Bike Town Charm: University Estates - Davis

Attention to function, not fashion, helps to preserve the Davis neighborhood's 400 Strengs
university estates family
Streng owners Rik Keller, Valerie Calegari, and their children Una (far left) and Rowan pedal their way to the Davis Farmers Market, a popular destination for everyone in University Estates.

From the beginning, the city of Davis has been a no-nonsense, get-the-job-done kind of place. As home to California's 'University Farm' (later re-christened UC Davis), it's been all about such practical pursuits as horticulture and hydrology, and emerged in the mid-20th century as the Silicon Valley of winemaking.

It's a charming town, with a lively low-rise downtown surrounded by bungalows, and remains both walkable and bike-able—thanks to a web of bike lanes that the city brags are among the nation's first. The city's logo is an old-fashioned big-wheeled bicycle.

But, despite an active art scene, Davis has never been known for high-style modernist design. Why then does the University Estates neighborhood of modern homes by the Streng Bros. remain so remarkably intact?

university estates family

It's not because the owners are committed to modern architecture. Asked if most people appreciate their home's architectural heritage, neighbor Jeanie Sherwood smiles and says, "They don't give it a thought."

And it's not because owners feel a responsibility to preserve their homes' historical value as rare examples of modern tract homes designed by architect Carter Sparks. Until recently, says Jim Snyder, a longtime owner, "the majority of people in the neighborhood didn't have the foggiest idea about the architecture of their houses."

The reason goes deeper than a love for design or appreciation of history. The houses have been preserved because they work. As Carolyn de la Peñ a, an eight-year resident and a professor of American studies, puts it, "The people I know use their houses in a functional way. They're not design people."

What do people like about these homes? The easy connection to the back yard, the overhangs that really do keep sun out in the summer while letting it in during the winter, the convenient storage.

university estates family inside their home

Two other factors help explain why the neighborhood has been so well preserved. Many residents, de la Peñ a surmises, never think of remodeling. "It's professor town," she says. "A lot of people aren't fussy about their physical environment in any way at all." Also, many houses used for student rentals have been left largely alone.

And folks in Davis focus on something even more important than architecture. "The neighborhood to me isn't the houses," says Melody Matthews. "It's the people."

Karie Rego, whose remodeled home has one of the more high-style looks in the neighborhood, agrees. She and her husband love their home's modern architecture. "It's nice having good design around you," she says. "That's important for my psyche."

university estates home exterior door

But what they really love about the neighborhood are the good schools, its location near downtown and the university, and their neighbors—professors, songwriters, architects, and potters. "The people here are very smart. We have really nice cocktail parties," she says.

"People tend to be very busy with their jobs and not materially oriented like they are in Los Angeles," she says, adding, "That's a value I want my children to have."

University Estates is a neighborhood that includes about 400 Streng homes. Bill and Jim Streng built the neighborhood between 1964 and 1975. It's a quick bike ride from campus.

Although a majority of the Streng homes are modern, there are also Streng-built ranches, plus ranches by other builders, according to Bill Streng. The neighborhood includes about 25 of the Strengs' first 'half-plexes'—paired town homes, and about half a dozen unusual two-story Strengs.

It's a delightful neighborhood for a stroll, and not just because of its canopy of olives and birches, redwoods and more, or the absence of overhead utility lines. The homes are pleasingly varied, many with deeply recessed entry courts—and some with Sparks' characteristic grand double doors.

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