Beyond the Eichlers:
Roots of the Atrium
Historians say houses built around atriums were constructed by the Etruscans in 700 B.C. In the center of the atrium were cisterns to catch rainwater. Greeks were also building homes around arcaded courts called 'peristyles.' The Roman atrium house, whose remains can be examined in Pompeii, combined both these features. Roman atriums brought in light and air, and were often filled with gardens.
Atrium houses can be found throughout medieval Europe and North Africa. Spanish manor houses were built around courtyards for safety and aesthetics. Many Moorish buildings in Spain and Africa featured atriums, including the Alhambra. Medieval Jewish quarters in Southern Europe were often a warren of homes built around inner courtyards where most family life took place.
August Strotz, an architect who worked at Anshen + Allen during Eichler's development of the atrium, has a familial relationship with the form. The Palazzo Strozzi, a famous 15th century palace in Florence with a four-story atrium, was built by his ancestors, the Strozzi family.
The atrium appeared in Spanish colonies across the globe. Havana remains a city of 'patio houses.' In California, Spanish Colonial architecture focused more on courtyards than atriums, probably because these were rural sites, not urban.
In modern days, some of the architects who created Santa Barbara's neo-Spanish Colonial look in the 1920s, including George Washington Smith and Mary Craig, designed atrium homes. Many houses in San Francisco's Sunset District, including storybook homes by builder Oliver Rousseau, feature classic atriums surrounded by kitchen and dining areas and bedroom hallways.
Some modern California architects included atriums in their home designs, including Ralph Rapson, who designed a never-built atrium home that won wide publicity in 1945 as one of Art and Architecture magazine's Case Study houses.