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Eichler: Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream
By Paul Adamson & Marty Arbunich

November 03, 2003 /
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I was motivated to write this book to find reasons that, amid the expanding sprawl of unimaginative and unsatisfying cheek-by-jowl tract home developments, the Eichler homes remain the rarest of exceptions. Even today, despite the Eichlers' example and those of several similar, although smaller, efforts elsewhere, architects design only ten percent of American housing./Paul Adamson

Joseph Eichler was a pioneering developer of residential suburbs whose socially conscious ethic, progressive planning, and elegant modern design for moderately priced housing in California still serves as a standard for housing developments today.

Defying conventional building industry wisdom by hiring a group of progressive architects to plan subdivisions and design reasonably priced homes, Eichler provided more than 11,000 residences that helped meet the dramatic need for post-World War II housing with extraordinary commodity and style.

eichler_final-2Photo: Ernie Braun
Elegant proportions and restrained styling typified the Eichler Homes aesthetics.

In 1947 Eichler began what he called his "second career" as a developer of prefabricated homes, even these houses were vaguely modernist in style. Featuring a contemporary look, with rectangular massing and long bands of windows, his print advertisements called them "the most sensational" homes in the area.

eichler_final-3Photo: Ernie Braun
Eichler house designs were consistently characterized by their relationship to the outdoors.  

In 1949, Eichler hired a draftsman who produced more stylish but less overtly Modern designs for two new subdivisions in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Eichler explained later that he had put off a wholehearted plunge into original architectural designs until he had acquired sufficient "experience and know-how" to manage a process that involved topflight architects and full fledged modern building techniques.

Joe Eichler's son Ned led marketing and sales for most of a decade, beginning in the mid-1950's when the company established its reputation for design excellence.

My father was a kind of an artist, and he tried to express his art in a business, which always resulted in nearly impassible conflicts./Ned Eichler

Architectural Forum, the most elite of the nation's professional journals during the postwar, in 1950 called architects Anshen and Allen's first Eichler subdivision a "gamble in modern." However, the Eichler homes seemed to strike a chord with Bay Area buyers, who showed their enthusiasm by snapping up all fifty-one of the homes in that pivotal Sunnyvale Manor Addition subdivision in less than two weeks.

eichler_final-4This Eichler newspaper advertisement from february 1950 included a very straightforward presentation.  Subsequent models soon had more architectural flair.

When Eichler eventually built his first subdivision of architecturally designed homes, observers perceived the results as daring. Even the architectural press that had been touting the advantages of Modernism for middle-class American homes since before the end of the war seemed surprised with Eichler's boldness.

eichler_final-5Photo: Ernie Braun
Quincy Jones's distinctive gabled roof enhanced the volume of the central spaces and lent a reassuringly familiar house-form to the otherwise abstract geometry.

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Photo: Ernie Braun
Raphael Soriano devoted himself to the use of metal framing - steel and aluminum - for residential buildings throughout his career.

 

The new Eichler designs were well proportioned, and the architects had employed modern building technologies that elevated the homes above typical, entry-level builder prototypes.  

Ernie Braun was the principal publicity photographer for Eichler Homes from 1954 until 1968. He was drawn to the company because he found "sympathy" with the architecture of the homes and because he appreciated Joe Eichler's ethics, including his non discriminating policy.

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Photo: Ernie Braun

 

Eichler's success came by building superior modern homes and building only enough to meet the narrow sector of the market that appreciated the style that reflected his own tastes in Modern design. Eichler's penchant for Modern design was deeply rooted in his psyche, but it was not until the second half of his life that he revealed his feelings and fully developed his interest in it.

eichler_final-8Photo: Ernie Braun
Groundbreaking San Mateo Highlands, May 1956. 
A. Quincy Jones, San Mateo supervisor Thomas Callan, and Joe Eichler.

The author Paul Adamson, AIA, holds a Master of Architecture degree from Columbia University and has practiced in New York and San Francisco. He is currently a designer at the San Francisco firm of Hornberger + Worstell, Inc. He has written and lectured widely on Eichler Homes, and has contributed to books and professional journals with regard to modern architecture and planning.

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Publisher: Gibbs Smith

Last updated: December 19, 2013

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