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Eichler Influenced by Wright : After Living in a House Designed by the Architect, Eichler Set Out to Build His Own and Never Quit

October 23, 1993|LYNN O'DELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The man who founded Eichler Homes building company was an egg and butter wholesaler who fell in love with a Frank Lloyd Wright house.

When the egg and butter distributing company Joseph L. Eichler worked for was sold by his wife's family, Eichler found himself semi-retired in 1947 at the age of 47.

Neither old enough nor rich enough to really retire, Eichler invested some money in a prefabricated housing company in Sunnyvale. Eventually he bought out the owners and converted to a tract house operation, recalls his son, Edward P. Eichler, who worked with his father in the construction company and now owns an apartment financing company in San Francisco.

But the first "Eichler" designs didn't materialize until 1949.

"Father, for reasons I never figured out, came home one day to our nondescript San Mateo house and said, 'We're moving.' We moved into a 1942 Frank Lloyd Wright house we rented from a man in the military. Father was hooked," his son remembered.

He hired a young architect, Robert Anshen, a Wright disciple of sorts, to design a home in the suburbs for his family. But that particular house never got built, Edward Eichler said.

One day, he said, Anshen was discussing the family's custom home design with his father in the sales office at a tract of $12,000 houses the builder was developing in Sunnyvale. "Anshen was a character. He suddenly asked him why he was building this junk when he was so interested in modern architecture."

Eichler's response was to ask Anshen how he could design a modern tract home to sell for $10,000 to $12,000 when he couldn't design Eichler's custom home to be built for less than $100,000?

Anshen asked for a commission to design three models and produced plans that included such unheard-of features as hot water-heated floors and huge expanses of glass.

Eichler built them, a tract of 50, three-bedroom, one-bath homes that sold for $10,000.

And the rest is Eichler history.

The company expanded with a 1955 building boom in San Mateo, Walnut Creek, and Sacramento and Eichler hired Los Angeles architect A. Quincy Jones' firm to augment his design team.

The company moved into Orange County in 1960. The reason there are only 350 Eichlers in Orange County is that the company could never get a handle on cost control problems in Southern California, he said.

After Orange County, the company built two other tracts, one in Grenada Hills and one in the Thousand Oaks area, and that was it for Southern California.

"These were very difficult houses to build in mass production. The redwood was easily damaged, there were tricks to installing the glass. There was a whole range of supply and construction problems," he said.

"Everybody believed you couldn't get the cost to work out. My father believed he could do that. He was one of these characters. He had a will. He walked around in Brooks Brothers suits, never had a hammer in his hand. But somehow, he had a feel for this. He had a respect for the ideas and principles of modern architecture."

In the '50s and '60s, the company was good at what it did, Edward Eichler said. "We had a system, but it wasn't easily transferred to Southern California. We never really got control from an operational point of view and that's why we didn't build a lot of houses there."

The company branched out instead into central city high-rise apartment buildings, became overextended and went bankrupt in 1967.

Joseph Eichler returned to the home-building business at the age of 67 and was still building houses when he died in 1974.

The popularity of Eichler homes waned as buyers' tastes shifted toward nostalgic design and more energy-efficient houses.

"A lot of attributes of Eichler homes became more costly," said Edward Eichler. "The glass, the heating system. It's not a fuel-efficient house. When fuel costs rose, that became an issue. I always thought it was ironic that what was a modern house became outdated."

But the basics of the houses, "were really wonderful," he said.

"It still has a cult following. It may be the only house in the country that ever achieved that. You could state the name and people knew what you meant."

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