Monday, March 4, 2019

EICHLER HOMES: The Ultimate In Mid-Century Modern

The height of Mid Century Modern: Compared to today's
typical tract house,  the homes of developer
Joseph Eichler look about as old as tomorrow
(Image courtesy of MCM Daily)
Back in 1963, a reporter asked developer Joseph Eichler, "What do you call your homes, contemporary or modern or what?”

“I call them Eichler homes,” he responded. “There’s nothing else like them.”

With their dramatic facades, breezy interiors and Californian focus on patio living, Eichlers are still standouts today, a half-century after their inception. 

Joseph Eichler, dairy executive turned
developer and architectural visionary.
Between 1949 and 1967, over ten thousand Eichler homes were built in San Francisco Bay Area suburbs such as Sunnyvale and Palo Alto, along with 900 or so more in Southern California. They were the brainchild of Joseph Eichler, a wealthy dairy executive with no background in design. However, Eichler had briefly lived in a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and wondered why such houses couldn’t be made affordable to everyone. He was finally inspired to take on the task himself. He hired the respected architect and Wright disciple Robert Anshen of the Los Angeles firm of Jones & Emmons to design the initial Eichlers, and the first prototypes were built in 1949. During the next eighteen years, a whole range of uncommon Eichler designs emerged, including later versions designed by the San Francisco firm of Claude Oakland & Associates and the

In Eichler homes, acres of full-height glass
reflect a time when energy was dirt cheap.
(Image courtesy of
Eichler homes had a host of unorthodox features, including post-and-beam construction, slab floors with integral radiant heating, and a standard second bathroom. Later models introduced the unforgettable Eichler atrium, an entrance foyer that daringly straddled the line between indoors and out. Exteriors featured vertical siding, flat or very low-sloped roofs, and shockingly blank street facades. At the side and rear walls, however, great sweeps of glass brought the outdoors in, without so much as a step to interrupt it. 

The daring Eichler atrium straddled
the line between indoors and out.
Everything about Eichlers seemed light, fresh and modern in comparison to the dowdy postwar homes that glutted the market, and the houses quickly became a sales success. Yet they never garnered more than modest profits for their developer, due mainly to their unusual design. Although his associates urged him to make the houses more conventional, Eichler refused. Sadly, the realities of the housing market eventually caught up with him, and Eichler Homes filed for bankruptcy in 1967.  Joseph Eichler continued building custom homes for another five years until the 1973 recession made that, too, untenable. He died in 1974.

Eichler's modular post and beam system
looked spectacular, but could make adding on
a real challenge.
Since then, time has brought a number of Eichler shortcomings to light. Bedrooms are cramped by modern standards, and the thin, mahogany-paneled walls, hollow doors, and free-standing partitions make the interiors unusually noisy. The innovative radiant heating system proved troublesome, and the modular post-and-beam framing can make sensitive remodeling a challenge.

However, the home’s single greatest shortcoming couldn’t have been anticipated by Eichler or by his architects: Designed during an era of dirt-cheap energy, Eichlers made extravagant use of glass and were poorly insulated. As energy costs soared during the 70s, Eichlers proved disastrously inefficient—and unlike homes with attics and conventional windows, there was no quick retrofit available.

For these reasons, as well as Modernism’s fall from favor, the Eichler will forever remain emblematic of the 1950s and 60s. But what an emblem! Though Joseph Eichler’s uncompromising vision may have brought him financial ruin, his legacy has proved more permanent.

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