Saturday, March 17, 2012

Eichler: part 1 of a few parts, hopefully.

There's not a whole lot I am able to investigate with Peanut in tow. He's an active little almost-two-year-old who's into exhibiting his unbridled enthusiasm. Sitting still while Mommy does her research is so not going to happen. But on that rare occasion he takes an afternoon nap, I can tour around our new neighborhood looking for interesting architecture to j'adore. Knowing that we now live in the land of Eichler, I decided start with those original post-war modern neighborhoods...but of course!

Joe Eichler, as his son Ned puts it, "...was the right man, in the right place, at the right time." Eichler formed the Sunnyvale Building Company in 1947. He initially sold ho-hum prefabricated homes then later developed small housing tracts. It goes without saying that the strong post-war economy and the many mommas bountifully birthing babies contributed to the massive housing boom. And sunny California was an ideal setting for the burgeoning developer.  After being inspired by a Frank Llyod Wright home he and his family were renting, Eichler eventually teamed up with the architect Robert Anshen, of the firm Anshen and Allen out of San Francisco, to help develop the second phase of the Sunnyvale Manor subdivision. You could call Eichler and Anshen kindred spirits...both headstrong and opinionated and both admirers of the brilliant Frank Lloyd Wright.  Eichler's partnership with Anshen -who shared his artistic sensibilities, was the birth of something truly special.

Why so special you ask? To start, Eichler was steadfastly committed to creating homes for people that were far more than little mass-produced boxes. He wanted his homeowners to experience and live in esthetically pleasing modern spaces (a shared FLW concept) which simultaneously tended to and fulfilled their practical "quality of life" needs. And, as homeowners' needs changed with the times, so did Eichler's designs; his hell-bent desire for improvement was a constant. This included every aspect of the building process --a truly rare undertaking for the time (and for today, too, or so it would seem). From the design process, to new engineering and building techniques, to material selection, to the landscaping -even sales & marketing, Eichler and his entire team -famed architects included, made sure that each and every aspect of the building process progressed smoothly and efficiently.  Oh, the envelope was pushed.  Of course some saw this as a waste of time.  Eichler's son Ned recalls a leading builder of the day suggesting that his father could make a whole lot more money if he built more conventional homes. Just fogettaboutit Joe! Well, while money was, of course, a driving force, it was just a part of a bigger picture. Many builders didn't get that...they just didn't understand Eichler's pioneering passion for perfection.

Ok, so what did they do that was so groundbreaking? Eichler and his dream team (famed architects included, Anshen&Allen; Jones&Emmons) were able to come up with a successful solution to the housing crisis conundrum of that booming period: How to quickly & economically build (mass produce) these modern masterpieces? The answer: Use Post-and-Beam construction. This, along with strict-sized modular Philippine mahogany veneer paneling allowed for efficient mass production, plan flexibility and a unique look and feel that wasn't being built anywhere else.  Profit could actually be obtained while simultaneously evolving the houses' designs without sacrificing their unique personality. Ta-Dah!  And we haven't even gotten to the other big design coups: radiant heat, floor-to-ceiling windows, A-frames, and the alluring atriums! (I gotta leave something for the else do I expect you to return to this blog for moi?)

But being a pioneer is not without challenges; one must wage through a whole lot of buffalo dung along the dusty trail. In the beginning for Eichler and Anshen, that meant dealing with outdated local building codes and hesitant perplexed building departments (and we all know how dealing with the building department can be akin to getting a horse to drink the water) not to mention a balking Federal Housing Authority (an agency set up to insure home mortgages so the emerging middle class could afford them...). The FHA thought modern homes were nothing more than a passing fancy equating to a piss-poor investment. They imposed "anti-modern" [no, not sic, just my words] design guidelines for evaluations which limited the amount of assistance they could give a "conspicuously modern" houses such as "an Eichler". This threatened Eichler's ability to compete in the housing market. So what does one do when a steak dinner and a couple double scotch-on-the-rocks won't ease such resistance? You lobby congress. And that is exactly what Eichler did along with Eichler Homes' first marketing director, Jim San Jule. Jim there was a Don Drapper cum Jimmy Hoffa that could sell ice to an Eskimo.

Jule was the smooth talker, the diplomat. He knew how to sweet talk a city council and he always wore the proper kid gloves when dealing with passionate pursuer of perfection Eichler who was known as a demanding, outspoken (to put it mildly) son of a gun. Here's a little anecdote: One evening after Eichler called the city council of Palo Alto a bunch of ignorant "men without mothers", Jule politely yet pointedly suggested to Eichler that he do all the talking instead. From then on, Eichler zipped it, and Jule turned on the charm. You can catch more flies with honey, honey.

And so it begins...the road to modern mass produced gems has been paved. But will they sell? Will there be accolades or outcries? Will Eichler in his quest for perfect perfection eventually "jump the shark"? Stay tuned folks...


1 comment:

  1. Your sideboard and vignette are beautiful! I would frame that embroidery....How gorgeous! Vanna
    ming green marble Tile