First and Foremost - Page 5

In the beginning…these were the earliest modern tracts ever built in the United States
First and Foremost

7 LADERA
Portola Valley, California
Architect: John Funk and Joe Stein
1949: first homes sold

Much like Crestwood Hills, Ladera began with like-minded people, many of them associated with nearby Stanford University, aiming to create a cooperative community. Peninsula Housing Association was founded in 1944, as World War II neared its end.

The goal was to create a complete community in rolling hills west of the campus, with cooperative stores and services and a third of the land preserved as open space.

Tapped to design the community were architects John Funk and Joseph Allen Stein (pictured above) and landscape architect Robert Royston. Stein, who had designed a compact "concrete prototype house" during the war, later built a pair of small houses on a Mill Valley hillside for himself and his friend, Royston, as an experiment in housing "the typical American family."

Peninsula Housing had a broader definition of American family than many. They voted 93 to 42 to allow Blacks and other minorities.

The homes, some of 1,500 square feet, were open planned, generally with three small bedrooms. The kitchen opened onto a 'service yard,' and the living room opened through hinged floor-to-ceiling glass doors onto a private courtyard.

The association chose Funk and Stein over other architects because their designs were warm, with a "soft use of redwood." "The houses are pleasing but inconspicuous," the association said.

Shortly after construction of the first homes got underway, financial problems hit big. Many association members had peeled away because of the delays in obtaining permission to build and to get financing. The Federal Housing Administration had refused to guarantee loans for homebuyers. FHA financing was often denied in those years to integrated communities and those with modern designs.

In the spring of 1950 the Peninsula Housing Association died, and sold its land to a private developer. About two-dozen homes had been built. Joe Eichler later stepped in, in 1952, and developed one of his early tracts on the site.

Murray Luck, a founder of the association, blamed its failure on the complexity of the project, saying the group should have bought land together but instead allowed owners to build houses on their own.

In a 2007 interview, Royston stated that Joe Stein believed the failure was due to financing problems "that had something to do with race."

Royston added, "It was disappointing, to say the least."

 

First and Foremost

8 SUNNYVALE MANOR
AND SUNNYMOUNT GARDENS
Sunnyvale, California
Architect: none
1949: first homes sold

Joe Eichler (pictured above), who would go on to build more mid-century modern tract homes than anyone else in the world, got into the game early on.

While the motivation behind some of the earliest modern tracts was social and communal more than commercial, Joe got into merchant building to earn a living.

In 1947, when he put his toes into the field, selling prefab homes to owners of existing lots, Joe was 47 and retired from his father-in-law's butter-and-egg business. He was operating a deli in Burlingame.

Eichler did go on to create housing with the community in mind, building in inner city San Francisco and in its troubled southern edge, in the 1960s. By 1951 Joe was already working with architects and a marketing man who were deeply committed to social housing.

But in phase one of Sunnyvale Manor, and in Sunnymount (represented by the photo above), which together total about 70 homes, Joe was just learning how to build homes.

He bought designer home plans off the shelf and turned out jaunty, little houses, some with butterfly roofs, others with flat roofs or roofs with single slopes. Many had angled, decorative piers that greeted visitors at the front door.

These Eichler homes lacked the large, rear-window walls of his later models, let alone atriums. Many had large picture windows facing the street, a feature that Eichler's first real architects, Anshen and Allen, quickly eliminated when Joe hired them soon after these two projects.

Inside, these primeval Eichlers had tongue-and-groove ceilings, exposed beams, and brick fireplaces between living and dining rooms.

They are pleasant homes, and the people who live in them like them—to the extent that they remain Eichlers. Of all the early tracts discussed in this report, phase one of Sunnyvale Manor and Sunnymount Gardens, along with Earl Smith's Rancho Vista, have seen the greatest out-of-character remodeling and expansions.

Eichlers may be beloved, but these are uncharacteristic Eichlers and, alas, small houses on good-sized lots in Silicon Valley do invite big changes.