The Mystery Housebuyer

The Eichler temptation

Mid-century modern developer Joseph Eichler.

When Joseph Eichler was born in 1900, homes in the United States were not much known for their creativity. When he died in 1974, he had helped to change the landscape of American middle class houses and left a legacy of homes that still has fans today heatedly debating their merits and demerits. Bay Area homeowners and prospective homeowners are ideally situated to view or even live in an Eichler experience, because thousands of his homes were built here in the fifties, sixties and seventies.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak reportedly grew up in an Eichler, and Steve Jobs grew up in a similar home designed by an Eichler competitor.

In San Francisco, you can find Eichler one-story homes, two-story homes (which make up a large part of an Eichler neighborhood in Diamond Heights and apparently are a source of some debate among Eichleristas), condominiums, and even a high-rise Eichler condominium building on Russian Hill.

Eichler wasn’t an architect; he was a builder, a developer. But he was inspired by one of the all-time greatest architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, to change the types of tract homes his company was building in the booming post-World War II years. Eichler and his family had lived for several years in one of Wright’s Usonian homes, which Wright had designed in an attempt to create an affordable home for the common person. Wright being Wright, the homes are incredibly beautiful and put to shame the cookie-cutter architecture of most residential housing. And Wright being Wright, the homes never succeeded in being a home for the masses (a couple years ago, a Usonian home in Orinda was priced at nearly $5 million).

I’d love to live in a Usonian home, but we have a relative of the Usonian here in San Francisco. Part of the mid-century modern movement, Eichler homes are characterized by floor-to-ceiling glass walls and doors, exposed beams, in-floor radiant heat, atriums, and wood walls.

Writing about the Dia-mond Heights Eichler neighborhood in 2013, the San Francisco Chronicle’s John King noted that “there’s a dynamic punch to the stocky forms of masonry and wood that overlap as the structures line up along each block. No Victorian frills, but in their own way, equally at home in this variegated place.”

So we were primed with information and curiosity when we set out one recent weekend to look at a one-story Eichler on the edge of that Diamond Heights development. Priced at more than $1.2 million, this four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath home was a trust sale due to the death of its longtime owner.

As we walked up the sidewalk through the desert-landscaped front yard, another couple came out of the house, one of them remarking, “It’d take a half-million in repairs and updates to get it in shape.”

After touring the house, I came to suspect that the man was correct in his estimate. Everything needed updating; all of the floors were old and needed replacing, whether they were carpet or linoleum; walls needed repainting or, in many cases, re-drywalling; the sloping floor in one of the bedrooms would have to be fixed; I don’t consider myself a gourmet bathroom snob, but all of the bathrooms would have been gut jobs. That’s not even getting into the walls that would need to be moved, some tiny rooms that just about any buyer would want to combine into larger, more usable spaces, and several solid walls that would brighten up the place a great deal if they were transformed into glass walls. Oh, and the 1960s kitchen would have to be totally redone.

Even with that front-to-back, floor-to-ceiling revamp needed, the allure of the Eichler is still clear. The living room had a high ceiling, fireplace, and windows placed high on the walls to offer light and privacy. There was still room to expand the living and kitchen areas taking out a rather useless hallway from the garage to the backyard.

There was a front courtyard, perfect for outdoor dining via the nearby kitchen; there was also a mid-home courtyard between the living room and the master bedroom, and behind the home was another, larger area that could be made into a truly indulgent outdoor space for entertaining or just relaxing under the towering trees. It would take yet more money to make any of that happen, of course, but the allure and the cost are always vying for priority when dreaming about saving an Eichler.

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