How 'Eichlers' Brought Design to Suburbia

Jewish Builder Transformed American Ideal of Modern Homes

Passion for Design: Eichler homes are passionately appreciated by homeowners and by students of 20th-century American architecture.
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Passion for Design: Eichler homes are passionately appreciated by homeowners and by students of 20th-century American architecture.

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Published March 02, 2012, issue of March 09, 2012.
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In the spring of 2011, Adam and Justine Amdur were heartbroken over having to give up their home in Marin County’s Terra Linda, just north of San Francisco. The sale had nothing to do with the sustained economic downturn or the depressed housing market plaguing the nation. In fact, as spring house sales get under way again, local home prices have bounced back to levels higher than those of 2008. What pained the Amdurs as they prepared to move to Florida for health reasons was leaving their Eichler.

“Eichlers,” as they are referred to in Northern California, are midcentury modern tract homes developed by merchant builder Joseph Eichler between 1950 and his death in 1974. They account for a significant percentage of the housing in many communities circling the San Francisco Bay to the north, west and south. There are also several Eichler developments in Southern California and in Sacramento, as well as a very small one in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.

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Abraham Levitt and his sons, William and Alfred, may have been considered the fathers of modern American suburbia, but for his designs and principles, Eichler was — and still is — more passionately appreciated by homeowners and by students of 20th-century American architecture. On occasion, buyers of Eichlers may tear them down to make way for something larger and more updated. It is far more common, however, for home owners to preserve them for their enlightened design and durable construction while praising the aesthetically and politically progressive builder behind them.

Eichler brought affordable yet elegant contemporary architecture and design within reach of average young families settling down in the postwar suburbs. The first Eichler homes cost $9,400, an affordable sum for many Americans even at that time. Now, half a century later, Eichlers in Palo Alto, Calif., are selling at less accessible prices, ranging from $1.2 million to $2 million, according to real estate agent Leika Kejriwal.

“It wasn’t traditional construction. It really blew people’s minds back in the 1950s,” Adam Amdur said. “Eichlers are a piece of art.” Accordingly, Eichler Homes salespeople knew that the houses would appeal to only a small portion of the home-buying public. “Even back then, as today, Eichlers tend to attract people in the creative professions, engineers and people who appreciate modern art and design,” said Paul Adamson, a San Francisco-based architect, Eichler expert and co-author of “Eichler/Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream” (Gibbs Smith, 2002).


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