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A rousing encore for the Eichlers

Futuristic for the '50s, the classic tract houses with their comfortable, open floor plans have attracted a new generation of fans.

March 02, 2006|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

WHEN Greg Allen was ready to buy his first home, the place he and his wife would raise their family, he could have chosen a number of architectural styles on almost any street.

But what caught his interest was a light-filled midcentury modern home on the curve of a cul-de-sac in Orange. The single-story had a massive living room outlined in windows that streamed into the backyard so seamlessly that it was hard to know if the dog was inside or out.

From the sofa, he and Holly could supervise the comings and goings of their four children: through the front door, in the kitchen, at their bedroom doors, even off to school through a gate in the back fence.

The house offered the kind of eyes-on parenting that Allen was familiar with: He grew up in a look-alike house right next door, where his parents, who bought it new in 1964, still live. The houses were built by Joseph Eichler, the influential, uncompromising developer and liberal taste-maker to the midcentury middle class.

"I like the view out the windows, the light, the way the house functions and that it doesn't make me feel closed in," says Allen, 43, a civil engineer.

Eichler was the first California builder to hire progressive architects to translate Frank Lloyd Wright's and the experimental Case Study House custom designs into affordable tract houses.

From 1949 to 1974, Eichler Homes mass-produced 575 houses in Orange, Granada Hills and Thousand Oaks as well as 60 in Sacramento and 10,365 in the Bay Area.

Although Eichler was not an architect, the homes his company built are known as "Eichlers" in the same esteemed way people refer to "Schindlers" and "Neutras."

Many original owners such as Allen's parents, who took a chance on the then-radical style, have stayed put. And now, the Eichler promise of clutter-free living is attracting a new crop of young families drawn to the dwellings' livability, adaptability and timeless design.

"One of the great achievements of Eichler homes is that they are permissive and have a chameleon capacity," says Matt Kahn, who decorated the interiors for the Eichler models a half century ago. "The structure isn't dictatorial. It can change moods with the inhabitants, from generation to generation."

Over the decades, the functional houses have evolved, as Eichler expected his do-it-yourself-energized owners would change them. Master bedrooms have been enlarged, kitchens updated and laundry rooms converted into home offices.

But the cornerstones of unobstructed movement from room to room and visibility inside and out remain the same in many of the houses.

Eichler enthusiasts such as Greg Allen's parents, Phil and Carolyn Allen, shake their heads at "gaudy" modifications. Some buyers have attached bay windows, hollow columns and fake stones to a once-simple silhouette. Second stories have been erected on top of pleasingly flat rooflines. Redwood siding has been stuccoed or ginger breaded, and arches carved out of straight-lined walls.

And the landscaping -- so important to the streetscape and especially to inhabitants of dwellings with 16-feet-high windows -- ignored.

More tragic to Eichler fans is when the unpretentious, but stylized houses are torn down and replaced with towering lot busters.

But residents are stepping up to keep the tracts intact. In January, about 100 Eichler houses in Granada Hills were granted protection by the city of Los Angeles. An interim control ordinance prevents owners from razing or significantly altering the exterior without approval.

This tract is waiting to be declared an official Historic Preservation Overlay Zone. The oldest tracts in Northern California have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fortunately for Eichler houses everywhere, they are benefiting from the surge of interest in midcentury modern homes. Although Phil and Carolyn Allen paid $29,000 for their new four-bedroom house, similar ones today have waiting lists and start around $800,000. There are books, websites, repair services and real estate agents who focus only on Eichler houses.

Kahn says the houses' bare-bones approach and exposed beams are appealing because "we have gotten tired of being overdressed and we want to be naked again. Modern architecture is like a nudist colony. It strips down to the essentials and gets character from those essentials."

The most distinguishing features of Eichler houses from the street are flat roofs interrupted in the center by an A-shape to accommodate an atrium, and there are few, if any, windows in the front.

Unlike the traditional ranch-style house, there is no grand picture window that puts people in the living room on display.

Once past the facade's front door, however, the Eichler house is like a glass box set outside. The interior atrium, surrounded by glass walls, sometimes opens to the sky. Plants grow from cutouts in the concrete floor.

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