The term “tract housing” evokes, for many, the image of suburban sprawl and conformity. Many tract subdivisions are uninspired and banal, cookie-cutter neighborhoods that give little thought to aesthetics. Sprinkled throughout California, however, there are a number of housing developments that cut against this preconception. The residential communities constructed by Joseph Eichler in the 1950s and 1960s brought modern home design to the masses and introduced an appreciation for architectural innovation to tract housing.
Joseph Eichler had little exposure to real estate or home design in his early life. He was not an architect or a builder; he was, first and foremost, a businessman, and that enabled him to recognize an opportunity. He received a business degree from NYU and worked briefly on Wall Street before helping to manage his father-in-law’s poultry business. In 1940, Joseph moved out to San Francisco to assist in the West Coast expansion of the family business. Soon after World War II, a family scandal (the details of which are now, unfortunately, lost to history) forced Joseph Eichler down a different career path. He began developing prefabricated houses on individual lots in northern California. His natural business acumen, sharpened by years in the competitive wholesale food industry, put him in a good position to take advantage of the post-war demand for suburban housing in a manner unique to the progressive tastes of northern California
While in the Bay Area, the Eichler’s lived in the Bazett House, a Usonian-style dwelling in Hillsborough, CA, built by the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright. Joseph Eichler had always had an appreciation for design, refinement, and modernism, but the years he spent in the Bazett House illuminated the possibilities of modern architecture for him. Modern architecture embraced clean, simple lines and understated elements that allowed the personality of the owner to shine through. Until Joseph Eichler, these styles were reserved for custom residences and corporate buildings. Eichler teamed with Robert Anshen, an architect fresh out of the University of Pennsylvania, to develop plans for residential developments that harnessed the simplicity of modern home design. Anshen, himself greatly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, brought the artful harmony of space and structure while Eichler ensured that these were easily reproducible and cost-effective. They started small, with a 50-unit neighborhood in Sunnyvale, CA. It sold out in two weeks. By the time Eichler passed away in 1974, he had built 11,000 homes and popularized modern home design on the neighborhood scale.
Eichlers, as the style has come to be known, are single story residences made mostly of glass and wood. The homes blur the distinction between interior and exterior space, to take advantage of the temperate California weather. Eichlers are designed around open-air atria with floor-to-ceiling glass walls facing the backyards that connect the inhabitant to the environment and give the inhabitant a feeling of being cradled, rather than encapsulated. Many of the neighborhoods developed by Joseph Eichler are now designated areas of historic significance, ensuring that the groundbreaking home design concepts he popularized are preserved for future generations to call home.