Living the Atrium Life

From yoga studio to party den to concert hall— the Eichler home hosts them all at center court
With colors swirling, Conny (left) and Andrea Marx sip their drinks to the disco ball and music under the retractable roof of their Eichler atrium.
With colors swirling, Conny (left) and Andrea Marx sip their drinks to the disco ball and music under the retractable roof of their Eichler atrium.

The atrium, “the centerpiece of the house,” as Eichler owner Conny Marx calls it, has been one of the chief attractions of the Eichler homes since the fascinating center court was officially introduced in 1957. Eichler brochures boasted that the atrium provided unparalleled versatility, a room that was neither completely indoors nor completely outdoors.

Photographs by Ernie Braun, whose camera captured the development of the Eichlers between 1954 and 1968, showed homeowners dining in their atriums, playing with their kids, relaxing on mattresses, and creating art there.

With remote in hand, Andrea Marx opens their roof to the outdoors.
With remote in hand, Andrea Marx opens their roof to the outdoors.

More than anything else, for many fans, it is the atrium that makes the Eichler home special—an open-to-the-sky area in the middle of the home, a no-other-home-has-this kind of place that amazes visitors, and a space designed by Eichler and his architects for a multiplicity of purposes.

The atrium could be a garden, of course, or a playground, an outdoor dining area sheltered from the winds, or a tanning salon making use of natural sunlight.

And, even more basically, the atrium provided the home with an additional source of light and air. Bedrooms could open to a wall of glass without losing privacy, and living areas could now have two walls of glass, front and back, again while guarding privacy.

Besides being light-filled, an atrium is light-hearted. There’s something surprising and amusing about entering a home’s front door and finding yourself—back outside!

Vintage Eichler photos by Ernie Braun play up the atrium as an entertainment center.
Vintage Eichler photos by Ernie Braun play up the atrium as an entertainment center.
Vintage Eichler photos by Ernie Braun play up the atrium as an entertainment center.

It’s not surprising that, when architect Bob Anshen, inspired by homes in ancient Greece, first sketched out the Eichler atrium, Joe Eichler asked, “What the hell is that?” But it’s also not surprising that, according to Joe’s son Ned, who handled marketing for Eichler Homes in its heyday, “By 1959 or ’60, we could hardly sell a house without an atrium.”

Still, too few people get the best out of their atriums, Conny and his wife Andrea Marx say. “You have to put it to a better use than just an entryway,” Conny says. “For us, this is like the indoor-outdoor family room.”

Conny says he was indeed inspired to turn his atrium into a full-fledged functional space by “pictures in the old Eichler brochures. There are always people in the atrium doing something fun.”

 “Most people use it as a second front yard, a walk-through,” says Andrea, who’s visited many of the atriums in her tight-knit Sunnyvale neighborhood. “It’s not considered seriously enough to make it into something livable.” At the Marx Eichler, you can be assured, the atrium is taken very seriously indeed.

Atrium as a party room

So seriously that Conny and Andrea installed an electronic disco ball that emits colored beams timed to any dance music you choose, and LED lights artfully hidden above glass sliders that wash walls and atrium cover with ever-changing colors.

“You see it from the outside,” Andrea says, adding, “It looks like a colored dome over the house.”

Inside, of course, it looks even better, especially when the Marxes have 30 people dancing in the atrium.

On quieter evenings, they pull down the screen that’s installed over the sliding door to their home, barely noticeable when not in use, and their atrium becomes a home theater.