The Balboa Highlands' neighborhood was rural in the mid-'60s, with orange groves stretching between the tract and the mountains. "We never bought any fruit," Edgar remembers. There were no freeways.
The neighborhood had always been tied to Hollywood, however. The area was once home to celebrity 'ranches' owned by Jimmy Cagney, John Wayne, and other stars.
Eichler's homes attracted professors from the new Cal State Northridge, engineers and designers from the aerospace industry, and directors, technicians, and writers from the movie studios. Animator Roy Morita ('Rocky and Bullwinkle Show') lived in the neighborhood, and Jodie Foster grew up there. Balboa Highlands remains home to cinematographers, producers, and set designers, including production designer Tom Duffield, who gave films 'Batman Returns' and 'Edward Scissorhands' their distinctive look.
But what Lila Grossman remembers of the old days has nothing to do with Hollywood. She recalls her children taking piano lessons across the street, children of all races playing together, and fish trucks delivering the bounty of the sea to the neighborhood's many Asians. "There was such community," she says, "and I had never known a community because I had grown up in [the city of] Los Angeles."
Balboa Highlands remains attractive. Its homes, designed by Jones & Emmons and by Claude Oakland, include classic steep-gabled A-frames, low-gabled models with unusual canopies over the front door, and flat-roofed models with saddlebag-like front bays. There are fireplaces of concrete blocks or brick (on occasion, misshapen Craftsman-style clinker brick), and atriums shaded by slats.
In business terms, Balboa Highlands was not one of Joe Eichler's great successes, though Eichler visited the site and gave the development his personal attention. Fewer than half of the planned 250 houses were built. Eichler's company had very little experience building in such a hot region. They ran the air-conditioning ducts in the concrete slabs, with mixed results, Ned Eichler, Joe's son and a manager of the firm, has said. There were also problems with local contractors and the unions. Ned Eichler had never liked the idea of building in Los Angeles in the first place, considering it a distraction from the firm's work on its home turf in Northern California.
In 1971 and again in 1994, major earthquakes shook the area. The '94 Northridge Quake, which registered 6.7 on the Richter Scale, killed more than 50 people in Southern California and destroyed portions of several freeways. Its epicenter was less than five miles from Balboa Highlands. The Laws remember seeing neighbors pitch tents outside their damaged homes. But no Eichlers were immediately lost to the '94 quake, although homes nearby were. "Everybody was so envious of our houses," Fay Law says. "It's post-and-lintel," Edgar Law adds. "It really stands up well." Nonetheless, at least two Eichlers suffered major damage, including cracked concrete slabs. Since then, Law has done some significant earthquake retrofitting.
Granada Hills gets windy—and there's always the heat, which hits the low 100s in the summer and stays there. "It's terrible," David Block says of his atrium. "It's like a little heat generator." But the atrium was one reason the Blocks bought the house, and they have never dreamed of filling it in. "It's spectacular to be standing here in the evening when it's dark and looking out through the atrium at the stars," Adeline Block says. "You can actually stargaze in here."
Photos: John Eng, Adriene Biondo, and Bernard & Lila Grossman