Master Developer: Joseph Eichler


Joseph Leopold Eichler (June 25, 1900 – July 1, 1974) was a 20th-century post-war U.S. American real estate developer known for developing distinctive residential subdivisions of (what is now referred to as) Mid-Century Modern style tract housing in California, United States. He was one of the influential advocates of bringing modern architecture from custom residences and large corporate buildings to general public availability.

Eichler Homes, Inc. built nearly 11,000 single-family homes in California, between 1949 and 1966. In addition, there are three Eichler-built residences in New York state. Together these thousands of "Eichlers" reflect the beauty and uniqueness of the Eichler design and the integrity and daring of the builder behind it. Fifty years later, the house that Joe built endures as a marvelous legacy.

By the mid-1940s, Joseph Eichler had become intrigued by modernist design and in particular one of the creations of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who had designed the Bazett House (Hillsborough, California), a rented home for Eichler during World War II. Triggered by Wright's inspiration, Eichler began to fashion a vision short on home-building acumen, yet long on modernist aesthetics and his own iron will.

Beginning in 1949, when it was still uncommon to find merchant builders engaged with architects, Eichler became engrossed with building communities of homes characterized by both flair and affordability.

During this period, Eichler became one of the nation's most influential builders of modern homes. The largest contiguous Eichler Homes development is "The Highlands" in San Mateo, built between 1956 and 1964.

Joseph Eichler is considered by some to be a social visionary and commissioned designs primarily for middle-class Americans. One of his stated aims was to construct inclusive and diverse planned communities, ideally featuring integrated parks and community centers.

A strong proponent of fair housing and deeply opposed to racial discrimination, the liberal Eichler was the first large, tract builder to sell to minorities, and even built a home on his own lot for an NAACP leader. Joe resigned from the National Association of Home Builders in 1958 in protest of racial discrimination policies and, according to reports from long-time Eichler owners, offered to buy back homes from those who had trouble accepting their neighbors.

"If, as you claim, this will destroy property values," Joe 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."

According to his son, Eichler was inspired by a short period of time when the family lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright–designed home in Hillsborough. Eichler was attracted to the style and decided to try to produce similar designs. Joseph Eichler used well-known architects to design both the site plans and the homes themselves. He hired the respected architect and Wright disciple of sorts. Robert Anshen of Anshen & Allen to design the initial Eichlers, and the first prototypes were built in 1949. In later years, Eichler built homes that were designed by other architects including by the San Francisco firm Claude Oakland & Associates and the Los Angeles firms of Jones & Emmons, A. Quincy Jones, and Raphael Soriano.

Eichler homes are examples of Modernist architecture that has come to be known as "California Modern", and typically feature glass walls, post-and-beam construction, and open floorplans in a style indebted to Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. Eichler home exteriors featured flat and/or low-sloping A-framed roofs, vertical 2-inch pattern wood siding, and spartan facades with clean geometric lines. One of Eichler's signature concepts was to "bring the outside in", achieved via skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows with glass transoms looking out on protected and private outdoor rooms, patios, atriums, gardens, and swimming pools. Also of note is that most Eichler homes feature few, if any, front-facing (i.e., street-facing) windows; instead house fronts have either small, ceiling-level windows or small, rectangular windows with frosted glass. Many other architectural designs have large windows on all front-facing rooms.

The interiors had numerous unorthodox and innovative features for the time period including: exposed post-and-beam construction; tongue and groove decking for the ceilings following the roofline; concrete slab floors with integral radiant heating; lauan (Philippine mahogany) paneling; sliding doors for rooms, closets, and cabinets; and typically a second bathroom located in the master bedroom. Later models introduced the distinctive Eichler entry atriums, an open-air, enclosed entrance foyer designed to further advance the concept of integrating outdoor and indoor spaces.

Eichler homes were airy and modern in comparison to most of the mass-produced, middle-class, postwar homes built in the 1950s. At first, potential home buyers, many of whom were war-weary ex-servicemen and women seeking convention rather than innovation, were resistant to the innovative homes. Eichler also faced competition from developers who used stylistic elements of Eichler homes in diluted and more conventional designs, later called "Eichleresque". Eichler Homes never achieved large profits for Joseph Eichler.

One side of Eichler was a relentless go-getter who knew what he wanted, how to get to it, and how to get around the roadblocks and even his own shortcomings. "Before and even after 1947," recalled Joe's son, Ned Eichler, "my father never held a hammer, a saw, or a wrench in his hand. Still, he became a master builder."

Another side of Eichler's character was his enormous charm, wonderful humor, and absolute honesty. He refused to be swayed by associates who saw greater profits in design shortcuts and inferior materials. "By making construction easier and less costly," added Ned, "the architectural principles my father had come to hold dear would have been violated."

The Northern California Eichler Homes are predominantly in San Francisco, Marin County, Sacramento, the East Bay towns of Walnut Creek, Concord, Oakland, Castro Valley, and the San Francisco Peninsula towns of San Mateo, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Mountain View and San Jose. The Southern California Eichler Homes developments are in Thousand Oaks, Granada Hills, Orange and - much later, beginning in 2015, based upon original designs - new Eichler homes were built in Palm Springs.

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