The men got to know each other on weekends working in their gardens. "The whole block was filled with people up and down who were landscaping their yards," Bruce Good says. "On Saturday you'd be working out front and see your neighbors all doing the same." In the evenings neighbors would gather for barbecues, he remembers. At Christmas they'd go caroling. It was far more neighborly than today, he says. "We knew everybody, even blocks away."
Today, Walnut Creek is no longer the country and kids no longer explore the hills and ponds that were long ago replaced by a neighborhood shopping center. But more and more children are returning to the neighborhood, and people notice. "People have said to us it's really nice to have people with young families moving back into the neighborhood again," says Julia Pattinson. She and her husband, Michael, an architect, have a daughter, Anya, and son, Brodie.
The Rancho San Miguel Homeowner's Association, Walnut Creek's oldest continuously active association, puts on an annual Halloween parade and Easter egg hunt. Neighbors young and old come together at a number of summer block parties held each year, and the Eichler-built swim club functions as the hub of activity.
Like many newcomers, the Pattinsons immediately started restoring their house—modernizing it while retaining the Eichler look and spirit. The Pattinsons have restored the original siding, added maple flooring and redid the kitchen in contemporary black-and-white. "I think that's part of the Eichler thing," Michael says. "Everybody you talk to is doing something on them. It's like having a '50s Chevy. You've got to clean and polish it more than most cars."
Merritt Colman, who hopes to place the neighborhood on the National Register, sees that effort as another form of cleaning and polishing. "What this is all about is recognition, not restrictions," he says. "It will encourage people to maintain their houses at maybe a little higher level than they would otherwise. It's a pride of ownership. They are living in a historic community."
A neighborhood survey showed that 75 to 80 percent of the Eichler homes "contribute" to a historic district, meaning they retain their historic exterior appearance. Colman was part of the Eichler Historic Quest Committee that succeeded in placing two Palo Alto neighborhoods on the National Register. The homeowners association supports the effort.
Rancho San Miguel became eligible for the National Register when it turned 50. The association plans to mark the neighborhood's 50th anniversary in October with a special celebration and dinner for its residents accented with a 1950s theme.
No one appreciates rancho San Miguel's unique qualities more than Phil Toy, whose collectable Cadillacs can sometimes be spotted cruising its streets. Toy, whose collection includes a '59 Cadillac convertible coupe with red leather seats, an 'Orion' blue Cadillac from '57, and a tank-like, but elegant, 1957 El Dorado Brougham, a show car complete with a built-in bar that sold at the time for more than many houses. "Everything they were thinking about for the future was implemented in this car," Toy says. Cadillac's chief designer, Harley Earl, was as much a modernist as any Eichler architect, adds Toy.
On balmy summer nights Toy has been known to turn his backyard into a drive-in theater, with friends seated in his Caddies watching 'Batman' or other "goofy, crazy fun stuff." Like his Cadillacs, Toy claims, his Eichler will never grow old. "The raw, core design is so stunning, it withstands time," he says. "Great design transcends time. That's why I appreciate this house so much."
Photos by David Toerge; additional photo (Easter egg hunt) by Sheila Ford