Lauan's Lost Love

Eichler Homes' original walls of mahogany paneling—once glowing in every home—are hopelessly fading out of sight
Lauans Lost Love
The lush coloring and deep grain of mahogany paneling create a striking backdrop for this Castro Valley Eichler, as owner Mona San Filippo looks on.
Lauans Lost Love
Eichler interior from 1950, when paneling made from redwood was the norm.
Lauans Lost Love
This Eichler publicity photo from the mid-1950s by Ernie Braun prominently featured mahogany paneling as an integral part of the lifestyle.

Could it be that Joe Eichler and his architects got this one wrong?

The sheets of interior Philippine mahogany paneling that he so carefully sourced and used to sheath wall after wall in his living and dining areas, hallways, and even bedrooms and kitchens—was it the right stuff?

That's what one might wonder after visiting a few of Joe's subdivisions today. There, in home after home, most walls are now smooth and white, the wood panels either painted over, covered with gypsum sheetrock, or removed entirely.

Many people these days simply think Eichler's original paneled walls are just too dark.

Among the handful of character-defining traits of an Eichler home—the wall of glass, the open beams, the atrium—the Philippine mahogany (also known as lauan) is the component that is most often eliminated by homeowners.

And we're talking now about owners who really love their Eichlers, not the ones who try turning them into Mediterranean villas.

These days, real estate ad after real estate ad, and article after article in shelter magazines, proudly show off mid-century modern interiors that once were richly textured but today are white as any art gallery wall.

"You still run into people occasionally who are really enamored about the panels, but it's less and less," says Ron Key, owner of Keycon Construction and Design, who has been working on Eichlers since the 1970s.

He notes that some people enjoy preserving some panels. "Many people like to leave it in the common areas or as accent walls," he says.

Why do many Eichler owners replace their paneling? And why do you also run into neighborhoods where the obverse is true—where the naturally finished panels with their subtle sheen are prized?

Key has some answers. "One main reason people remove and replace them is fire safety," noting that the thin wood, covered with an oil-based finish, ignites quickly.

"And over the years people have hung pictures on the wall," Key says. "You get this different tonal quality based on the sun's contact with the panels, and it's impossible to get rid of that."

"You can't sand it down. The veneer is extremely thin. You'd sand through it."

But a decision to replace panels is also a matter of taste. Sheetrock can be installed behind panels for fire safety. And, Key says, there are solutions for damaged panels that preserve the original look.

"Occasionally we will stain them darker," he says. "What we do more often than not is replace them with new paneling so you get something that's consistent." He notes, though, that the sort of Philippine mahogany Eichler originally used is no longer available.

Many true fans believe that white has become the new black, a trendy lack of color that bleaches the charm out of an Eichler interior. They believe the contrast between the light pouring in through walls of glass and the darker walls is part of the Eichler experience.

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