Few home designs have triggered such polarized emotional responses as that of Eichlers. People either love 'em like crazy, or hate 'em with a passion.
For the haters of this midcentury, California-modern, tract-housing style, it's most often a matter of first impressions -- the lack of welcoming windows on the front facade, plus practical problems with the flat-top roofs and the radiant heating in the concrete slab, which takes an age to heat up or cool down.
But for the lovers, the rear wall of glass to the backyard and the central atrium, coupled with an open floor plan and skylights, all contribute to an "outdoors in" feel, more than making up for any flaws and inspiring a rare devotion to this structural style.
Now Eichler appreciators will be happy to know the much-beloved abodes are experiencing a 21st-century rebirth of sorts. Two Bay Area development visionaries are -- separately -- offering new Eichler experiences that appeal to both baby-boomer nostalgia and young techies' love affair with modernist design.
John Citrigno of Cirius Green Homes lovingly rebuilt a Silicon Valley Eichler from the ground up as a paean to the past and a prototype for future development, far surpassing current building codes and including every green/sustainable element imaginable while also staying true to all things Eichler. Let's just say, Don Draper would kill to move in.
At the same time, obsessive Eichler fan Monique Lombardelli, owner of Modern Homes Realty in Menlo Park, bought the original drawings to several Eichler floor plans, had them modified to today's code standards and is selling them for $5,000 apiece as templates for anyone who wants to build a new Eichler. So far, she's sold four to a developer in Palm Springs, who is set to break ground in the next few months, and Lombardelli says she's had people calling from around the country and around the world.
Lombardelli is so smitten, she even made a 2012 documentary about Eichlers, "People in Glass Houses: The Legacy of Joseph Eichler."
"There's a spirit about (Eichlers) -- the look, the feel," she says. "Some say they're not desirable from the front because of no windows. But to me, stepping inside, it's a place not of this world. I've never felt such peace, and so alive at the same time. It's sort of like a piece of artwork that strikes you. It's hard to explain, but you just fall in love, and you know you should be there."
Eichlers were the brainchild of their namesake creator, Joseph Eichler, a real estate developer riding the post-World War II housing boom and building more than 11,000 units in the Bay Area and parts of greater Los Angeles from around 1950 to the early 1970s -- the last in 1973, a year before Eichler passed on.
Inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Eichler hired top architects to design the homes, with the idea of affordability for middle-class Americans, but including innovative elements such as exposed post-and-beam construction, sliding doors and the oft-maligned radiant heating systems.
Both Lombardelli and Citrigno got the blessings of Eichler's son and grandson, Ned and David Eichler, before embarking on their individual projects.
"It is great that people are updating the homes to modern standards while remaining true to the original design aesthetic," says David Eichler in an email. "Clearly there has been significant interest in renovating and rebuilding existing Eichlers. Whether that will carry over into building completely new ones on any significant scale, I am not sure, but the interest in Eichler homes remains strong, and maybe even continues to grow, so we will see.
"In fact, if my father, Ned Eichler, were a lot younger, he might even be considering something like this," he says.
Citrigno grew up in the South Bay -- not in an Eichler himself, but in a neighborhood filled with them (he went to high school with Steve Wozniak, who did live in an Eichler). Inspired by the simplicity and the elegance of the design, Citrigno purchased a dilapidated one in Sunnyvale a few years ago and planned to do a major remodel. But decades of water damage and a second floor not-to-code add-on dictated a full tear-down to the foundation.
Before he rebuilt, though, Citrigno polled dozens of longtime Eichler owners to see what they would change. "Some aspects had to remain for it to be true to Eichler," he says during a walkthrough of the home, which sold to a young couple last October. "It's like, if you're a Corvette lover, you don't want a Ford engine in there. I wanted to go back to the original ideas, give that back to the market and fix the things that needed fixing."
Wish lists included better insulation and interior lighting, shatterproof glass, better climate control. Keeping the structure to its original 1,755 square feet, he put in state-of-the-art radiant heating with the pipes running closer to the surface and zoned into seven areas, which heat up a room in 20 minutes.
The place is "hyper insulated," he says, and the roof has been sloped to deal with rain-pooling issues, and a solar array was installed on top. The fireplace is gas. The lawn is water-wise synthetic. There's energy-efficient LED lighting throughout. And every room is wired for TV, HDMI, sound -- you name it.
Original models mostly had wood paneling on the interior, making for dark hallways. Citrigno added skylights in key locations, opened up a wall between the kitchen and living room and went all white, providing a chic, contemporary feel.
Homeowner Todd Cebe and his wife absolutely love it. "It's unique, way more interesting than the typical ranch styles around here," says Cebe, a tech designer. "We love all the glass and natural light. The atrium really has that indoor-outdoor kind of feel. It's totally wired, which is perfect. Silicon Valley is tech, so you want to come in, plug in and play.
"We'd looked at 50 or 60 houses," he says, "and this was the best house in the Bay Area."