square footage of these houses). In comparison with the houses almost everyone had grown up in, these open floor plans (which owed a lot to Wright and Le Corbusier) gave a feeling of freedom and unconventionality. In the end, he built about 11,000 units.

VII. Characteristic housing developments--Fairmeadow (1952) and Greenmeadow (1953) in Palo Alto.

Eichler built these two developments across Charleston Street from one another (in the stretch of Charleston between Alma and Littlefield). Each was and is an entire neighborhood with its own coherent, organically grown plan, including service buildings (like a 1959 public library by E.D. Stone) that sprang up later. Architectural critics agree that these are both characteristic examples of Eichler developments. I single them out here because I had a recent opportunity to observe them first-hand in anticipation of noding.

Fairmeadow is probably the most famous of Eichler's developments (it is north of Charleston). It is distinguished by being planned around streets which form concentric circles, unique in Eichler's repertoire (though his neighborhoods usually feature curved streets). Greenmeadow, on the south side of Charleston, has a more rectilinear plan. This, and similar schemes, was a conscious effort to give the development a feeling of cohesion by imposing "total community" planning on it (see Adamson 184-191).

The Fairmeadow houses are by Anshen and Allen, with a few by Jones and Emmons; the Greenmeadow ones are by these and also Oakland.

Books about Eichler developments mostly offer period photographs, and the eye sees quickly what Braun's wide-angle lens tried to conceal: these are small houses. The houses also seem larger in early photos because of the diminutive size of the immature landscaping (which now, if not strictly tended, overwhelms the houses). Still, the generous use of glass, blurring the line between indoors and out, counters any sense of claustrophobia.

From what I was able to see, some owners clearly know what they have in an Eichler house and maintain their property in something like pristine form (or have restored it). Some of this may be due to the current Eichler renaissance (see the recent titles on Eichler below), and perhaps some arises from the care naturally house-proud people will bestow on any sort of house, but many of the houses in the development show by their appearance that they are owned by perfectly respectable people who have neither the money for hired landscape maintenance nor the time (or perhaps inclination) to do it for themselves.

In addition to a lot of "faded" houses with overgrown trees and shrubbery and peeling paint, I did see one monster in Greenmeadow with a recent Arts and Crafts makeover imposing bungalow porch posts as a sort of three-dimensional applique façade. But this merely points up where tastes among the middle class in the Santa Clara Valley are heading these days.

VIII. Eichler's bad gamble: mass housing in San Francisco.

Eichler had built a couple of high-rise apartment buildings, one of which, the Summit, was a status address. Nevertheless, building costs, coupled with Eichler's ever slender profit margin, made these a near financial disaster. On top of these 1966 disasters was the money hole represented by the Geneva Towers, a twin tower project in line with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. Hubert Humphrey had been present at the ground breaking of these towers, which were to offer housing at a reduced rate (below market) through federal subsidies.

Eichler Homes was on the brink of insolvency (and even had to face a form of bankruptcy proceeding), and Eichler himself ended up in the hospital with heart problems. It was a measure of the man that he insisted on continuing with this vast project (573 units in the two towers) which was ruining him in order to live up to his liberal ideals.

Eichler had developed the complex (towers plus surrounding townhouses) following his own planning scheme--partly to free himself from local planning codes, but also to follow his own progressive ideas of density of inhabitation and spatial layout. The Geneva Towers were slab structures (long, tall, rectangular blocks) whose imposition of a way of living did not generate much interest in the initial target groups (middle and lower middle class buyers), and in the end, as Eichler's finances crumbled, they were taken over as fully-fledged projects by HUD.

The lower class and welfare-dependent folk who settled in the Geneva Towers were no more enthusiastic about the complex than the middle class buyers who had stayed away. Like St. Louis's more (in)famous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, the Geneva Towers were another case of a "machine for living" that went horribly wrong; they became a locus of vandalism and crime like most projects, and were closed in 1995 (dynamited in 1998).

IX. Image URLs.

Eichler images (good photos of a slightly overgrown Eichler.) (a specialized realtor dealing in Eichler houses.) (a Jones and Emmons Eichler with solar installation.) (frolicsome mom and kid on Eichler lawn.) (hip Eichler patio.) (Eichler front door and car.) (the laudable activities of the recent past preservation network.) (Eichler brochure.) (Eichler brochure.) (nice Eichler image.) (Eichler himself on the "hot line".)

Other illustrations. (Pierre Koenig's Case Study #22.) (Koenig's CSH #21.) (Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, for some people "the" modern house.) (Le Corbusier photo.) (Mies's great Farnsworth house.) (Walter Gropius house, another classic modern statement.)

X. Bibliography.

Adamson, Paul. 2002. Eichler/ Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream. (Though I have not quoted it much, my discussion is deeply indebted to this excellent book.)
Gebhard, David, Sandweiss, Eric, and Winter, Robert, edd. 1985. The Guide to Architecture in San Francisco and Northern California. Revised edition. Editors of original editions: David Gebhard, Roger Montgomery, Robert Winter, John Woodbridge, and Sally Woodbridge.
Smith, Elizabeth. 2002. Case Study Houses. The Complete CSH Program 1945-1966.
Woodbridge, Sally, with introduction by David Gebhard. 1988. Bay Area Houses. New Edition.