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Bay Area Building Phenomena

...Soumya Sitaraman...Photos byUsha Kris

Originally Published in Design Digest.

It began with the vision of Eichler, a butter and egg salesman. During WW II, Joseph Eichler rented a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Hillsborough, south of San Francisco. He "…never ceased to marvel about that house." Intrigued by the aesthetics and simplicity of Wright’s design, Eichler began to dream of his ideal home. He called on Robert Anshen of Anshen and Allen, San Francisco, in an effort to realize his personal dream. What emerged in place of that custom home that never materialized was an exciting relationship based on mutual interest in mass housing. Together they created a new formula for post war housing demands: an easily replicable model that would reflect the upbeat mood of America. The first models built on twenty acres in Sunnyvale, California were created using some of the stock Eichler had from a previous involvement in prefabrication.

Joseph Eichler, although not an architect, revolutionized the look and construction of tract homes with unique, contemporary designs. He kept the floor plans simple, visual lines neat and worked with glass to create minimal barriers between the interior and the environment. What was incredible was that these "designer" tract houses (an incongruity itself) were also affordable. Eichler estimated the market potential and sold these well built houses at $11,000 to $14,000 in the early 1950’s.

Eichler Homes, Inc. built more than 11,000 single-family homes in suburban Northern California: Marin county, the East Bay, San Mateo county, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, San Jose, Santa Clara San Francisco, and Sacramento. Little did he imagine at the time that the area would be home to the biggest boom of the United States in the 1990’s: the "Silicon Valley". Within the "Silicon Valley" land value doubled in the last four years alone. These single level homes now valued at around $500,000, are hard to come by. Silicon Valley has turned to high rise apartments and condominiums to accommodate the population crush.

My house at first looked almost exactly like an Eichler. It had all the desired features. However, I learnt that John Mackay, an active real estate developer in the peninsula, built it in the 1950's. Mackay followed Eichler’s example with a difference. The Mackay houses were better built and bolted down for seismic safety. The homes featured a crawl space underneath that accommodated the heat ducts, water pipes and utility connections. Most important of all, I am told, in case of a fire I have two extra minutes to get my family out of the house! With these differences the Mackay houses were priced higher than the Eichler.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence is apparent in any Eichler and the homes that followed. The clean, simple linear tradition is reflected in the post and beam framework. Floor to ceiling glass, 10’ x 4’, were especially made for these homes. Unavailable in the market, these special-ordered panes form the main walls of the living and dining areas. The effect is astounding: with an almost seamless view outdoors, there is a sense of unity with Nature. I have often watched icy rain pelt the patio. The Japanese maple dances drunkenly with the whistling wind while I, cozy with the comfort of a dancing fire in my fireplace and a book to warm my soul, sit within. It is like being in the eye of a storm. When the sun breaks the clouds, warmth slips through the thin slats of the patio awning patterning the floor beneath.

The front gate opens into the front courtyard. Partially covered beams extend all the way from the interior ceiling to the raised redwood fence. The slightly pitched tar-and-gravel roofs form a visually low line, maintaining the structure’s connection with the Earth. In addition, there is a door to the yard from almost every room. The garden compliments this visual and physical access. Visible from every room is a seasonal delight. The Magnolia tree opens her large flowers and showers summer fragrance in the front. The Tulip tree outside the master bedroom sheds all her leaves until she is only covered with purple and lavender buds; the blossoms glow in the pale winter sun. Hummingbirds engorge on the honeysuckle and Bottle- brush flowers in spring and the Mocking bird returns every summer to practice its repertoire.

The interior often glows with reflected sunlight. Interior walls opened up at the top to partition but not fully close off some rooms, facilitate the movement and flow of light and air. The movement shifts cyclically: The first pale rays enter the master bedroom in January, move along the house to the kitchen in June and later illuminate the far dining room wall in late Fall, only to return by the following January. The deeper orange rays of the setting sun capture dramatic moments highlighting the Living Room’s Objects d’art.

The partial brick wall that extends on either side of the central fireplace separates the long living area from an identical kitchen and dining space. The original kitchen spanned three feet in width. The narrow L- shaped counter along the wall supported a pink electric stovetop and sink. A portable dishwasher that rolled out to hook on to the sink faucet sat at one end. On the other side, the counter came to an abrupt stop, making room for a refrigerator. Across the three feet of floor, attached to the beautiful partial brick wall, a pink oven sat in a cabinet above three draws that extended down to the pocked black vinyl floor. Above the oven, suspended from the ceiling beam, a peninsula bar typical of the times hung low over a serving counter that looked into to an open "family room".

While the rest of the house suited the lifestyle of the nineties, the archaic kitchen had to yield to a modern facility. Once the peninsula bar was removed, the entire space opened up. Cabinets were redesigned, made in fine-grained birch and finished with a rich cherry stain. Terracotta colored tiles replaced the vinyl floor. In the center, a beautiful medallion shaped relief in gray green surrounds delicate floral tile like lilies in a pond. This same 12" x 12" gray green marbleized tile floated over a concrete counter, replaced the original pressboard. The back splash is a rough earthy peach tile interspersed with a 4" x 4" version of the central floor floral. A light peach, special-order end tile softly rounds the edges of the counter.

Along the brick wall separating the living and eating areas, a new counter houses additional cabinets. The perpendicular extension of this counter creates an L- shape, visually delimitating the kitchen - dining floor space. An extra foot wide, the extra foot of this 3’ counter overhangs the cabinets on the dining side. With the facility to accommodate barstools beneath, this serving space doubles as informal dining.

Designed for easy access, the cabinet on the L-corner has an additional door on the dining side for special occasion stemware and crockery. This way, precious porcelain makes it directly to the dining table, avoiding the pre-party kitchen frenzy. All cabinets are Child proofed and equipped with smooth gliding draws and compartments. A two tier Lazy -Susan houses extra supplies and spices. The two compartment cast iron sink is equipped with a spray hose and soap dispenser. Beneath, a horizontal tilt tray hides cleaning sponges and gloves. Above, half pane windows look out to the deep pink roses swaying in the breeze.

Split doors open out to the large patio surrounding the house from almost every room. The top half of this unique door unlatches independently from the inside, doubling as a window. This provides necessary relief in hot summer months preventing the otherwise greenhouse effect within the predominantly exposed glass exterior. The openness extends to the master bedroom where human privacy is impinged upon only by beautiful mother nature.

A narrow corridor connects the master bedroom to the two other rooms in the house. The larger of the two rooms is the child’s bedroom. For security reasons, this room has no access outdoors. A detached full bath at the end of the corridor opens out to the side garden and the apple tree. The house comes full circle as the split door in the smaller office and study brings you back to the front patio.

A specially designed swing hangs invitingly as the wind chimes tinkle. Plants flourish behind strategically placed redwood benches. The lulling sound of running water from a neighbor’s pond invites the visitor to tarry: Here, in Amaidi" the Silicon Valley slips away hearkening another time when life was savored.

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