Builder Joe Eichler and Eichler Homes
Builder Joe Eichler (center) wins another award from the building industry, early 1950s.
The Eichler homes of California represent perhaps the most important modern housing project ever undertaken in the United States.
Demonstrating an unequivocal enthusiasm for the new principles of modern architecture in America, and caught up in the euphoria of post-World War II American and the expansion of the middle class, developer Joe Eichler built more than 11,000 modern houses, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, over the course of 25 years, from 1949-1974. Ultimately modern, these buildings provided a background against which the vicissitudes of physical and social circumstances were formed.
The Bazett House of Hillsborough: Eichler’s Frank Lloyd Wright ‘inspiration.'
Orthodox modern principle and the employ of universal techniques of mass production transformed to accommodate the local conditions that defined California modernism—exemplified best in the renowned Case Study House program sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine beginning in the mid-1940s.
However, although intended as a prototypical program, the Case Studies failed to stimulate the hoped-for improvement of developer housing, remaining a series of unrequited one-off experiments. In light of the relative failure of the Case Study houses and other similar efforts to spark building-industry reform, Joe Eichler’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable. Despite everything that worked against reform, Eichler developed a successful business building homes remarkably close in method and spirit to the creative modernist experiments.
This early 1950s Eichler home followed in the footsteps of the original AA-1 model.
Joe Eichler was a great admirer of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, and for two years during World War II had the rare opportunity to rent his Usonian constructed for Sidney and Louise Bazett, in Hillsborough, on the San Francisco Peninsula. Eichler’s first architect, Robert Anshen, also had intimate connections with the Bazett House, where he was a guest at gatherings beginning in the late 1940s. Eichler remained affected by his stay in the Bazett House for many years after leaving it. Even though his time at the house had coincided with difficulties he was having with his career, the residence proved a catalyst for his new role as a developer, and he would become very attached to the home.
One of Joe Eichler's great milestones: the Eichler X-100 upon its completion in 1956.
In 1949 Joe Eichler founded Eichler Homes. Together with partners James San Jule, and architect Robert Anshen of the San Francisco-based firm Anshen and Allen, Eichler developed the AA-1, the original prototype of the Eichler house. This 1,140-square-foot home was unreservedly modern in concept and expression. The design featured a slab-on-grade foundation with radiant heating, post-and-beam structure, open planning, and a floor-to-ceiling glass wall in the living room facing the rear garden. While most observers considered modern design to be too much of a gamble for middle-class speculative housing, Eichler built 51 of his original models in the second phase of his Sunnyvale Manor subdivision in 1949. All of the homes sold within two weeks.
In 1951 Eichler retained the Los Angeles-based architects A. Quincy Jones and Frederick E. Emmons, who would design the X-100 four years later. Working collaboratively during the entire 1950s, Eichler’s two affiliated architectural firms worked continuously on variations of the original design formula, evolving dozens of models and hundreds of design refinements. In 1960, architect Claude Oakland of Anshen and Allen’s office formed his own company to work primarily on Eichler developments.
Joe Eichler meets future U.S. President John F. Kennedy face to face, 1960.
During this era, Joe Eichler was perhaps the most prominent homebuilder in the country to practice a nondiscrimination policy. He believed strongly that his company’s houses should be available to whoever could afford to buy them regardless of social, racial, or political background. Although the company did not advertise this position, Eichler Homes was, from its inception, adamantly against discrimination in sales. Eichler resigned from the National Association of Home Builders in 1958 in protest of racial discrimination policies in housing sales. “If, as you claim, this will destroy property values,” Eichler once told some disgruntled Eichler owners, “I could lose millions...You should be ashamed of yourselves for wasting your time and mine with such pettiness.”
Joe Eichler in the early 1970s, in front of classic photo of two boys (one black, the other Asian-Caucasian) that inspired his policy of racial nondiscrimination.
Eventually, Eichler’s continual quest to pursue progressive ideas, and in particular building high-rise multi-unit residences and townhouse complexes in urban San Francisco, overwhelmed the company’s ability to remain profitable. In 1966, Eichler Homes was taken over by outside investors, who led the company into bankruptcy shortly afterwards. Eichler continued to build homes under other company names until his death, at age 73, in 1974.