Modern Architecture: Pyramid Power

Swayed by their architect to go New Age, Streng brothers have a cosmic energy fling

carter sparksDogs and cats live in harmony beneath the benevolent pyramid. Rest comes to the weary, insight to the seeker of knowledge. The power of the pyramid brings health and wealth, keeps food fresh and teeth white. It even brightens one's aura.

Skeptical? Then consider this. What else but pyramid power could have convinced two tight-fisted housing developers to build tract houses shaped like pyramids? And not in the New Age bastion of Marin County either, but on the flat farmland of the Sacramento Valley.

Jim and Bill Streng, whose Streng Bros. Homes, Inc. development firm put up good money to build three pyramid houses in 1977, didn't believe in pyramid power. But they did believe in the man who suggested the pyramid houses—their architect, Carter Sparks.

The story of the Strengs' pyramid houses—they never took off, and the Strengs eventually dropped them—suggests something of the power, not of pyramids, but of Sparks himself. Their continuing popularity—one is still inhabited by its original buyer, and another by a couple who bought it a year after it was built—suggests that Sparks may have been onto something. "It's an icon, of a sort," says original owner Jerry Wiens.

Both houses are in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael. The third pyramid, in Davis, is presently home to college students.

It was Sparks who convinced the brothers, who were starting out as developers, to try building modern tract homes in the valley in 1959. It was also Sparks who suggested they build an 'atrium' model—a variant of Joe Eichler's atrium, adapted for the Central Valley's grueling climate. The atrium proved a strong seller and helped define Streng style.

So when Sparks proposed the pyramid, the Strengs listened. "Carter had a lot of good ideas," Jim Streng says. "We thought it might be another atrium. Carter had some of the philosophical views about pyramids, how if you're in a pyramid, it's supposed to give you superior thinking."

pyramid owners

"Somehow he got the idea that if you lived in a pyramid, there were all sorts of psychic benefits, powers of concentration or something—longer life," Bill Streng says. Besides, Jim remembers, Sacramento's annual tour of new homes was approaching, and the Strengs always liked to have something new to open to the public. Also, Jim adds, there was a recent precedent. "The Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco really was a success."

Sparks, who won a reputation as one of the Central Valley's best modern architects, and a man who loved to drive nice cars and enjoy life, wasn't known as a mystic. He didn't even insist that pyramid power was a proven fact. "He reported it to us as 'some people with credibility say,' not necessarily that it was something he believed," Bill says, adding: "He got excited about a lot of things."

One of those things, Bill says, was interior space—another aspect of pyramid power. "He always believed that appraisers did things wrong by valuing a houses based on its square feet. He said they should use cubic feet instead, and that the vaulted ceilings, that spaciousness, gave it value. He often expressed that."

In many ways, however, the pyramid houses "are the least Streng-like" of the Streng homes, says Wiens, the first customer to buy a Streng pyramid. There are no open-beamed ceilings, as in a standard Streng, no walls of glass that open the house to its backyard.

These are multi-story homes, not the standard low-to-the-ground single stories. Sparks only designed two other two-story models for the Strengs, Jim says, "neither of them wildly successful." One had the living room and master bedroom upstairs and the family room, kitchen, and two bedrooms downstairs. "Carter's thoughts on that were, in Sacramento most subdivisions are flat. You go up in the living room, you'd get a view," Jim says. "We did sell a fair number of those."

Wiens, an engineer who was new to town, felt the appeal of the pyramid. "I tend to like things that are different," he says and, thinking back to the '70s, adds: "Kind of New Age, maybe, was where my head was." He's come to love the house because of its efficient use of land, high ceilings, and unique ambiance. "Everything is sharper," Wiens says, "in the pyramid."