Joe Loved Women for Grace and Strength

Wife
Joe Eichler, seen here circa 1970 with his wife, Lillian, encouraged women to take part in business and worked with several women artists and designers.

It’s clear to anyone who appreciates Eichler homes that their creator, Joe Eichler, had an eye for beauty. Besides their efficient use of space, their clever touches like exterior doorways from bathrooms and atriums, the homes have an elegance that is rare.

Joe appreciated grace in all things, from athletics to dance. He enjoyed a good play in a baseball game, and he loved to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance.

It’s no surprise then to be reminded that Joe appreciated beautiful women.

His son, Ned, recalled one telling incident in a 2012 interview. He’d be with his father in a restaurant, or on the street, and a beautiful woman would pass by. Ned would feel a nudge from his dad.

“Did you see that dish?” Joe would ask.

No.

“Jesus, what kind of son am I raising?”

So was Joe just another cigar-chomping, Me-Too-provoking sort of a guy? Not if you listen to Ned, who passed away in 2014 but left behind interviews and memoirs.

Ned said his father had great respect for women, employing many in his firms and at upper levels – at a time when relatively few women played important roles in merchant home building.

House
Janet Gracyk, a landscape architect herself, examines the landscape design by Kathryn 'Kay' Stedman for the Eichler family's own home in Atherton. Stedman designed many landscapes for Eichler Homes. Photo by Dave Weinstein

“He treated women as if they were equals to men, intellectually,” Ned recalled. He treated them as people.”

Joe also abided by a piece of advice he learned very early in his pre-homebuilding career, back in New York City, where he grew up.

Joe was in his early to mid-20s, and either recently married, or soon to be. He had graduated from New York University with a degree in business and was working for “a guy in investments, a guy with a small office.”

His boss told Joe something that he never forgot, Ned recalled. “Never go into an office with a woman and close the door, or you will be accused of something.”

Throughout his years running Eichler Homes and its successor firms, Joe worked with many women, including the firm’s head accountant and treasurer, Ruby Rose Germaine; her assistant, Lisa Boyd, who was married to Joe’s in-house architect, Joe Boyd; Josie Graham, who stepped in with a smile and a solution when home buyers came in with complaints.

Eichler Homes was a bit of a family-run operation, and for a time Joe’s sister-in-law, Mollie Moncharsh, processed loan applications for buyers.

Very few women were working as architects during the period, and even fewer in lead roles. But Joe did work with at least one woman in a lead design role, the landscape architect Kathryn 'Kay' Imlay Stedman. Stedman, wife of the Palo Alto architect Morgan Stedman, began working for Joe very early – designing the landscaping for the Anshen and Allen home Joe built for his own family in the early 1950s.

Strawberry
The elegance seen in Joe Eichler's homes, including this one on Strawberry Point in Marin, shows Joe's deep appreciation for style and beauty -- and utility. Photo by Dave Weinstein

She later designed landscaping for some of his subdivisions, including Channing Park in Palo Alto.

She was also brought in that same year, 1954, to landscape a very special Eichler home, the Art About the House home. This was a project, publicized with an article in Life magazine, to show how art could enhance domestic life.

Artists Matt Kahn, Anne Knorr, Bryan Wilson, Ernie Kim, Virginia Davidson, and others provided the art.

Joe  adored his wife, Lillian, in part because of her beauty, Ned said. She led a good life, enjoying social activities and community affairs, and stopping by the office rarely.

She dressed well and expensively. In a memoir, Ned wrote about an encounter between Joe and the owner of the high-end department store Joseph Magnin.

“At a large party he sardonically said to Cyril Magnin, ‘I could ruin your store by stopping my wife from shopping there.’ ”

Lillian was as strong willed a person as her husband. Ned recalled what happened when she tried to enroll her two young sons in Hillsborough’s public schools, even though the Eichler home was half a block away, in the less pretentious town of San Mateo.

“The principal said, “No, you’re living on wrong side of the line, and there’s nothing I can do.’ I could have crawled under a table and disappeared,” Ned said, recounting his embarrassment.

“I never saw my mother embarrassed in my life. We got in.”

Munson
Catherine Munson, seen with her children and neighbors, began with Joe Eichler as a model home hostess. He saw potential in her and she rose in the ranks, later becoming a leading business force in Marin County.

By far the most important woman with Eichler Homes, though, was Catherine Munson, a former researcher for the Atomic Energy Commission and young mother who became Eichler’s top salesperson back in the day when few women did much in home sales beyond greeting customers at model homes.

She was Eichler’s first woman salesperson, and continued selling Eichlers for decades after Joe died as one of Marin’s leading real estate brokers and business women. Munson helped develop homes, offices, the McInnis Park Golf Center in San Rafael, and more. She was also one of the leaders in civic affairs in Marin County and beyond.

Munson considered Joe one of her mentors.

“I learned of his gruffness and his clear communication, which I loved,” she wrote. “He didn’t intimidate me. I don’t think he intended to intimidate anybody, but he had a deep bass, gruff voice, and he was a short man, but very well dressed and he was just to the point. That’s all there was to it.”

Art
At an event for Art About the house, Joe Eichler poses with, from left, artist Anne Knorr, Barbara Dee, landscape architect Kathryn Stedman, and artist Matt Kahn. Courtesy of the Palo Alto Historical Association

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